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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

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.



  1. DougAlexander August 29, 2011 2:33 pm

    Considering that this was Sonny’s bill, not the legislature’s, it’s no wonder that it’s confusing.Report

  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 29, 2011 4:39 pm

    Maria, You are giving our highly-esteemed legislators much more credit then they deserve because, for one, as a collective body they are NOT really all that smart (oh, make no mistake, they have brains, they just don’t like to use them all that much) and second, they just don’t like to work all that much (they’re pretty much allergic to hard work and nuanced complex layered thought).

    Actually, in addition to objections from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, many legislators didn’t want to accept the Tea Party’s terms of gaining support to move the referendum date to November by requiring ALL future statewide, regional and local SPLOST votes to held only during the November General Election every two years. From what I understood, many legislators thought that requring all future SPLOST votes to be held only in November General Elections would take too much control and power away from local governments who want to keep the power to hold SPLOST votes at almost anytime they feel like.

    I kind of suspected from the beginning that this might be a level of hard work that would be too much for the legislature to want to handle, especially as far as working out all of the wrinkles in the legislation to push a bill forward that might be perceived as a massive tax increase by those on the right in a very conservative state dominated by right-wing politics where just the word “tax” inspires a reaction of intense viseral anger from the majority of voters.

    You’ve also got to keep in mind that Governor Deal himself and many Republicans are being threatened with being challenged by Tea Party-backed candidates in their next GOP primary who have promised to raise taxes under no circumstances whatsoever. There are many conservatives on the far right who are already pushing Herman Cain to challenge Governor Deal in the 2014 GOP Gubernatorial Primary because they feel that Governor is a moderate who is too far to the left on the political spectrum.

    There’s also “hell-on-earth” being raised by taxpayers and commuters in the still very influential conservative GOP stronghold of Cobb County who are mad as hell over $857 million of the county TSPLOST take of $1.1 billion being proposed to be spent on the proposed Midtown to Cumberland Mall light rail line instead of badly-needed across-the-board local road upgrades.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 29, 2011 5:03 pm

    Strangely enough, the anger over the proposed Midtown to Cumberland light rail line has created a strange and ironic outpouring of support for commuter rail on the existing CSX and Georgia Northeastern Railroad lines as an alternative to the light rail line that would eat up nearly all of Cobb’s take of the TSPLOST money and would likely run only one mile into Cobb County and not be extended beyond that point for many years after being completed only to Cumberland Mall.

    It is strange and ironic that Cobb County residents are suddenly supporting commuter rail because up until this point Cobb conservatives are basically wanted no parts of anything remotely rail or transit, but I stated before in another blog entry, I guess that sitting stuck in gridlock for many years has given them the opportunity to come around to embracing transit by realizing that the roads can only be widened so much.

    Don’t get me wrong road improvements still need to be a big part of the picture, but once your population has risen and the development has become much more dense and established, road improvements can only do so much in a densely populated major metropolitan area where all major roads have become almost unbearably packed with gridlocked traffic.

    I think that we’ve reached a milestone in that even the car-crazed ultraconservatives in Cobb County and the Northwest I-75/575 corridor are starting to come to the stark realization that rail-centered transit has got to be apart of the transportation solution for a major population center of nearly six million people. Report

  4. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 29, 2011 5:11 pm

    Sit stuck in traffic, twice-a-day every workday for about 20 years straight and I would guess that rail would become a much more attractive option for anyone, even the most hard-line, hardcore right-wing, individualistic conservative who loves his or her car almost more than anything and everything in the world.Report

  5. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 29, 2011 5:25 pm

    Haven’t the Tea Partiers been saying that they wouldn’t support passage of the TSPLOST unless it was geared 75 percent towards roads?

    I say give them what they want and give them a list that is made up of AT LEAST 75% road improvements and then take that TSPLOST list that is between 75% and 100% road improvements and package it with a proposal to take the one percent of the gas sales tax that currently goes into the general fund and divert it all to permanently become a source of funding for transit upgrades.

    Even though Georgia invests only in roads, it still is very, very little compared to what our main competitors in Florida, Texas and North Carolina spend on their roads in addition to the greater amounts that those states are spending on and investing in transit.

    Georgia sorely needs to invest more in BOTH roads in transit, it’s called being MULTImodal, something that our main competitors in Florida, Texas and North Carolina seemed to have figured out long ago.Report

  6. SpaceyG on Twitter August 30, 2011 10:05 am

    Champions of failure. That seems to be the chief (only) strategy for the saboteurs… of progress. They need a slogan! How about… Moving Georgia Even More Backwards. Report

  7. jonsinton August 30, 2011 4:45 pm

    We have waited so many years for a reasonable, actionable approach to moving our regional transportation needs forward. So now that we have plan, the saboteurs show up, knives out. Shame on the weak kneed legislators and governor who don’t like progress, and shame on the Tea Party for being an accomplice in this effort to undermine the plan. They hate transit, they hate gas taxes, they even appear to hate the idea of giving all the voters an opportunity to weigh in at the general election.

    This is all made worse by the fact that we no longer have a credible newspaper, and two of our four TV stations are more compelled by chalk outlines and house fires than by civic issues that require a little more effort and attention span.

    Thanks, Maria. This is Pulitzer-worthy reporting!Report

  8. SpaceyG on Twitter August 30, 2011 9:48 pm

    In defense of the ATL TV news stations, which I monitor fairly regularly, for years, they ARE reporting regularly on the regional referendum/TSPLOST issue. Yes, you have to try to catch it, in a maddeningly random fashion on broadcast or online, whenever you can, between the live apartment fires (see Doug Richards) and road kill packages. But it’s there. Especially on WSB-TV and 11Alive/WXIA.

    If you follow the serious, important local/regional issues such as politics and transportation you learn to be on the lookout and be listening for the faces/voices who report on the *important* issues on a regular basis. But that is, of course, a laborious, labor-intensive, sometimes decades-long process of media, shall we say, “readiness.”

    I see media ops, though, within this laborious process for some entrepreneurial-minded type to consolidate/aggregate all the (sometimes quite good) ATL TV news content by subject matter. Such as the referendum/TSPLOST. And blast that out in a daily viewing, subscriber-oriented format.

    Wish I was that, er, entrepreneurial. The more people know, the more they can push-back on the anti-regional transportation progress types. If those kind can have instant clout and gravitas to change the speaker’s/governor’s mind at whim with a mere anti-tax-based whine then I’d hope that a better-informed electorate could do stuff like get out there and vote for desperately-needed progress. Report

  9. The Last Democrat in Georgia August 30, 2011 11:42 pm

    jonsinton, SpaceyG: I don’t know if we can really hang this one on the Tea Partiers. The Tea Partiers had agreed to support the movement of the referendum from the July 2012 GOP Primary to the November 2012 General Election, or at the very least not stand in the way of it if the legislators had agreed to require that all future SPLOST votes be held during the General Election wheh there is the most voter turnout.

    It was the legislators who seemed to get extremely “bladder shy”, so to speak when asked to act on this compromise as most of them didn’t seem to want to get in the way of the local special interests that feed on being to able to have these SPLOST votes at anytime during the year so that only the few people who are interested in their passage will be the ones to show up to vote for them.

    I really can’t call this sabotage, especially given the legislature’s long history of making decisions that are not usually carefully planned, well thought-out or particularly considerate of the gravity of a particular situation or simply put, as a collective body of lawmakers they are just not that bright and I don’t think that anyone will ever accuse them of being a bunch of brilliant genius with a high level of brain activity.

    Sorry, but I think that it was the usual, the Special Interest turf monster, that tripped us up on this one. Report

  10. drewbear1984 August 31, 2011 6:13 pm

    Why should there be a 1% tax on everything? I advocate that automobile users should pay for the roads they use and argue that the tax should not be applied to mass transit projects. Why not an additional 1 cent tax increase on a gallon of gasoline per month(excluding diesel), and cap the increase to 12 cents (~3 percent increase for average $3.56 gallon of gas in GA) in year 1. Based on GA driver population, average miles driven per driver, and average automobile MPG consumption, the revenue generated from this small increase would be over $244,000,000 in year one, and $489,000,000 a year thereafter.

    I’m sure that an increase will not halt our economy as drivers in Atlanta will still elect to drive whether the price per gallon is $3.56 or $3.67.

    Start playing with the numbers and it is scary how much money this idea generates. If you would like further calculations, please let me know. I am an advocate for this type of a tax increase in Georgia and I am sure that most Atlantans would be too. I am sick of the traffic and urban sprawl! Cheap gas prices promote both of those, remember that. Report

  11. UrbanTraveler August 31, 2011 6:56 pm

    The refrain is familiar and disappointing, but not very surprising. 1) Put referendum that takes broad support to pass and put the vote into an election cycle where narrow interests generally show up; 2) say you’ve let the voters decide and that they were against more taxes, against transit, and 3) at least we gave them the chance. I’ve lived here long enough that this isn’t the first time or the first issue I have seen play out this way.

    While it is not a foregone conclusion, defeat is far more likely in the July election than in November, and, having already killed commuter rail to Macon, for which there was a federal funding source and a willing partner in the NS railroad, the Governor will now assure that there is no funding for the projects that the region decided it needed. The entrenched interests against transit are quite skilled at assuring that measures like these get a lot of attention, sprout a bubble of hope, and then are scuttled at the last moment, only to leave a void that will then take yet more years to overcome. The hope now is that there can be a public campaign to get the voters out to end gridlock, and to educate them through the media. Can anyone step up and fund such a campaign?

    Perhaps those of us who live in the city need to look inward or wait for the second stimulus. One of the things I like about the Beltline and Streetcar projects is that they don’t require the legislature or the Governor to move forward, even though they are more difficult to fund without the state as a partner. Both projects are showing that they can move forward and achieve momentum in spite of the backwardness outside the metro area. Both will create the experience of different modes of transit, greater connectivity to MARTA, and greater opportunity of mobility for all. Report

  12. The Last Democrat in Georgia September 1, 2011 2:10 am


    Did you just say the words “Tax increase in Georgia”?

    I’m not saying that you have a bad idea, but with Conservatives and the Republican Party who do nothing but openly espouse the principles of cutting taxes as low as possible, firmly in control of virtually ALL of Georgia politics except a few local offices in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton Counties, and with the Tea Party firmly in control of the Republican Party, no politician in the ruling and dominating Georgia Republican Party would even dare suggest even the remote possibility of raising taxes by even one penny in a year, much less 12 cents, without risking their entire political career.

    The Tea Party is already throwing a huge conniption fit over the current proposed 1% TSPLOST that is likely dead in the water, their reaction over any additional increase in taxes would likely be one of Biblical proportions that would reverberate throughout the entire ruling Republican Party and all of Georgia politics.

    The Tea Party has made it clear that they oppose any new and additional taxes, no matter what the reason, that they think that existing taxes are enough to pay for transportation projects and that a political bounty will be put out on any Republican that supports a tax increase of any kind as the Tea Party will challenge them with a poltician who is even more conservative than they are or claim to be.Report

  13. The Last Democrat in Georgia September 1, 2011 2:28 am


    I can tell you for an absolute fact that you are not going to get any kind of tax increase from this bunch of legislators, who are facing pressure on the right from the Tea Party and as a collective bunch are only concerned about staying in power and gaining as much political power as they can for as long as they can.

    As long as the Tea Party is driving the bus, the concept of a tax increase is going to be even more radioactive than it was before, and it was pretty radioactive around these parts before the rise of the Tea Party.

    The only way that this state may ever be able to raise funds for transportation needs is through a perennial favorite of the legislature, which is through sneaky back door fee increases, if and only IF you can ever get the attention of a seemingly disinterested legislature who have proved time and again that transportation is an issue that seems to be far too complex for their very simple and small minds to solve with a well-thought out, carefully-crafted, nuanced solution.

    With this bunch in charge, I’m afraid that we are just going to accept that we are screwed when it comes to traffic and transportation planning as these idiots just don’t seem to be capable or have the basic intelligence to solve the problem.

    It’s going to take people being really, really angry at them before this problem gets the kind of attention and leadership it needs before the legislature is motivated to act and with one-party firmly in control with virtually no opposition to speak of, it may be awhile before we see any meaningful action on transportation. Report

  14. The Last Democrat in Georgia September 1, 2011 3:05 am


    As far as I am aware, the federal funding for the proposed Atlanta to Lovejoy commuter rail line is still available, it’s just that, of course, the state refused to take the lead in getting it built and operational and left it up to the cities, towns and counties along the route to come up with continued funding for the operation of the line.

    What makes it worse is that there is actually a strange internal battle going on in state government between multiple factions involving those who want rail to be apart of the soultion, those who want toll roads to be apart of the solution, those who want grandiose pie-in-the-sky projects like road tunnels under the city, those who want tolled managed lanes to be the panacea for all the state’s traffic problems and those who want to keep the status quo of building a few new four and five-lane roads in South Georgia and otherwise doing whatever they want with public funds.

    It is particularly a very strange time over at the perennially-troubled Georgia Department of Transportation where Commissioner Vance Smith doesn’t quite have the full faith and backing of the competent faction of the board (the incompetent and unethical part of the board has no qualms about his “leadership” as having an imcompetent leader allows the status quo to stay in place so that they can continue to do whatever they want, especially in regards to lack of accountability, “misplacement” of funds, cronyism, etc).Report

  15. SpaceyG on Twitter September 1, 2011 8:38 am

    @UrbanTraveler I think we will see funds from various orgs free-up for just what you’re proposing here, UrbanT. I chatted briefly with someone in the Mayor’s office who’s overseeing all this at City Hall, and he/she seemed to think that would happen in a few months or so. 2012.

    It’s gonna take a village, a media campaign (a sophisticated, clever one too, not just the same, tired old media approach/shtick of buying some ads on local TV that will only be seen at the senior high-rise, in other words), and a lot of metro-wide cheerleading… from both sides of the aisle.

    Yes, all things not often found in GA. Report

  16. leedart September 5, 2011 1:49 pm

    @UrbanTraveler Just like you I am not surprised with the state position. I hope that people will remember the state needs when these back woods folks come to town and tear all of the local city controlled streets up so that they cannot get around! And while were on it, why not grass roots all the local eateries that serve these guys to make them feel “extra” welcome to the city! Give them the same dish they serve us, the people of the city……….Report

  17. Shipping Agents January 7, 2013 7:10 am

    I hope the Officials should consider the state affairs and its need in the first priority rather than fight to delay the resolution date to halt it from taking the final decision, it is a case with every political parties who oppose to certain projects, they always try and make some things to interrupt the decisions on the project.
    Let us hope that every thing goes in the favor of the state and it does not suffer from economic and competitive disasterReport


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