Woody Allen is rumored to have said that 80 percent of life is showing up. The same fraction might be applied to politics.
If the meeting isn’t requested, if the invitation isn’t issued, if the face-to-face doesn’t happen, then nothing else does. Just as in real life, egos matter. Sometimes even more than the greater good.
Last year, MARTA chief Beverly Scott wandered the state Capitol, telling any lawmaker who would listen, and many who wouldn’t, that the Legislature needed to release MARTA from a kind of bondage imposed since the transit agency’s inception.
State law has prevented MARTA from using more than 50 percent of the cash it raises from the penny sales tax levied by Fulton and DeKalb counties on operating expenses. The other half must go to construction.
Without a change, without access to more of its own cash during hard times, MARTA would have to reduce service, perhaps by one day a week, the transit agency’s CEO told lawmakers.
But she didn’t tell Gov. Sonny Perdue. “MARTA didn’t come to the governor for any help,” spokesman Bert Brantley said — a fact that MARTA officials don’t dispute.
SB 120, the bill to loosen the leash on MARTA, passed the Senate but went nowhere in a hostile House. “Armageddon,” Scott said, when the Legislature abandoned Atlanta last April. She pleaded for a special session.
No dice, Perdue said. Some federal stimulus cash was found to stave off the cuts. The governor signed off on the $25 million Band-Aid, but only after MARTA scheduled a meeting to explain itself.
Here we are nearly a year later, still struggling over the basics of building and maintaining a transportation system in Georgia. If there is a glimmer of hope, it’s the fact that the right people may finally be talking to each other.
MARTA officials have brought their case to the governor. “We certainly felt good about the reception he gave us. He appeared thoughtful and certainly seemed to have a very real appreciation for the dilemma that MARTA finds itself in,” said MARTA board chairman Michael Tyler, a fresh face who assumed the post in December.
Brantley, the governor’s spokesman, confirmed both the meeting and the tone.
Sometime next week, Perdue is expected to release the details of his first stab at a statewide plan to increase transportation funding. We’re told that the governor will recommend that MARTA be allowed to use a greater share of the Fulton-DeKalb sales tax to prop up its operations.
Perhaps as much as 60 percent, word around the Capitol says — with a sunset clause and other restrictions. Based on 2009 sales tax collections of $327 million, the new leeway would permit MARTA to shift an extra $33 million toward payroll and other expenses.
Not enough to close what the transit agency says is a $120 million gap this year. But it’s something.
Perdue gives credit to David Ralston, the new House speaker, for the change in atmosphere. The House, after last year’s opposition to the MARTA measure, has had a change of heart.
The governor’s spokesman also noted the influence of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has called for a “truce” among warring transportation factions in the state Capitol.
But not all of the thaw can be attributed to the niceties of diplomacy.
Perdue wants a 2012 statewide referendum that would establish regional sales tax districts across the state — wherever voters approve. But the key to fixing transportation in Georgia is the establishment of a sales tax district in the 10-county metro Atlanta area.
MARTA is the deal-breaker. Fulton and DeKalb counties have levied the 1-cent sales tax to fund the bus-and-rail system for 37 years, pumping in hundreds of millions of dollars. Other counties, notably Cobb and Gwinnett, have rejected the expense.
What might persuade Fulton and DeKalb lawmakers to accept another penny of tax — and a continued sales-tax gap in metro Atlanta? State Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta) fears the governor may set the improvement of MARTA’s finances as the price.
“It’s like they want to ignore the last 30 years,” he said.
Fulton and DeKalb county commissioners are to meet Friday at the Capitol. On the agenda: “Defining consideration for Fulton, DeKalb and the city of Atlanta’s 30-year contribution to MARTA and transit infrastructure.”
Showing up may be 80 percent of life. But the other 20 percent includes some hard bargaining.
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