If opponents of a transportation sales tax for metro Atlanta seem to be flailing, perhaps it is because they have finally gotten a glimpse of the behemoth that’s headed their way.
Even a year ago, the idea that voters might approve the penny sales tax, given the state of the economy, appeared fool-hardy. Things have changed since then.
The economy has inched up. So have the stakes. The size of the push from corporate Atlanta has already begun to show itself, in fancy mailings, television commercials, websites, and robo-calls.
Another month will pass before we have a firm grasp about who has put how much money behind the campaign for what’s now called the Transportation Investment Act.
But assume that enough cash to run a respectable campaign for governor will be crammed into the 10 counties of metro Atlanta. Summer sausage, indeed.
Little things have begun to fall the way of supporters of the sales tax. Cobb County’s decision to require a mulligan on its Sunday sales vote – the issue was left off the March 6 ballot in six incorporated cities – could attract younger, non-traditional primary voters on July 31. That kind of population would likely skew in favor of a transportation sales tax.
In DeKalb County, CEO Burrell Ellis has encountered what looks to be serious primary opposition. That’s bad for Ellis, but good for sales tax supporters who want to squeeze every vote out of DeKalb that they can.
At the same time, the DeKalb County NAACP has denounced the sales tax as “racist” – pointing to a decision not to include, on the list of would-be projects, a rail line along I-20 through predominantly black south DeKalb. Yet any serious argument that this leg of I-20 is would be neglected was killed on Thursday, when Gov. Nathan Deal announced that the state had landed a $1 billion bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing plant.
Baxter International will build its 1,500-worker facility just off I-20 near Covington, about 40 miles from downtown Atlanta. The road between Atlanta and Newton County may have just become the most important developmental corridor in the state, and isn’t likely to be ignored.
But while everything has gone right for supporters of the transportation sales tax, opponents have remained fractured, disorganized – and unfunded. The Georgia Tea Party (one of many tea party groups opposed to the transportation sales tax, operating out of Cobb County) recently purged three leaders from its nine-member board in a dispute over direction.
“I don’t see any organized opposition to this. There are voices out there opposing it,” said Benita Dodd of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “I’ve heard of moves to coalesce the opposition. I’ve had some conversations with people who are planning to do that.”
The GPPF doesn’t endorse or oppose the sales tax referendum, but has raised objections to the project list for the 10-year, $7.2 billion sales tax.
But Dodd admits that the clock is running out for those who are just now fixin’ to get ready to start organizing. “It’s getting late in the game. I do see the advocates putting out a very good sell on this,” she said.
That very good sell includes a few sticks wielded by some important people. The sales tax referendums, to be held in metro Atlanta and 11 other regions across the state, have an experimental side to them – incorporating local priorities in a fashion that the state has never done before.
And if the referendums are defeated, the governor warned local officials across Georgia, the experiment is unlikely to be repeated.
“You may not get the General Assembly to be able to delegate that authority back down to local levels of government to participate in the project selection process again, if this proves to be unsuccessful,” Deal said.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who played a crucial role in passing the legislation establishing the July 31 referendums, agreed.
“The whole underpinning of the bill we passed in 2009 was for local control, for a thorough process of letting local governments and local citizens have input into what projects they thought were important to their region,” Ralston said.
“None of us always get everything we want,” the speaker said. “But if it fails, then I think it is going to be difficult to have the General Assembly go back and re-do something that’s failed. I don’t think there’s going to be any point in trying to dress up a crashed car.”
Officially, there is no Plan B, so Ralston wasn’t prepared to go much further on the topic. But the threat – no, make that a hard promise – is out there. Should the July 31 referendums fail, the next blueprints will be generated from within the state Capitol.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider