Before they abandoned Atlanta on Wednesday, members of the Legislature dropped a valuable gift into the lap of the Georgia Republican party.
Not the new set of political boundaries that lawmakers completed – designed to keep the GOP in power for the next 10 years. Although that will indeed be worth a hand-written thank-you note.
No, the Legislature’s true offering to Republicans was a gift of omission, a gift of tough love. Last week, lawmakers bobbled what was supposed to be an easy task – Gov. Nathan Deal’s request to move the date of next year’s transportation sales tax referendum to the November general election.
In essence, GOP lawmakers bowed to tea party criticism that moving the date amounted to shopping for Democrats rousted to the polls by the 2012 Barack Obama campaign. At least for now, the vote on a new regional tax for transportation remains attached to next July’s primary – which is likely to be chockfull of passionate tea partyers.
This is where the gift comes in, unwanted though it may be.
Through its inaction, the Legislature has created what could be a defining, head-clearing confrontation between the GOP’s dominant and competing factions: A business community that pays the freight and a tea party that churns out the votes.
The timing of the sales tax vote – with every state lawmaker and a host of local leaders on Republican and Democratic ballots – will require a choosing of sides.
More important, passage will mandate the resurgence and organization of a group sidelined within the current Georgia GOP – “infrastructure” Republicans who recognize government as a necessary, even crucial, ingredient in transportation and economic development.
It may take some schooling. Republicans will have to be convinced that it was their president, Dwight Eisenhower, who created the interstate highway system. And a series of their presidents who pushed railroads to the Pacific coast in the 19th century.
Paul Bennecke, the Republican strategist plotting the course for transportation tax boosters in the 10-county region of metro Atlanta, said the best argument for passage will be jobs – both their creation and retention.
“That’s a seller in all 10 counties – Republican, Democrat, independent. People want to know that their economic future is viable, that it’s real,” Bennecke said. “And they want to know that someone is doing something about the worst problem we have in metro Atlanta.
“Every Republican will agree with you — that we have a serious problem. What’s differing among Republicans is that some people have a solution, and other people don’t have any solutions,” he said.
That, too, is likely to be part of next summer’s message.
The problem with being an infrastructure Republican is that it requires patience and a lowering of certain sensitive barriers – such as county sovereignty. Among the many projects on a yet-unfinished list that will be presented to metro Atlanta voters next year is an extension of heavy rail from Atlanta to the Galleria in Cobb County.
Already, the plan is taking a heavy beating from Cobb County lawmakers, who complain that such a line would do nothing to immediately help beleaguered commuters in the county’s northern reaches.
But supporters of that rail line say a Galleria area terminal is essential to the region’s future – and the eventual construction of an east-west rail line that connects southern Cobb to Doraville. “We can’t continue to do things as singular counties,” Bennecke said. But delayed gratification and pan-metroism could be a hard sell.
It’s difficult to say who might be willing to lead an infrastructure Republican movement. Gov. Nathan Deal may be one – to a point. But his abandonment of the vote-shifting bill showed that he is unwilling to become the face of next year’s sales tax campaign.
House Speaker David Ralston is another possibility. And in the Senate, state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the chamber’s transportation committee, said he’d be willing to step up.
Another one may be state Sen. Ross Tolleson, a Republican from middle Georgia. On Tuesday, the Perry lawmaker hosted a news conference in which he listed the things that keep him up at night:
– The state’s need for a water reservoir system that’s likely to cost $1 billion and more;
– The dredging of the Port of Savannah, expected to cost $600 million and more. If the federal government decides not to pay for it, Tolleson said, Georgia will have to pick up the tab.
– A statewide energy delivery system – think gasoline, diesel and natural gas – that has too many bottle-necks, controlled by too few entities;
– And a transportation network that threatens to turn the region’s economic initiative over to venues such as Nashville or Charlotte.
Tolleson said he intends to be part of next year’s sales tax campaign. “We need to stay focused on that problem. Every 12 months that goes by digs you deeper in the hole,” he said.
“I took my daughters to Kennesaw State [University] on Friday. They’re fixing to go to college, so we’re touring colleges,” Tolleson said. For lunch, he treated them to sandwiches at a nearby Chick-fil-a.
“It wasn’t even rush-hour, and that traffic was so backed up through those red lights, it was horrendous,” he said. The senator told his daughters that they’d have to be crazy to live there for four years.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider