Colleen Kiernan couldn’t remember the exact day the alliance was formed. But it was over lunch, and definitely in the spring, said the director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club.
“Right around Earth Day,” Kiernan said, using a marker that probably never occurred to her partner, Debbie Dooley, a founder of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots.
At table that day, the two women from opposite ends of the political spectrum quickly discovered they had something in common. “Conservatives and Republicans are not the only voters that distrust their elected officials. There is a lot of distrust among Democrats as well,” Dooley said.
If the transportation sales tax in metro Atlanta scrapes through on Tuesday, the partnership between Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and their last-minute efforts, will get much of the credit.
If the measure fails, victors raising their hands will range from Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, a Republican from Woodstock, to John Evans, the DeKalb County NAACP president who confronted Reed last week — however ineptly.
But the crux of this disparate opposition has been the partnership between the Sierra Club, one of the few environmental groups to stand against the sales tax referendum, and a tea party movement unafraid of forming temporary friendships.
Differences were supposed to make even a short-term alliance ineffective. The Sierra Club opposes the TSPLOST because its $6.2 billion spending package doesn’t include enough rail. Tea partyists have denounced the same package for including too much emphasis on rail.
But suspicion of cronyism and back-room deals has served as an effective, non-ideological glue for both sides. And by sticking together, the two groups have permitted right and left wings to communicate and coordinate in a way that otherwise would have been unlikely. For instance, state Sen. Vincent Fort, a liberal Atlanta Democrat, recently wanted a tea party presence at an anti-TSLOST event he was organizing He called an old ally, Sierra Club lobbyist Neil Herring, who completed the connection. Problem solved.
On Friday, the Sierra Club and Atlanta Tea Party Patriots held a news conference at the state Capitol – but not for a final push against the TSPLOST. They were much too confident for that.
They were there to talk about Plan B — what should be done beginning Wednesday, should the transportation sales tax be defeated. Leaders of the two groups picked out the areas – pipe dreams in some cases, common sense in others — where they will continue to agree. Among them:
— Consolidate the three current, complicated taxes on motor fuel into a single tax dedicated solely to transportation. A portion of a state tax on gasoline, worth about $175 million a year, currently goes into the state’s general fund. Additionally, some of the tax on gasoline is applied per gallon pumped. The two groups say gasoline taxes should be fixed to the price. Prognosis: Dim, given that this would likely be condemned as a tax increase.
— Rather than the current, proposed system of 12 regional tax districts, shift toward a system built on smaller agreements between pairs of counties. Prognosis: Interesting, but unlikely. And it would aggravate metro Atlanta’s basic political weakness – the fact that the region is already divided into too many separate and uncooperative fiefdoms. Should the TSPLOST fail on Tuesday, reaction from the state Capitol is likely to be directed toward more top-down planning, not less.
— Make members of the state transportation board more accountable by reducing their six-year terms to one year. Currently, DOT board members are elected by lawmakers, who cast secret ballots. The groups would have these votes cast in public. Prognosis: Needed, but unlikely to pass muster among state lawmakers who don’t want a governor or House speaker to know who isn’t following orders.
— Reform the operation of MARTA, and increase its funding. Shift revenue – about $300 million — generated by the current hotel/motel tax in Atlanta toward the transit agency rather than a new Falcons stadium. Prognosis: Impractical, given that a deal is likely to be struck with the football franchise before the Legislature meets in January.
But there was also agreement on an idea long overdue. Decades ago, when MARTA was created by the Legislature, white state lawmakers suspicious of rising black political power in Atlanta imposed a restriction on how the transit agency could use funds generated by a sales tax levied on Fulton and DeKalb counties. Only 50 percent could be used for operations. The rest must be used on capital improvements.
The restriction has been temporarily lifted, but that holiday will soon expire. Many Republicans want that restriction to remain – or at least want to exact a large price for lifting it permanently. That isn’t a tea party position, however.
“That may be a position of Republican legislators, but Republicans believe in local control,” Dooley said. “The voters in Fulton and Dekalb pay that tax. The state has no skin in the game. What are they doing, telling the voters that pay that tax what they can do with the money?”
Prognosis: Logical, and perhaps even possible.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider