Today’s Courier Herald Column.
In the waning days of the 2010 session of the Georgia General Assembly, a compromise transportation bill was passed which called for the state to be divided into 12 regions, with each to consider a referendum for a 1% sales tax to fund local transportation projects. The plan passed many big decisions to a new governor and allowed members of the general assembly to run for re-election without the charge that they had once again refused to make progress on one of the major issues facing the state.
A little over one year later and one year before the planned referendums, state leaders are starting to acknowledge that the votes for the state’s largest region may be in trouble. The 10 core counties comprising the Atlanta Regional Commission are sharply divided over the current funding model for regional transit, with citizens of Fulton and DeKalb county seeking equity for the additional 1% they currently pay for MARTA. Outlying counties generally view any additional tax with great suspicion and disdain, and aren’t inclined to shift their transportation dollars to support a transit system that many of their residents oppose.
A recent poll suggests that as few as 30 percent of the Atlanta region’s voters approve of the plan in its current form. Other regions across the state are also somewhat cool to the idea. State leaders are growing more concerned by the day over the fate of the plan, with transportation funding and appropriation to be added to the Governor’s call for the special session which will convene August 15th to address re-districting.
The referendums are currently scheduled for July 2012, corresponding with the partisan primaries for the 2012 elections. The current fear is that these contests, especially in the Atlanta region, will be dominated by Republicans who will be anti-tax, with Democrats likely to have few contested battles with which to drive presumably pro-referendum voters to the polls. A bill to move these referendums to November 2012, when President Obama will be on the ballot and driving Democratic turnout, is now viewed as a virtual certainty.
Adding legislation to the special session which would move the referendum is an attempt assist the likelihood of passage by changing the rules before the ground game has begun. This would avoiding the appearance of trying game the system during the 2012 regular session, when the campaign to pass the referendums will be in full swing and presumably, average voters have begun to pay attention to such things.
Behind the scenes, however, another threat to the bill as it stands is beginning to be understood. The funding allocation for state transportation dollars is changed for regions which do not choose to pass referendums, punishing them by withholding a share of state transportation dollars. Current state law mandates transportation dollars to be divided equally between congressional districts. By the time these resolutions are voted upon, Georgia will have 14 districts, but only 12 transportation regions. Obviously, they do not overlap. State leaders are expecting a constitutional challenge presuming any region passes a TSPLOST, thus withholding transportation dollars from those which do not.
A memo was circulated last year by various members of the transportation community which questioned the legality of regional transportation funding (likely for the purpose of advancing their own preferred alternatives). Powerful road building interests are believed to be associated with the memo, adding to the political and legal power behind a challenge to the existing law.
State leaders were recently stung by the State Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the State Charter Schools Commission, reversing several years of education policy and throwing thousands of students and parents into educational limbo. Fear is now growing that a similar result after November 2012 votes on transportation initiatives would set back much needed and delayed infrastructure improvements even further. Presuming successful injunctions and time for a Supreme Court decision, projects approved on November 2012 ballots may not be green lit for funding until 2014 or later. Were the decision of this court battle to go against the state, any legislative correction and implementation could push current projects into the next decade.
State leaders need to recognize that the 2010 transportation initiative was a way for an exiting governor and timid legislature to kick the problem down an unfunded road. Georgia has a new Governor and Atlanta has a new mayor. While it would require significant political capital, the two should consider an entire re-work of the current plan. The risk of failure of the current initiative is great. The cost of failure and continued delay is even greater.