If you’re a Georgia Republican with ambitions in 2010, little has been more puzzling than the decision by the Gwinnett County Commission to propose a 25 percent property tax increase.
The situation came to a head late last week, after county residents and well-positioned GOP leaders alike threatened to use recall petitions to toss out all five — all Republican — commissioners.
“They will not last the end of the year,” state Sen. Don Balfour (R-Snellville) warned last Wednesday.
Less than 24 hours later, Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charles Bannister postponed a vote on the tax increase, which had been scheduled this week. Even so, anti-tax organizers plan to go through with tonight’s protest at a local park.
In announcing his return to the drawing board, Bannister said much of the opposition was “generated by misinformation.” Critics of the tax increase, who include Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams, argue they’ve had to pry out details by peppering the county with requests sanctioned by the state’s Open Records Act.
Regardless, even as it was abandoned, Bannister’s strategy for bridging a budget gap provided a jarring counterpoint to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s brutal announcement — made the same day — that state spending in June would be slashed by 25 percent.
One of those working behind the scenes, urging Bannister to come to terms with angry Gwinnett voters, was John Oxendine, a Republican candidate to succeed Perdue.
Oxendine was justly concerned. Bannister, in his fifth year as commission chairman, is a friend and ally. But Gwinnett serves as Oxendine’s geographic base and could be essential to his survival in a six-person primary next year.
So the state insurance commissioner will carry a mixed message to Monday’s “tea party” in Suwanee.
Kudos should be given to residents who spoke up against the tax increase, Oxendine spokesman Jeff Breedlove said. But credit should also be given to the commissioners who backed down.
“At this point, people ought to have the respect to remember to say ‘thank you’ to their commissioners for listening,” Breedlove said.
Oxendine isn’t the only one who should be wondering why a county with a longtime reputation for efficiency has run into a series of eyebrow-raising setbacks.
In addition to the tax furor, a county-funded, minor-league Braves stadium has soared far beyond its original budget. A plan to consolidate garbage collection has disintegrated into lawsuits and confusion.
Nuts-and-bolts types worry that unrest over this latest episode could impact future sales tax referendums. A penny tax for Gwinnett schools expires in 2012.
The anxieties of Republican political strategists are more immediate. When the Gwinnett brand suffers, so does the Georgia GOP.
There is, of course, the simple embarrassment created by the fact that Republicans, a party newly dedicated to fiscal conservatism, hold every county office that Gwinnett has to offer. At one of two hearings on the tax increase, state Rep. Pedro Marin, a Democrat from Duluth, was one of the few public officials to speak against it.
But there is electoral math involved, too. As a cache of Republican votes for statewide candidates, Gwinnett remains second only to Cobb County.
It is true that, as in Cobb, Gwinnett’s Republican standing is in decline. The county is slowly turning Democratic as a more diverse population spreads beyond I-285. In the 2000 general election, more than one in 10 Georgia votes for George W. Bush came from Gwinnett. In 2008, the county was the source of only one in 14 votes for John McCain.
But Gwinnett will retain its Republican clout for several more election cycles.
And in a November 2010 governor’s race that could come down to a few percentage points, much will depend on the county GOP’s ability to churn out an enthusiastic base.
Chris Huttman, a Democratic numbers cruncher, noted that a voter disturbed by the actions of the Gwinnett County Commission might be less likely to believe horror stories about free-spending Democrats — or might vote Libertarian, or might stay home.
Balfour, the Republican from Snellville, agrees.
“Because everyone gets lumped together. It’s a pox on all your houses, normal people would say,” Balfour said. “The national Republican Party is starting to understand what they’re problem has been. I guess Gwinnett County just hasn’t figured that out.”
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