If the referendum for a transportation sales tax in metro Atlanta fails this month, the cause is likely to be a lack of trust.
The most obvious trust gap is the one that separates most tea partyists from government spending. No surprise there. But the trust deficit that matters most in the July 31 vote, and the one that runs the deepest, separates white and black in metro Atlanta.
Or, if you prefer to keep things on a more civilized plane, it creates a divide between Democrats in Fulton and DeKalb counties on one hand, and Republicans in the other eight counties on the other.
All along, the strategy for passage of the transportation sales tax has been based on keeping the vote close in GOP strongholds such as Cobb and Gwinnett counties, then running up the score with strong African-American support in Atlanta and areas south of I-20.
This week, Channel 2 Action News released a poll, conducted by Rosetta Stone Communications, which showed only 38 percent of voters in the 10-county region in support of more spending to get metro Atlanta moving. In Fulton and DeKalb counties alone, support was measured at 49.6 percent – well short of what’s needed to make the formula work.
One reason for any lack of enthusiasm is the penny sales tax that Fulton and DeKalb residents already pay to fund MARTA. Passage would apply the transportation sales tax to all counties. The penny gap would remain.
But there is a larger unease growing, at least within the DeKalb and Fulton county political communities. As Republicans finally turn their heads toward the need for a regional transportation solution, some African-American lawmakers and other elected officials worry that their role in a transit system that they have managed for better than three decades is about to be lessened – or largely subverted.
As the Legislature shut down this spring, one bill lost to the clock would have transferred the power to appoint two members of the MARTA board from the Fulton County Commission to a council of six north Fulton mayors. In exchange, MARTA would have been allowed – for three years – to spend its sales tax revenue as it liked.
Longstanding state law prevents the transit system from spending more than 50 percent of sales tax revenue on operations – things such as salaries and electric bills. With sales tax revenue down because of the recession, the restriction is on hold until next year. But a financially pinched MARTA wants a extension and had reluctantly acquiesced, we’re told, to a deal brokered by House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta.
Lindsey said his bill is certain to return in January for quick passage.
Not long after the MARTA bill suffered this temporary setback, House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, held a session with north Fulton constituents eager to create a new Milton County. The process would begin in January, the lawmaker told them. “My goal is to end Fulton County and bring government closer to the people,” Jones said.
Taken together, Jones’ comments and the MARTA bill sent a shiver down the spines of many black leaders in Fulton and DeKalb who are now being asked to turn out voters in July. “It’s definitely a concern,” said DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May, who opposes the referendum.
He understands the consequences. “DeKalb County residents are the type of voter that this initiative needs to win. We understand that in order to realize a benefit, you have to pay for it. Others in the region have shown a tendency to not want to pay for things,” May said.
The removal of Fulton County’s authority to appoint members of the MARTA board is only a precursor of things to come, May said. “It’s a slippery slope. You can see we’re clearly headed in the same direction as Fulton County with the cityhood movement. They’ll be coming for DeKalb soon.”
But Republicans say trust is a two-way street. Jones, the No. 2 leader in the House, doesn’t deny the remarks she made last month, but says they weren’t reported in full. “We’re looking at Fulton County as a model that is no longer relevant. It’s not that it’s good or bad. It’s just not relevant,” Jones said.
The House leader said she is willing to move slowly, and that the future of Fulton County shouldn’t become part of the transportation debate. “I’m a patient person,” she said. As for the measure to give north Fulton mayors the power to appoint members of the MARTA board, Jones said her voters need to have a more direct stake in transportation decisions.
“If they felt that they had a seat at the table, they would certainly be more likely to trust it and be interested in it,” Jones said.
Lindsey, author of the MARTA compromise, said much the same thing. “The fact of the matter is, Fulton County looks very different than what it did in the 1970s when we set up who all got to appoint whom. We now have all these cities up in north Fulton,” Lindsey said. And their residents pay a penny for MARTA, too.
Lindsey characterized the MARTA bill that will return next year as a piece of hard bargaining on both sides that would make Mick Jagger proud. “Everybody doesn’t get what they want, but they get what they need,” he said.
In exchange for increased north Fulton authority over MARTA, the transit agency gets more control over its own cash flow for three years. And that should be just enough time for state to establish a bona fide, regional transit system, Lindsey said.
Who controls it, and who pays for it, remain open questions.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider