By Maria Saporta
The campaign team charged with getting the one-cent regional transportation sales tax passed in the summer of 2012 has been selected.
Imagine the transportation tax referendum as a candidate. About 70 Atlanta and Georgia organizations — known as the First Friday Transportation Forum — have hired professional consultants to make sure their candidate gets elected.
It was decided that two different skills were needed. First, they sought proposals from firms that would be responsible for polling likely voters in the region to see what would be most likely to pass.
Ten firms presented proposals to conduct the polling work, and the firm of Auburn, Al.-based Hill Research Consultants, led by David B. Hill, was selected. Hill has been conducting polls for Republican candidates for the past 25 years. He also has polled for more than 100 successful ballot measures.
The group also sought to hire a general consultant/campaign manager to set the strategy and hire a campaign staff that is supposed to be diverse, bipartisan and local.
Proposals from 21 consulting firms were evaluated, and the Glenn Totten, president of Totten Communications of Alexandria, Va. was selected. Totten has been the campaign manager for a host of winning ballot initiatives, including transportation measures in Phoenix, St. Louis and Minnesota.
A third firm also has been selected — Paul Bennecke, principal of Marietta-based Red Clay Strategies to help work on the campaign. Bennecke served as the deputy executive director of e Republican Governors Association. He also served as executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, and he was the political director for Republican gubernatorial candidate — Sonny Perdue — in 2002.
So now that the campaign team is in place, the real work will begin. First, there will be polling done to see what kind of projects would have the greatest voter appeal.
Hill said the polling will to identify the projects that are least and most appealing to voters.
That information will be submitted to the Atlanta Regional Roundtable, which will be selecting the projects that will be on the referendum. The roundtable will be putting together the project list this October.
But Hill said that the polling and the campaign will focus more on general categories rather than pushing individual projects. Team members were reluctant to say whether they would suggest certain percentages for roads or transit projects.
“You sell a solution to a problem,” Hill said.
One of the quirks on the referendum election now scheduled for July 31 is that Hill is expecting that most of the likely voters will be in the suburban parts of the region because those are areas that are expected to have more active political races.
“This will not be a referendum of all the people in Atlanta,” Hill said. “There will be a lot more contested primaries outside of (Fulton and DeKalb) counties.”
That reality could alter the kind of projects that will be on the project list. Conventional wisdom would say that suburban counties would be more likely to embrace road projects over transit projects. But Hill said it’s too early to tell. “You could get a very odd turn-out,” he said.
Renay Blumenthal, senior vice president of public policy for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, estimated that the total campaign likely will cost $6 million or more. The team also will try to find a unique name for the campaign to make it easier to sell than calling it a T-Splost or as regional transportation sales tax referendum.
If passed, the tax is expected to raise about $8 billion for transportation over the bill’s 10-year life span.
The campaign team understand that it will be an uphill battle to get it passed.
“Challenging — it’s a challenging ballot issue for a number of reasons,” Glenn Totten said. “It is a complex issue with people asking – ‘What am I going to get?’ or ‘What is my county going to get?’”
Totten said a profile of likely voters is expected to “skew” to the surrounding suburban areas — usually not considered to be pro-tax areas.
“We have a substantial job to do,” he said.
But Totten is not deterred.
“I thrive on tough races,” said Totten, adding that he’s only lost one referendum campaign so far. “There are so many people in agreement here. This is a major economic development challenge for this region. And this is a very important race to our firm.”