After four years of effort, our Republican-controlled Legislature last week passed a transportation funding bill. As if it were a billion-dollar kidney stone.
Sweat-stained relief, rather than elation, is the dominant emotion at the state Capitol.
Though the money from a yet-to-be-approved sales tax won’t show up for three years, metro Atlanta at least has been offered a means of ending the drought of people-moving cash — whether for road or rail — that has threatened to turn us into Birmingham.
The margin of victory on Wednesday, 43-8 in the Senate and 141-29 in the House, belies the pain and drama of the delivery.
Republicans and business leaders give Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed much of the credit for passage of HB 277. The former state lawmaker crossed the street from City Hall and broke through a wall of opposition thrown up by his fellow Democrats.
It was by far the riskiest move of his early mayoral career.
“I think he put his personal political reputation on the line with Democrats who thought the bill was not enough,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Chamber of Commerce.
The best-known highlights of HB 277 are these: 12 regional districts encompassing the state, including metro Atlanta, would be permitted to hold individual referendums in 2012, to decide whether to levy a 1-cent sales tax for transportation purposes.
(Democrats demanded a 2010 vote, but Republicans feared a tea party backlash.)
But it was the MARTA component of HB 277 that threatened to torpedo the bill — there is nothing like transportation to bring out the crippling hostilities of race and region in the South.
Since its inception, MARTA has been handcuffed with a state mandate that only 50 percent of the cash raised by the sales tax levied by Fulton and DeKalb counties can go toward operation expenses. The rest must go toward capital improvement.
No other transit agency in the state has the restriction. HB 277 loosens those handcuffs for three years — MARTA had declared the provision essential to its short-term survival. But the Legislature heaped on other MARTA-only rules governing the use of any money from a new sales tax.
The restrictions, imposed at the insistence of House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta), incensed Democrats.
But Republicans, too, were in a foul mood, said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island). Earlier, Democrats had forced Republicans to do the heavy lifting on a hospital bed tax needed to close the budget gap.
GOP lawmakers threatened to deep-six the transportation funding bill — which offers up a tax by referendum — if Democrats repeated the tactic.
Republicans were even more ticked off when Democrats, led by House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin — as transportation negotiations were under way — attempted to challenge the constitutionality of HB 1055, a budget-funding bill that included fee increases, the hospital bed tax and future tax cuts.
Porter is a candidate for governor.
“It came incredibly close to killing the MARTA language,” Keen said.
Keen focused his efforts on calming Republicans. The mayor of Atlanta went to work on House Democrats, white and black.
Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) gave Reed the use of his conference room, providing the mayor with a place to assemble and persuade Democratic lawmakers — many of whom wondered why Reed would allow the GOP to paper over its neglect of transportation funding so close to November.
“[Reed] recognized that this was more important than the politics of the year,” Keen said. “I give him all the credit in the world.”
At the outset, pro-transportation lobbyists working the ropes that separate them from lawmakers counted 86 yes votes in the House, Democrats and Republicans.
Those watching him said Reed was frustrated by MARTA’s lukewarm support for the bill. At one point, desperate to enlist Beverly Scott, the transit agency’s well-spoken CEO, in the Capitol lobbying effort, witnesses said the mayor dispatched a patrol car — blue lights blazing — to MARTA headquarters.
The officer returned empty-handed.
Reed’s break came when state Rep. Calvin Smyre, who routinely treks in and out of the White House, backed the mayor’s move. Democratic votes cascaded behind the Columbus lawmaker.
Porter, the House minority leader, voted no. So did Senate Democratic Leader Robert Brown of Macon.
“No one deserves an outsized share of the credit,” Reed said in a Friday telephone interview. The mayor said he was most concerned with metro Atlanta’s business reputation — and the gains that have been made in Dallas/Fort Worth and Charlotte.
“Four years of failure are hard to explain in that kind of competitive environment,” Reed said. The mayor also emphasized the money that would be injected into the economy by a transportation sales tax — at least $750 million a year.
“We have never had such a large amount of capital being deployed in such a concentrated fashion in modern history,” he said.
Over at MARTA, board Chairman Michael Tyler expressed gratitude to Reed. “I think the mayor showed exemplary leadership, superb leadership in helping to get the transportation bill across the final hurdle,” Tyler said. Riders, he said, were well-served.
But the chairman said he was surprised by language in the bill that requires a reconstitution of MARTA’s 18-member board down to 11 members. One of them, given expressed voting power, will be state Department of Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith.
“One would hope that it might signal a greater commitment on the part of the state to provide more of an investment in MARTA,” Tyler said.
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