After trauma network defeat, Republicans need to get their Whig on

Republicans in Georgia have 18 months to summon their inner Whig.

The defeat this month of a $10 car tag levy to extend emergency health care into exurban and rural Georgia has business leaders and many others worried about the chances of a transportation sales tax referendum scheduled for July 2012.

If a voter isn’t willing to shell out an extra sawbuck once a year to make sure a neurologist is waiting when his injured kid is pried out of a car, what can persuade that voter to spend an extra penny — perhaps thousands of times a year — on something as mundane as a quicker commute?

Even in metro Atlanta — where a worker can marry, raise a family and qualify for Social Security all during a single trip to the office — resistance is already rearing its head.

Public officials in Fulton and DeKalb counties, where a 1-cent sales tax has funded MARTA for decades, are insisting on a lightening — or at least a sharing — of that burden. Otherwise, they declared this month, they’ll campaign against the transportation sales tax.

The defeat of the trauma network vote has already prompted tactical revisions. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which backed the car tag fee, will also be coordinating the statewide referendum on the transportation sales tax.

“We’ve got to do a much better job over the next 18 months of focusing on grassroots and education,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber.

One flaw in the trauma network campaign was its broad, top-down attempt to reach voters, Clark said.

Organizers purposely didn’t address the issue of how the $18 million raised each year would be spent — out of fear that regional hospital rivalries would jeopardize the vote. If they’re to vote for a transportation sales tax, voters will need specifics — a laundry list of projects that they can see and touch.

One advantage supporters of the transportation tax will have is that — although the vote is statewide — the results will be measured in 12 different regions across the state.

Failure in one geographic area won’t necessarily mean defeat in another. Funds for the campaign can be concentrated in the most fruitful arenas.

One disadvantage is that, given the slow recovery, the economic situation is likely to be much the same.

“The conversation has to be an economic development discussion, and how the transportation tax is going to transfer into jobs for Georgians,” Clark said.

But a shift in tactics isn’t all that’s needed. Curiously, Clark discounted the public’s distrust of state politicians in the trauma network defeat.

“Obviously, the national elections we just had showed a huge contempt [for] and a mistrust of Washington,” the chamber leader said. “But here in Georgia, voters voted overwhelmingly to keep the [Republican] party in charge, to send back many of those same legislators.” That’s a diplomatic assessment from an organization with close ties to the Legislature. But it will not answer come 2012.

The Republican party had its origins in three groups: Those opposing slavery, the “Know-Nothings” who demanded tougher immigration laws, and the Whigs — who believed that one of the primary purposes of government was to create the infrastructure that permitted economic development in a new country.

Back during Abe Lincoln’s days — he started out as a Whig — economic development meant waterways, roads and bridges.

In today’s GOP, abortion opponents are quick to declare themselves the descendants of the abolitionist movement. The nativist faction has been revived by today’s fight over illegal immigration.

But the Whig heritage of the Republican party has been chased from the field by the debt crisis and a tea party movement with its Libertarian insistence that government should — with few exceptions — stay out of the way.

If a decades-long drought of infrastructure funding is to end in Georgia — if the transportation sales tax is to enjoy any success in ’12 — then Republicans will have to get their Whig on.

“A campaign will have to persuade very suspicious, conservative Republicans that this is a legitimate form of taxation for a legitimate purpose,” said Heath Garrett, a GOP political strategist.

It is not an impossible task, Garrett said. “It may be an unfair political reality, but there’s a bigger concern for transportation improvements than for a trauma network,” he said.

Moreover, Garrett said, of voters who identify with the tea party movement, about half are willing to consider special option local sales taxes — because the taxes come with sunset provisions, and the funds are dedicated to a specific purpose.

The case for a transportation tax will have to be made in an environment rife with continued hostility toward government spending. The vote is set for the July 2012 primaries.

Locally, Democratic and Republican campaigns will be aiming their messages at the most extreme wings of their membership.

Nationally, the Republican effort to oust President Barack Obama will be at a high water mark.

And speaking of water, the transportation vote will coincide with the deadline, set by a federal judge, for Georgia to end its water feud with Alabama and Florida.

One thing to watch is whether any Republican with statewide heft will step up and champion the transportation sales tax — and whether state GOP lawmakers will be willing to enlist their smaller networks to push the tax.

A spokesman for Nathan Deal says the governor-elect intends to emphasize that the 2012 transportation vote will give local regions more autonomy when it comes to spending cash for roads, bridges and rail.

How hard Deal intends to push that message — and whether he’ll put any political capital behind it — could help you decide whether you’ll need to pack that retirement home brochure on your next trip to work.

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