Colorado politicians, consultant share ideas on metro Atlanta’s 2012 transportation sales tax vote

By David Pendered

The Colorado governor headlined an entourage that met Friday with local elected officials who are working to win passage of a 1-percent sales tax to pay for road and transit projects.

The Denver delegation advised their Atlanta-area counterparts to run a transparent process, educate voters, and campaign with persistence. They said that was their formula for success with a 2004 transportation sales tax referendum.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper predicted metro Atlanta voters will approve the proposed sales tax by a 55-45 margin.

Highlights of the comments from the Colorado group include:

  • “The mayor of your core city has to be the leader,” said Ed Tauer, mayor of Aurora.
  • “Make sure all the officials know this [sales tax] has an economic development component, and that this is an investment, not a tax,” said Jack Hilbert, commissioner of Jefferson County.
  • “We did exceedingly well in Republican areas where we have affluent people who never thought they would use [transit], but thought there would be more room on the road for them,” said Maria Garcia Berry, CEO of CRL Associates, Inc.  She served as chair of Denver’s successful 2004 sales tax campaign.

The event at the Georgia Tech Conference Center was attended by 10 of the 21 local elected officials who serve on the Regional Transportation Roundtable. The audience of no more than 50 included at least a dozen engineers, planners and others involved in the process.

Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who chairs the Regional Roundtable, said he was disappointed in the sparse audience. He did say the elected officials who serve on the board came if they could, but were given just a few weeks’ notice of the meeting.

Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell contemplated the turnout at the event and the recommendation from Denver crowd that local leaders reach out to average citizens. Bell said the local outreach program must be improved.

“All the citizens do not trust us, because we are so busy about power and process that we sometimes leave them out,” Bell said. “I do not want to leave the citizens out.”

Johnson said one outreach program is now being developed, a series of telephonic town halls. The idea is to have robo-calls go out and have recipients state a question that an elected official would answer.

Johnson said he was heartened by Hickenlooper’s prediction of success.

“Here’s a person who was the mayor of Denver who went through it when they passed their referendum, who now is governor of Colorado, and for him to make that prediction is a pretty powerful statement,” Johnson said.

Hickenlooper is a fresh political face in Colorado. His biography says he never ran for public office until he ran for Denver mayor and was elected. As mayor, he campaigned hard for the successful 2004 sales tax that is paying for regional transportation improvements.

“Your timing might be perfect,” Hickenlooper said of the July 2012 vote in metro Atlanta on the proposed sales tax.

“Things still aren’t good yet, things aren’t humming and people are still worried about jobs,” the governor said. “But the notion is to build an infrastructure that will lead to the future and make the next recession not so bad.”

Elizabeth Poythress said the League of Women Voters, Georgia chapter, wants to help promote voter education across the state on the issue of the sales tax.

Poythress was elected president of the Georgia chapter earlier this month. Her husband, David Poythress, ran unsuccessfully for governor in last year’s Democratic primary election.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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