2012 Tuesday: Millions of dollars might not buy a T-SPLOST

Each month, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — and their respective parties and PACs — report their fund-raising totals. One result is a monthly debate about the propriety of big money in politics, and many participants in that debate begin with the apparent assumption that money is everything in an election.

On the local level, however, we are watching the final days of a campaign in which a gilt Goliath appears mortally wounded by a dollar-poor David. Yes, I’m talking about the T-SPLOST.

The pro-tax campaign yesterday finally released its financial statements (on the last day of its past-due grace period), and it shows pretty much what we all expected: a campaign that has had millions of dollars to persuade voters to tax themselves $7.2 billion during the next 10 years to fund transportation. Here’s how the AJC summarized the standing of the pro- and anti-tax groups:

Citizens for Transportation Mobility — the political action committee pushing the July 31 transportation referendum in metro Atlanta — took in $6.5 million from spring 2011 through July 16, according to a campaign finance report filed Monday. Records show the group dramatically outraised opponents of the tax increase: The Transportation Leadership Coalition, which is fighting the referendum, raised $14,418.

(Full disclosure: Cox Enterprises, parent company of the AJC, donated $250,000 to the pro-tax campaign.)

That’s a 450-to-1 financial advantage for the pro-tax side, which is why virtually all the advertising you see about next week’s referendum is in support of the tax. The tax has the backing of the governor, the mayor of Atlanta and most other local and state elected officials in the 10-county region. It has the research apparatus of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies behind it. It has the area’s major businesses making not-so-subtle suggestions to their employees that they should vote for it.

And yet, according to every recent opinion poll, it’s trailing. In all but the one done for the pro-tax campaign itself, it’s trailing badly. In all that have measured support for the tax over time, that support has fallen by double-digits.

What gives?

For starters, this campaign shows once again the effectiveness of real grassroots organizations, and their ability to tap into large networks of passionate supporters at little or no cost. When the Tea Party Patriots, NAACP and Sierra Club all decide to oppose something, their members tend to be much more firmly committed to that stance than are people swayed by advertising or political endorsements.

We must also acknowledge that any effort to increase taxes amid a still-stagnant economy is something of an uphill climb, even when the purported payoff — easier commutes — affects many people’s everyday lives. That said, the most believable poll two months ago was not one that showed the tax ahead or behind by double-digits, but the one that showed it at 42 percent for and 45 percent against, with the rest of the people undecided. Given the nature of Atlanta’s transportation needs, the referendum was bound to be close despite the economy and the low level of trust in government when it comes to transportation. (And, for the record, I still think it will be fairly very close in the end: single-digits either way.)

But the most important factor — and really the only way this campaign’s financing and evolution are similar to the presidential race — is the ability of those proposing a change to make their case clearly and effectively. Barack Obama’s approval ratings may still be mediocre, but all the money in the world won’t help Mitt Romney if he can’t convince the American people he is suitable alternative. Likewise, traffic in Atlanta may be exasperating for a lot of people, but all the money in the world won’t help the folks at Untie Atlanta if they don’t have a credible pitch about how the tax revenues will help reduce traffic congestion.

And that’s where I think the referendum is in danger of failing.

The message from the pro-tax side has gone something like this:

1. Traffic is bad.

2. Look, there are a lot of projects!

3. In the end, we have to do something.

While hardly anyone disputes Nos. 1 and 3, a great deal of people doubt No. 2 is an adequate bridge between them. To be honest, the pro-tax side has hardly tried to convince the doubters otherwise. It’s simply harped even more on Nos. 1 and 3.

That means there’s no clear, coherent message about how the T-SPLOST projects will help the region today, from the urban core to the suburbs. There is no consistent narrative about how the projects work together in a specific corridor or chokepoint. To the degree the message is something other than “trust us; it’ll work,” the message is the map with 157 projects scattered across it. And that map has become a regional Rorschach test that leaves it to individuals to see future relief or wasted money.

In large part, that’s the fault of the people who put the list together, not the ones now tasked with selling it to the public. But however the blame is eventually assigned if the referendum does indeed fail, that’s the central failure of the T-SPLOST — and the crucial task for whoever has to pick up the pieces if Plan B becomes necessary.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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403 comments Add your comment

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

July 24th, 2012
9:26 am

Full disclosure: Cox Enterprises, parent company of the AJC, donated $250,000 to the pro-tax campaign.

Looks like that 250K got squandered.

Just like the tax money would be.

Slick Rick

July 24th, 2012
9:33 am

Gee, Kyle, the (probable) triumph of big $$ over little $$. In modern day ‘Merica, who woulda thunk it possible? Duh!

Slick Rick

July 24th, 2012
9:34 am

I’ll add: you’re a believer in the propriety of Citizens United, right? Hey, corporations are people too, you know. We reap what we sow.

Too much money involved, let the graft and corruption begin

July 24th, 2012
9:35 am

I hope this thing fails miserably. There is simply too much money at stake and too many projects on the list. The corruption would be epic. Though if I were a road builder or a tractor dealer, I would want it to pass too….because they are the ones who are going to make billions. The politicians can’t be trusted with the money and it’s not a penny added to the sale of something. It’s at least a 12.5% increase or higher depending on what county one lives in. Look at what happened with the 400 Toll Roads….just last week the governeor decided that it’s time to cancel the tolls in December of next year….how conveneint, even though the bonds have been paid off since 10′. If this thing passes, they will never get rid of the tax and they will end up asking for more money! They need to come up with a better plan and make do with what they have like the rest of us.

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

July 24th, 2012
9:39 am

Gee, Kyle, the (probable) triumph of big $$ over little $$. In modern day ‘Merica, who woulda thunk it possible? Duh!

I don’t know, Rick, I think you may want to read the article. Pro tax spent 6.5 million while anti tax spent 14K. Pro tax is currently losing.

Darwin

July 24th, 2012
9:43 am

Wouldn’t raising the gas tax be more equitable? Heavy users of the roads would pay a more proportionate share of the infrastructure needs. Utilizing a sales tax unfairly targets the low income and others who don’t drive much, carpool or use public transportation.

Old Timer

July 24th, 2012
9:50 am

Silk Stocking Committees can’t see the woods for the trees sometimes. They divided the state in county groups with basically a threat–if it pasess in your group you get more money for transportation, if it doesn’t you will basically pay a penality. Then only the Atlanta area gets all the publicity and push in the press and on TV when It affects the WHOLE state.

A Realist

July 24th, 2012
9:55 am

It is truly amazing how half truth’s, outright lies and loudness can outdo lots of money.
Just amazing…..

Malthusian way

July 24th, 2012
9:58 am

Unbelievable Regressive Tax…….on the poor “for big business”. Where’s the “Occupy the Gold Dome” crowd now?

Logic was never intended for libs

July 24th, 2012
10:04 am

“Cox Enterprises, parent company of the AJC, donated $250,000 to the pro-tax campaign.”

And like the AJC, their efforts are a failure.

BW

July 24th, 2012
10:08 am

Kyle

Do you believe that a real comprehensive list was not proposed due to final price tag? As some have noted, there are a lot of studies for congestion relief built in but the actual project is not on the agenda in this T-Splost. I believe that ARC Plan 2040 suggests that the full price tag for comprehensive transit and road build-out and/or relief would be $126 billion (see page 80 of the link: http://documents.atlantaregional.com/plan2040/docs/tp_PLAN2040RTP_072711.pdf). Would voters stomach a non-partisan plan like this and allow the legislature to raise the gas tax and put to the referendum all non road components?

zeke

July 24th, 2012
10:09 am

You got to think that with all the millions spent to promote this supposed great plan that it is not very reasonable or intelligent in the projects or agenda! If it was, they would not have to spend a single dollar to promote it! Look at the donors like Matthews, and others who stand to make millions if not billions on this list of boondoggles! The trains and buses, the main agenda, DO NOTHING TO RELIEVE CONGESTION! They like marta are not convenient, efficient, safe, and are very expensive! And, like marta, once they are built they will never support their own operations and will have to be forever subsidized by taxpayers!

VOTE NO!!!!

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:09 am

Slick Rick @ 9:33: Apparently you misread. We’re talking about the probable triumph of little $$ over big $$.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:12 am

Too much money @ 9:35: I haven’t heard anyone say the new bonds, the ones that weren’t issued until December 2010, have been paid off since 2010. Perhaps you mean the previous ones. I don’t fault Deal for the bonds that were issued a month before he took office.

ByteMe

July 24th, 2012
10:12 am

All good reasons, Kyle, but here’s one you forgot:

No amount of money in the world will convince people to take their medicine if they don’t want to.

The bigger problem is that the politicians who are ok with stalling Atlanta in traffic while building roads to nowhere down near Albany will use the vote to “prove” that the region doesn’t need or want a real traffic solution.

TGT

July 24th, 2012
10:18 am

Good info Kyle. Virtually EVERY personal (or impersonal) contact I’ve had concerning T-SPLOST (and I have been significantly involved in the T-SPLOST campaign) has been with someone that is against it. Whether it is a face-to-face encounter, blog post, or Facebook exchange, the OVERWHELMING consensus is against it. (I’m in the GA Mountains Region.)

Grasshopper

July 24th, 2012
10:19 am

“For starters, this campaign shows once again the effectiveness of real grassroots organizations, and their ability to tap into large networks of passionate supporters at little or no cost.”

I don’t know that this statement applies so much in the TSplost debate Kyle.

I, and most everyone I know, have been against this tax since the beginning. No organization called me to get my vote against the tax; I have seen no signs or ads against the tax; there have been no commercials that I am aware of. No organized opposition – just people sick of taxes. No multi-million $$ campaign needed to know that.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:21 am

BW @ 10:08: I’m not suggesting they could have solved all our problems with $7.2B. What I am suggesting is that they could have gone about it in a more coordinated way than “everybody pick 10 projects” and it would have been easier to sell to the public as an orderly step in the right direction. They appear to have believed instead it would be easier to sell if everyone could point to a few projects close to home.

My guess is that trust is too low for the public to believe everything on a $126B list is truly necessary. Heck, it seems a $7.2B list is going to be voted down as including too many unnecessary items.

BlahBlahBlah

July 24th, 2012
10:23 am

Build roads with gas taxes. Let the City of Atlanta (or the respective counties) raise their own taxes or issue bonds to build the Beltline. I’d like to see the state take over MARTA and force Cobb, Gwinnett etc. to allow expansion. No reason MARTA should go NE to Mall of Ga., north to at least Peachtree Pkwy., NW up to Town Center, etc.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:26 am

ByteMe @ 10:12: Congressional district balancing is required by Georgia law. That explains most of the “roads to nowhere” you dislike. We could try to change the law, but most of the people who benefit from those roads are unaware they live in “nowhere” — and their votes are still needed on other issues. So I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

Our Government Lies to Us & Wastes Our Money!

July 24th, 2012
10:26 am

Kyle,

Will your left-wing co-workers at the AJC be too busy boycotting & protesting Chick-fil-A to vote on this ridiculous T-SPLOST next Tuesday?

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:28 am

Grasshopper @ 10:19: We will have to wait and see how the tax fares in various areas, but if it goes down in flames in south DeKalb and various intown neighborhoods, I think we can safely say the Sierra Club and NAACP had a big impact on the vote because of their stances.

Tea partiers might well have been inclined to oppose it from the get-go.

BW

July 24th, 2012
10:32 am

I don’t really see anyway to actually resolve this. If any transit is on the list under MARTA then most suburbanities will vote no while if too little is on the list Fulton and Dekalb will vote no. It seems to be a no win scenario in the quest to relieve congestion….it’ll be interesting to see what happens after this vote goes down. Depopulation of the region as some posters suggest as a solution would be catastrophic for all of Georgia.

K Mom

July 24th, 2012
10:37 am

Kyle,

I know you are on a different topic today, but I need you to help me see people being reasonable on the conservative side. I am starting to hear something that literally makes me ill. I am hearing people on radio shows, seeing them on blogs, and seeing elected officials essentially blaming the victims of last weeks attacks. They are saying if the people in the movie theater had been carrying guns, none of it would have happened. I just heard a young person on a radio show say that it is everyones civic responsibility to bare arms and if those people had done so, they would have taken this guy out! Have I woken up in some alternate universe?

Too much money involved, let the graft and corruption begin

July 24th, 2012
10:38 am

Hey Kyle, I meant the previous bonds had been paid off….I don’t fault Deal for what happened before he took office either. It was funny to me that they decided to kill the toll next year though :-)
I just hope it doesn’t pass. I feel like people are really distrusting of politicians right now and this thing is too big and too ambitious.

Common Cents

July 24th, 2012
10:39 am

Well, it seems to me that if all these corporations can get together and raise $6.5 million in a little over a year, they could fund their own transporation projects by continuing to do the same thing over the next 10 years all without costing the taxpayers another penny. Since they have failed to be good stewards over our money in the past though, it shouldn’t surprise me that they have wasted almost the full $6.5 million on advertising to get more of our money… IJS

Aquagirl

July 24th, 2012
10:41 am

they could have gone about it in a more coordinated way than “everybody pick 10 projects” and it would have been easier to sell to the public as an orderly step in the right direction.

Handing the public a list creates a couple million self-appointed transportation experts so a list in any form will inevitably fail. Republicans have figured out a way to flatter the voters and stay in office by letting the populace shoot themselves in the foot. I have to hand it to ‘em, that’s pretty smart. On the other hand outsmarting the Land of the Teanuts isn’t rocket science.

JDW

July 24th, 2012
10:42 am

TSPLOST was an abdication of responsibility by the legislature from the beginning. Instead of doing their job they tossed the problem of creating a reasonable plan to a collection of dysfunctional committees that guaranteed a poor project list. Then they tossed all that to the electorate to fund with a region wide sales tax.

All this so our esteemed legislators did not have to actually do their job…of course the problem is they will still not do their job. Best case they will go through the same dysfunctional process to create a new list to pitch over the transom.

Meanwhile the local economy will continue on its 10 year march down the road of oblivion.

JF McNamara

July 24th, 2012
10:44 am

People need to understand that you sometimes have to pay for what you want. If not, you end up with a crumbling pile of nothing and left behind by those who chose to invest in their future. This isn’t government waste. There is a clearly defined list of what your money is buying.

I commute and I want better traffic. The list could certainly be better, but there are a few things that will help me directly and appear worthwhile, so I’m probably going to vote for it.

JDW

July 24th, 2012
10:45 am

@cents…” they could fund their own transporation projects by continuing to do the same thing over the next 10 years”

Might want to check your math…$6.5 million over 10 years is 65 million. Less than 1 percent of the funding needed.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:46 am

Aquagirl @ 10:41: “Handing the public a list creates a couple million self-appointed transportation experts so a list in any form will inevitably fail.”

So why do other SPLOSTs routinely pass in this region?

curious

July 24th, 2012
10:47 am

Suppose the public’s overall unhappiness with the way politicans mange money has any part of the possibility of this not passing?

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:47 am

JF @ 10:44: “People need to understand that you sometimes have to pay for what you want.”

I think the problem, if the referendum fails, is the list didn’t represent what most people “want.”

tiredofIT

July 24th, 2012
10:53 am

Why isn’t the Tea Party up in arms about this possible new tax. If the businesses want it they are free to write a check to pay for it.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
10:54 am

@ Slick Rick: I’ve taken down those comments, and the “sugar plum” one by you that seems to have started it.

Slick Rick

July 24th, 2012
10:58 am

Dirty Dawg

July 24th, 2012
10:58 am

What this says Kyle is that you and your fellow members of the right-wing echo chamber have succeeded in turning this state into just another bunch of cynically selfish drones incapable of an optimistic, progressive thought or act. We ought to change the nickname to the Just Say No state.

Logic was never intended for libs

July 24th, 2012
10:59 am

The only way to solve traffic problems is to burn Atlanta to ground, start over and build it on a grid system like NYC. Only then will public transportation ever work. Cities that are spread out like Atlanta will always have problems. No amount of money can solve this issue.

Slick Rick

July 24th, 2012
10:59 am

Started what, Kyle? I was responding directly to you. Nothing I said was in any way directed at anyone else. “Sugar plum” is an expression, not a slur, no? Seems like selective application of your very own rules by you.

Logic was never intended for libs

July 24th, 2012
10:59 am

“What this says Kyle is that you and your fellow members of the right-wing echo chamber have succeeded in turning this state into just another bunch of cynically selfish drones incapable of an optimistic, progressive thought or act. ”

Yeah, that’s it. You really nailed it there, Dawg.

MannyT

July 24th, 2012
11:00 am

The big money people could have come up with a better narrative about the benefits of their project list. I could see a movie that showed a metro region with better moving traffic with all their projects, then zap out the projects and have an old west, abandoned town look.

I do wonder why politicians loathe to step up and to make decisions. There is enough of a statewide majority to pass transportation laws, projects, taxes, etc. if they really wanted it done. SPLOSTS seem to be the easy way out to say, the politicians didn’t raise taxes, the people did.

Logic was never intended for libs

July 24th, 2012
11:00 am

“Wouldn’t raising the gas tax be more equitable? Heavy users of the roads would pay a more proportionate share of the infrastructure needs.”

No, just look at Chicago. HIghest gas prices in the country and they still have terrible traffic problems.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
11:02 am

Slick Rick: I don’t know what “sugar plum” means to you or anyone else. But it was addressed first to I Report, who responded with the “moonbat” comment. Thus all the relevant comments have been taken down.

GFY

July 24th, 2012
11:02 am

Why don’t voters believe that TSPLOST will solve all of the traffic problems. Just look at what a wonderful job SPLOST (Special Local Option Sales Tax) did to get all those kids out of trailers and into wonderful school buildings. Just look at how that improved education in Georgia…LOL.

Jose

July 24th, 2012
11:03 am

does everyone understand that this is a FRONTDOOR MARTA tax that they want everyone to pay for whether you use it or not……………..

i recall a GREEN AMENDMENT in the ZELL MILLER govenorship that was to save trees but it turned out to be a tax break for corporate landowners who didnt want to pay timber tax……. small counties and taxpayers had to make up the difference

if you have to sell it
we dont want it

Logic was never intended for libs

July 24th, 2012
11:03 am

“Barack Obama’s approval ratings may still be mediocre, but all the money in the world won’t help Mitt Romney if he can’t convince the American people he is suitable alternative.”

Mitt Romney: “Are you happy with 8.2% unemployment and a president who said small business owners didn’t build their business?”

Done. All Mitt has to do is nail Obama over and over again with that charge and he wins.

Poll: Romney preferred over Obama to handle the economy

WASHINGTON – Despite concerted Democratic attacks on his business record, Republican challenger Mitt Romney scores a significant advantage over President Obama when it comes to managing the economy, reducing the federal budget deficit and creating jobs, a national USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.

Grasshopper

July 24th, 2012
11:04 am

Aquagirl and Dirty Dawg,

Can you please provide links and iformation about all of the comprehensive transportation plans that Democrats proposed while they ran the state? I’m sure there are at least two of them.

GFY

July 24th, 2012
11:04 am

Guess I am a cynically selfish drone who likes to keep my 1 cent on every dollar spent…….

Road Scholar

July 24th, 2012
11:04 am

Darwin: How do you propose to get hybrid and electric car owners to pay their fair share? I agree on the truck issue and have advocated in raising the gas tax.

To Much Money: Are you going to vote out ALL incumbents? Ya know, term limits?

Zeke: Are you against capitalism? Jobs? Ya know, businesses are in business to make a profit and to expand?

Kyle: What was the money used to pay off the bonds early slated for originally (including the future money to be collected)?

Also, state law states that 70% of the transportation gas tax money is distributed evenly over the Congressional Districts. The rural areas (120 out of 160 counties/COA) , while not having more voters, have more legislators! Also most of the GDOT debt is for bonds in the GRIP system- 4 laning rural state routes- that amounts to about $400K a year out of a approx 2 B yearly budget.

Kyle Wingfield

July 24th, 2012
11:05 am

Logic @ 11:03: I’m not sure that will suffice for Romney. If it would, he would be up big in the polls right now. He has to prove himself as a credible alternative first. He’s got three months.