By not moving the referendum date, regional transportation tax may be destined to fail

From the beginning, it seemed as though certain legislators wanted to sabotage HB 277 and the eventual passage of the regional transportation sales tax bill.

Those suspicious feelings were confirmed last week when Gov. Nathan Deal halted attempts to move the vote from the primary election on July 31 to the general election on Nov. 6, 2012.

The reason. The Tea Party wing of the Republican party began to make noise. If the date of the transportation sales tax were to be moved to the general election, then they should do the same for any local option tax that cities and counties might want to pass.

In short, those legislators had become increasingly concerned. Moving the transportation sales tax to the general election would mean the bill would stand a much better chance of passing because of a higher voter turnout with more tax-friendly Democrats expected at the polls.

So they started making demands — doing everything they could to prevent the date from being changed.

It worked. Gov. Nathan Deal, who initially had proposed getting the referendum date changed during the special redistricting session, quickly retreated.

“We’ve had a healthy debate on the T-SPLOST referendum date here at the Gold Dome,” the governor reportedly said. “Our time during this special session, however is precious, and it’s now obvious that it will take too much time to reach a consensus on changing the date. It’s best for taxpayers that we not let this special session drag on.”

And although a bill to change the vote could come up during the General Assembly, Deal has already said it would not be a priority of his.

The work to get the bill passed has just gotten tougher — and it was tough enough as it was.

Those who wanted to sabotage the referendum started their work when putting together HB 277, and setting the date for the primary was just the first step.

HB 277 contained a poison pill that would suppress support in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb — the jurisdictions that have been paying a penny sales tax for MARTA for the last 40 years.

The bill stipulated that none of the revenues collected from the pass could be spent on MARTA’s operations. MARTA was singled-out in this provision that did not impact any other transit system in the state.

The top elected officials in Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb felt that could be overcome — partly because of projects that had been included in the draft list that was approved by the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable executive committee on Aug. 15.

The draft project list includes $600 million to help MARTA get to a state of good repair; $601 million for the Atlanta BeltLine; $856 million for a rail line between the Arts Center MARTA Station and the Cumberland area in Cobb; $700 million for a rail line along the Clifton Road corridor; $100 million to restore bus service in Clayton County; $95 million to help finance the XPress busses over the next 10 years as well as well as $225 million towards extending the MARTA east line from Indian Creek Station to Wesley Chapel Road near I-20.

In all, of the $6.14 billion that the roundtable could allocate, 55 percent is slated to be invested in transit and 45 percent in roads. An anti-transit sentiment has surfaced with some not happy with the transit-road split.

But what they don’t take into account is all the money that has been spent on roads for decades. Plus, when taking all transportation funding that is expected to be spent in the next decade — $16 billion, of which transit is expected to be less than a fourth of the total.

Then there are the Tea Party types who are trying to claim that the transportation referendum would the state’s largest tax increase in its history.

First of all, 12 regions will be going to polls. It is highly unlikely the tax will pass in all, or even most, of those regions.

Second, this is not a tax that the state is imposing on its citizens. This is giving citizens an opportunity to decide whether they was to tax themselves and invest those dollars in their individual regions.

What could be a more Republican principal than leaving it up to citizens to decide whether to tax themselves?

The bill also has a couple of other strange wrinkles. Instead of it being a 10-year tax that is easily understood, the bill stipulates that there be an estimate of what the tax would raise (in metro Atlanta’s case it is $7.2 billion, including the 15 percent that will go directly to local governments). If the tax raised that estimated revenue before 10 years, the tax would end.

And because the tax is tied to a finite project list with dollar amounts attached, there is no incentive keep down construction costs or to seek other sources of revenue — be it the federal or state governments or the private sector.

Plus, the bill did not allow for there to be a second tier of projects that could be funded if savings were found.

While that part of the bill may not have been intended to hurt the referendum’s chances, it could end up being the net effect. Paul Bennecke, who is involved in the metro Atlanta campaign to pass the bill, said that voters are more apt to approve a tax that is easily understood.

As the Atlanta Roundtable executive committee approved its draft project list, leaders believed the date of the referendum would be changed. They also believed they would be able to iron out the confusing wrinkle of when the tax would sunset — preferring a simple 10-year time frame.

But the events of last week do not provide hope that legislators will try to improve the bill to increase the referendum’s chances of passing.

That only further suggests that legislators, when writing the bill, set up the referendum for failure.

And if the referendum fails and that the Atlanta region will be unable to invest billions in its desperately-needed transit infrastructure, Georgia’s capital city will suffer economically and competitively.

Let’s hope that wasn’t the ultimate motivation.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

There are 17 comments What are your thoughts?

What are your thoughts?