There’s a saying for politicians and for those of us who cover them: The voters are always right. While we’re bound to be subjected to a round or two of recriminations about who’s to blame for the absolute debacle that was the metro Atlanta T-SPLOST campaign, pay attention to those who show signs of understanding and accepting that saying. They’re the ones who will be most likely to find the way forward from here.
For my part, here’s what I think the voters were saying in their 63-37 defeat of the $7.2 billion tax.
The political class has lost our trust.
If that sounds obvious, consider that it’s also a puzzling situation, given that many of the same people who voted overwhelmingly against the T-SPLOST have been voting in large numbers to elect the same Republican politicians who gave us the T-SPLOST. I think there’s a pretty clear explanation: This is the consequence of having a one-party state.
Georgia has been a one-party state for pretty much 140 years now. The first 130 years, it was a one-party state ruled by Democrats. The past 10 years, it’s been a one-party state ruled by Republicans and Democrats-turned-Republicans. (Note: I am referring here only to the party holding the levers at the state level, not municipal or federal offices.) For most of those 140 years, there has been very little credible, effective opposition from the minority party. I’m sure it was worse for the Republicans at times between Reconstruction and Sonny Perdue’s watershed win in 2002, but the situation is pretty bleak right now for Georgia Democrats. And that means Georgia Republicans feel very little electoral heat, which leads them to act in a very insular way.
That’s played out no more clearly than in their attitude toward ethics: If legislators are wise, they’ll recognize that the lack of public trust on display in the T-SPLOST vote means they can’t very well ignore the support of 87 percent of GOP voters for a lengthening of the proverbial arm separating lobbyists from legislators. If I heard one voter say he thought T-SPLOST was all about rewarding political contributors and allies, I heard it from dozens of voters. Legislators cannot go too far in trying to improve the negative public perception around our lawmaking process.
Geographically, at least as it relates to the T-SPLOST, you can locate the center of that lack of trust along the Ga. 400 corridor. Perdue arguably lost Tuesday’s tax vote two years ago when he reneged on the longstanding promise to end the toll when the original bonds were paid off. An opinion poll conducted for the AJC, published last weekend, showed the 400 toll extension was a factor for 55 percent of voters — and that 64 percent of voters doubted the T-SPLOST would end when promised and be limited to the projects on the list.
Nathan Deal obviously thought he could show some good faith by announcing recently that the tolls would come down by the end of next year, fulfilling one of his campaign promises. But the AJC’s opinion poll showed the maneuver actually made voters less likely to vote for the T-SPLOST by a net 6 percentage points. The reason, in my view, is that it sends a signal that state government decides when and how to make these decisions on purely political considerations. Bad political considerations, it now appears.
There are a couple of ways for elected officials to show they understand this message. First and foremost, they must demonstrate clearly that all available transportation money is being spent as wisely and efficiently as possible.
That means showing transportation spending really is a priority for the state. All revenues from the motor fuel tax should be directed to transportation; currently, part of it goes to the general fund. When the inflation-driven formula for the motor fuel tax dictates that the rate should rise to keep spending level in real terms, state government should let it rise. Where money can be cut from lesser priorities and redirected to transportation infrastructure, it should be cut and redirected.
As for efficiency, the state needs to be much more transparent about which projects are priorities based on pure cost-benefit analysis, and begin spending the money we do have on the highest-rated projects. If that means re-examining the wisdom of balancing spending based on congressional districts — they might be equal in population, but they aren’t necessarily equal in terms of transportation needs — so be it.
The money I’ve talked about so far would probably be skewed toward roads rather than mass transit, if only because a constitutional amendment allowing gas-tax revenues to fund transit looks like a sure loser. Transit should be addressed in a two-step manner: First, create a truly regional (if not state-run) governance structure for mass transit in metro Atlanta that incorporates MARTA and the other transit agencies. Second, allow voters beyond Fulton and DeKalb to vote in a referendum to participate in the system, with specific descriptions of the infrastructure and services that would come with it. If they want to join, let them join the same way Fulton and DeKalb joined MARTA.
If some of that sounds like baby steps, well, that’s because they are. One of these days, the people who run our government — at the local, state and federal levels — are going to realize a little modesty on their part would go a long way toward re-establishing the public trust they’ve clearly lost.
– By Kyle Wingfield