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August 01, 2012 10:00 AM A Big “No!” In Georgia

By Ed Kilgore

Though it was overshadowed nationally by the Texas Senate runoff, Georgia held its primary elections yesterday. But the elected-official campaigns (including two highly competitive GOP congressional primaries which produced runoffs) were almost entirely eclipsed—and were in some cases affected—by a complex set of regional transportation sales tax referenda that mostly went down to resounding defeat.

The so-called TSPLOST (for Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) referenda were the unwanted child of a state desperately in need of transportation money (particularly in the famously gridlocked metro Atlanta area) and a Republican-controlled legislature unwilling to increase taxes for any purpose (other than maybe to raise income tax rates for poor people, as it did in 2011). In a scheme engineered by former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, the legislature authorized twelve regional votes to self-impose a temporary penny sales tax dedicated to a list of specific transportation projects agreed to by local elected officials.

Even though the “Yes on TSPLOST” campaign was backed by current GOP Gov. Nathan Deal and other GOP leaders, and by most prominent Georgia Democrats (most notably Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and former Gov. Roy Barnes), not to mention virtually every business group in the state (who paid for a lavish and virtually unopposed $8 million ad budget) it went down to flaming defeat in nine of the 12 regions, including Atlanta, where it lost by a 63-37 margin. The regions encompassing the mid-sized cities of Augusta and Columbus did narrowly approve TSPLOST, but it was mostly just a disaster.

The results in Atlanta exhibited a rare liberal/Tea Party coalition, with the Tea Folk opposing the referendum vociferously (some on grounds that it would foster the communistic idea of “planning”, and some on the quasi-racial grounds that expansion of rail service would boost crime in the suburbs) while the Sierra Club and the NAACP rejected it late in the campaign for diametrically opposed reasons (not enough emphasis on rail and/or the regressive nature of sales taxes).

The net effect of the referenda beyond very bad publicity for Atlanta will be to give Gov. Deal a lot of centralized control over transportation projects in the state. But more generally, it showed the continuing price Republican pols in many parts of the country are paying for their relationship with the Tea Folk, whom they alternately pander to and then ignore. You can’t endlessly demagogue about taxes and Big Government and the urban “looters” seeking to despoil virtuous middle-class suburbanites and then turn around and expect said suburbanites to support sensible regional transportation policies. The TSPLOST vote gave Georgia Tea Folk the opportunity to simultaneously stick it to cowardly GOP leaders, the minority-dominated City of Atlanta, and untrustworthy business leaders (who should have been out there creating jobs instead of asking for tax dollars), and they took it with both hands.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Hedda Peraz on August 01, 2012 10:05 AM:

    "At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation, and prejudice" - Gore Vidal

  • David in NY on August 01, 2012 10:09 AM:

    Nice, Hedda.

  • Rich on August 01, 2012 10:15 AM:

    For decades, Atlanta has become unsustainable--the traffic, the inadequate water supply (in a humid climate that oddly suffers from droughts), the horrible air, and the stnted social and cultural institutions. Yet, it still managed to filter out and believe it's own propaganda. Defeat of the sales tax really seals that. The limited benefit for MARTA would have been the only reason to vote for it. The best thing for Atlanta (where I lived long enough to fully appreciate it its small time ludicrousness as a city) is for it to fall apart on its own decrepitude.

  • Peter C on August 01, 2012 10:29 AM:

    The rampant ignorance and gingoistic shallow thinking - they were unleashed by the Republican party and they are running wild.

  • jpeckjr on August 01, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Solving a public problem is not in the best interest of any interest group of any kind. How can you raise money for yourselves if the problem you are organized to complain about is solved?

  • Ron Byers on August 01, 2012 10:34 AM:

    I sometimes have to drive through Atlanta on my way to Florida. I always plan my transit through the city at sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 AM. Otherwise you are stuck in horrendous gridlock for hours. I wonder how the citizens of Atlanta feel about living in a city that is not friendly to humans?

  • c u n d gulag on August 01, 2012 10:53 AM:

    At a time we need to be building more mass transportation, the Red States are dooming their populations to staying in cars - all of this as gas prices will continue to rise, the roads and bridges continue to fall apart, and less and less people will be able to afford new cars.

    "We don't need no European or Asian mass transportation!"

    We're "exceptionaling" ourselves into being a 2nd rate Banana Republic - if we're not one now.

    I wish I had the contract to build 'hitching posts' down South.
    They'll need them in a few decades.

  • boatboy_srq on August 01, 2012 11:07 AM:

    @Ron Byers: here's one former snowbird that learned very early to bypass Atlanta completely, and zig over to I-95 around Charleston, as a way of evading the entire mess. FYI if you take US 301 just north of the GA/FL state line you can also bypass the only-marginally-less-bad Jacksonville traffic as well.

    ---------------------------------------------------------

    This is the Congressional "sequestration" headache in a nutshell. I'd be quite willing to bet that the Teahad would have as much trouble with the costs of a CVN, or the F-35's second power plant option, as they did with GA transportation, if they got a good look at the numbers. It's easy to say "we need to support the troops" until you learn what the specific costs for that are ("it costs HOW many billion dollars?"), and which interests are behind those statements ("we're buying jet engines from Rolls Royce??!?"). Dollars to doughnuts, if the GOTea came clean on how much the DoD gets now, the Teahad would be happy to go along with sequestration, since they don't want to pay for any more carriers, esoteric missile programs or redundant weapons/delivery systems any more than they do for anything else.

    For the rest, we need to keep making the statement: you can pay a tax and get better transportation, or you can keep paying Big Oil to sit in traffic; either way the money goes somewhere, and if you're b####ing about gas prices it's your own fault.

    Captcha: ntoostsi thick.

  • bluestatedon on August 01, 2012 11:16 AM:

    "I wish I had the contract to build 'hitching posts' down South.
    They'll need them in a few decades."

    I wish I had the contract to operate the "bring out yer dead" wagons a couple of decades after that. Not only are the teabaggers and their GOP enablers opposed to sensible infrastructure expenditures that contribute to clean water and air in general, they're also opposed to sensible initiatives that directly affect public health, like vaccination programs, easily obtainable and affordable medical care, reproductive health care for women, and preventive health care for children. The dramatic rise in whooping cough in Washington state is just a preview of the wonderful things to come, courtesy of the GOP and its minions.

  • James E. Powell on August 01, 2012 11:50 AM:

    The fact that businesses spent money trying to get this public works bill passed seems like a pretty effective refutation of the right-wing complaints about 'you didn't build that.'

    I expect the moment to pass without any right-wingers acknowledging this.

  • Vote no Tsplost on August 01, 2012 11:51 AM:

    For those speaking above, that don't live in Ga. The NO win, and I worked hard to defeat it, came down to the state not having a backbone to double the fuel tax. Making children and grandma pay 1% more for candy and ensure...The 1% sales tax would have cost me $300 a year on fixed income, double fuel tax would only cost me $75. That's it, it should stay a user tax. Let the 80,000# trucks pay for the road repairs you see every 50' in right lane of Interstate Hwy.

  • Mike on August 01, 2012 12:05 PM:

    Definitely a sad day for Atlanta, the most dysfunctional place I have ever lived. I really think Republicans are driving this state into the ground.

    People hate taxes down here, and people hate government as well. Some of that is media driven because the media is driven by conservatives down here, and they constantly champion lower taxes and the hatred of government. About the only thing they can all agree on is that we should all be able to carry guns everywhere.

    So I don't know how things can ever improve down here. MARTA is falling apart by the day, but even if we tried to build a better mass transit system down here, people hate mass transit. There is such a negative stigma to taking mass transit and it's so pathetic. The idea that it's only for poor, black people so they can commit crimes is so sad and again it's mostly media driven.

    The other issue is that people who live in Fulton and DeKalb would've been taxed extra to pay for this. We already pay a penny tax for MARTA, but anyone who doesn't live in Fulton or DeKalb doesn't pay into MARTA. So I'm being asked to pay for TSPLOST and pay for projects in the suburbs, but no one in the suburbs will pay for MARTA? What a joke.

  • CharlieM on August 01, 2012 12:09 PM:


    I have no doubt this would have passed had there been *no* money for MARTA involved.
    The suburblican counties have operated the past 40 years on a NO MARTA IMBY mentality.

    I opposed it - for the same reason the Sierra Club did. It didn't do enough for public transit (though unlike those lackwits at the Sierra Club, I'm not in favor of changing the gas tax to a straight sales tax). Up the gas tax (if you really want to just keep sitting in your single occupancy vehicle on I-85) and allocate some of it for MARTA so while suburblicans are choking on their fumes, *someone* at least, can be building an effective transportation system.

    Unfortunately we are seriouisly infected with TeaTardness here in GA. If it has the word *Tax* associated with it or if there is the slightest chance that the proceeds will go towards making the lives of "the other" better...well.....it ain't going to pass.

  • jjdaddyo on August 01, 2012 12:46 PM:

    As a resident of Savannah, GA, and a progressive/liberal, I voted against TSPLOST, even though there were some projects on our region's list (the sate was divided into 12 regions for the purposes of voting on the tax and funding individual projects) that I would have liked to see funded (including some substantial mass transit, which this area desperately needs).
    Among my reasons: sales tax is regressive and this state has way too many poor people to be adding more tax to their bills; I don't trust the State's Atlanta-centric power structure to follow through on the plan, the State budget is too tight and the legislature too malleable to trust with long term projects, in my opinion.
    I lived in ATL for a few years in the early '90s, when the Northern suburbs were exploding, and the traffic was going crazy then. For the last 20 years, the DOTs answer for everything is "if we just add a few more roads/lanes all this traffic will vanish". This is still their default answer, in addition to the "if you don't want more roads, you will kill growth".
    As far as our "post-racial society" or "The City Too Busy to Hate", bullshit. The same arguments that were made against expanding MARTA out to the NW and NE suburbs in 1990 ("It will bring crime" (translation: "it will bring black people")) are being used today. According to an Atlanta Journal poll in the last few years, 40% or more of Atlanta-area residents still believe that mass transit brings crime.
    If you want to fund roads, let's have a gas tax, but I have no hope that the Republicans and non-urban dwellers in this State will EVER fund mass transit.

  • TCinLA on August 01, 2012 12:52 PM:

    Is there even a collective positive number IQ among white people in Georgia?

  • glendenb on August 01, 2012 1:49 PM:

    I may be misremembering but weren't the teabaggers claiming TSPLOST was part of a UN plot to take over America by way of bike paths and mass transit? Is anyone surprised it went down to brutal defeat?

    I've visited Atlanta, I have friends who live there. I'd rather drive in Los Angeles. It's a complete nightmare of gridlock and absolutely no central planning. It's chaos theory in action without the attendant emergence of any kind of order.

  • boatboy_srq on August 01, 2012 10:28 PM:

    @Vote no Tsplost:

    Enough with the "y'all don't know whacher talkin' about." There are plenty of us here who, while we may not live in GA, still have friends or family there and know what's going on.

    There's no arguing that the (seriously regressive) sales tax was a lousy idea. Killing it, in a vacuum, isn't a bad thing.

    But you've also elected a legislature that won't go for a gas tax, use tax, corporate income tax, or actually any tax to pay for the improvements, so there aren't many more places to go for the funds. And you've sent to the governor's mansion a nitwit that thinks it's better to drive out Teh Illegals than to harvest the state's crops. Those are YOUR state officials, put in office by YOUR votes. Whatever is happening in GA you did to yourselves. Whinging about "the state" isn't any better than what the Reichwing has to say about "big gubmint."

    You dodged a bullet in the sales tax hike. Yahoo. You've already nuked yourselves fiscally in the Teahad, so the extra lead doesn't matter. You'll forgive us if we're not especially sympathetic. If you want us to sit up and take notice, organize and vote for leadership that'll pay for what you need and assess the fees where it's more appropriate - or get out while you can and go somewhere wingnuttery is a minor social ill and not an epidemic.

    Take it from someone who left FL rather than pay another dime to Tallahassee for their wingnut ways (among other reasons).

  • matt christian on August 02, 2012 2:09 PM:

    As a resident of Atlanta I found your article delightfully condescending. While I know to someone who takes the smooth ride on the beltway every day it is hard to imagine how a city whose population exceeded its woefully inept city planning and tax base could find itself in this situation, but here we are. Making the T-SPLOST vote an allegory for the Tea Party ceding control from the, how would you put it, "quasi-communistic" city maintenance and planning folks is an unfortunate and tone deaf depiction. First, if you think 67% of Fulton and Dekalb County's (what comprises the majority of the Metro Atlanta voting region) are bastions of Tea Party grass roots mobilization you must have only visited our airport lounges. Second, and most importantly, the vote went down primarily because Atlanta Municipal government is a open sewer where money gets poured in and almost never is accounted for. Most people I know would have been much more inclined to vote for the TSPLOST referendum if an accounting of current expenditures and waste would have preceded the campaign. If it did, it was never public. And that is how Atlanta government works, pour more money in to a fatally flawed system and hope for the best. People in Atlanta, Liberal and Conservative and Extremes on both sides voted down this initiative. Please, please try not to give the Tea Party any more traction by giving them this win even if they want to claim victory. They didn't defeat the bill, the people of Atlanta did. The ethos of this piece is akin to Limbaugh saying the Sierra Club won.