It is not uncommon for civic leaders and politicians to push tax referendums into isolated corners of the calendar.
Manipulating a small election — turning out supporters through phone banks and advertising — is easier than trying to shape the outcome of a large one. Cheaper, too.
Anti-tax forces liken the practice to judge-shopping. It drives them nuts.
So this sudden talk about shifting next year’s regional votes on a transportation sales tax from the July 31 primaries to the larger November general election seems counterintuitive.
But the idea is gaining steam, as supporters come to realize that next summer’s voters — especially those in metro Atlanta — are likely to be throwing one large tea party. And are unlikely to approve a $6 billion, 10-year sales tax for road and rail improvements.
One of the major proponents of moving the date is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “We really have one opportunity to pass this referendum. If you check the data, higher voter turnout improves the chances of success,” he said in an interview. “In a referendum where your best election model gives you a 2 to 3 percent win, I believe that everything that you can do to add to that possibility you need to do.”
He’ll raise the topic with state lawmakers next month, when they gather at the state Capitol to redraw Georgia’s political boundaries. The Legislature would have to approve the shift — though it wouldn’t be able to act until its January session.
So far, ranking state lawmakers we’ve talked to are open to the move.
Here’s the situation: Aside from the presidential election, next year is something of a political desert for Georgia. No U.S. Senate race, no contest for governor or any other statewide office — other than two spots on the state Public Service Commission.
With the possible exception of the contest between U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta and former Fulton County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson, Democrats will have little reason to turn out in force July 31.
Rather, the biggest contest will be a Republican free-for-all for the new 14th Congressional District, likely to be placed somewhere northeast of Gwinnett County.
Candidates will be talking to the most conservative elements of the GOP — who aren’t likely to vote yes when it comes to the transportation tax. The new congressional district and the 10 counties that make up the metro Atlanta transportation tax zone may not overlap — but they will share the same media market.
Then there’s Cobb County. In March, this very Republican county approved an extension of a 1-cent special option local sales tax by a mere 79 votes. “I think that was very instructive for us,” Reed said.
For the transportation sales tax to carry in metro Atlanta, proponents don’t have to win Cobb. But they do need to split it.
Last week, Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Commission, proposed the first tax increase in years — necessary, he said, to maintain the county’s police and fire services. He’ll face at least one challenger in next year’s GOP primary — former Commission Chairman Bill Byrne.
Politically, Byrne has not fared well since his unsuccessful 2002 run for governor. But he still has a following in Cobb — and intends to campaign against both Lee and the transportation tax next year.
In 2008, Georgia’s July primary drew nearly 900,000 voters. The November presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain drew nearly 4 million — a figure largely fueled by African-American voters who are also likely to return in November 2012 in large numbers.
A poll last month by 20/20 Insight Polling showed only 33 percent support for the transportation sales tax in metro Atlanta. But among those who think the country is on the right track — Obama supporters would make up the greatest number of this group — support for the transportation tax rose to 55 percent.
The problem that some supporters of the transportation sales tax have with a November vote is the cost. More voters require more messaging — and noise from the presidential contest will be deafening.
“I think those are reasonable and fair concerns. But we really have no Plan B for this,” Reed said. “It took us four years to even get to the referendum. We’re not going to have a second bite at the apple.”
A July vote is likely to require a $4 million campaign, the mayor said. A November campaign would burn $6 million.
Not much difference when placed against $6 billion in potential road-and-rail revenue. But ask any professional fundraiser. In this economy, $2 million is still a significant number.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider