Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The games have resumed.
No, not the Olympics. Those are serving as a nice aside and distraction these days. We’re talking about the inevitable games that arise after voters overwhelmingly defeat proposals at the ballot box.
The problem for legislators in the aftermath of T-SPLOST is that the problem isn’t solved, voters are angry and paying attention, and only now are they also learning about a program called LARP (Local Assistance Road Program) and the penalties contained in the regional sales tax referendum legislation that take away local funding from the state for road projects in regions that did not pass the tax.
Legislators, remember, ran away from the T-SPLOST referendum during the run up to their own primaries saying only “I voted to give the citizens a choice”. They were mostly silent on the fact that the choice was to increase their own taxes or to face still penalties from the state in the form of less of the current money for local projects.
Three regions passed the tax, and face no penalties but higher sales taxes. The rest of Georgia did not. They are scheduled to see their LARP funds cut. But legislators now are scrambling to assure their voters in the areas where the T-SPLOST failed that the issue will be revisited during the next session of the Georgia General Assembly.
Voters in the three central Georgia regions who passed the tax are not happy that they followed the “rules” and are now stuck with a tax. Meanwhile those in the seats of political power are now planning to direct funding to areas who voted with a resounding no and paper over the penalties with new legislation absolving themselves of culpability.
Governor Deal has already stated that he will prioritize which projects are funded across the state, beginning with the interchange of I-285 and Georgia 400 in Sandy Springs. Deal had previously sought to quell an uprising among Cobb and Cherokee County voters by shifting a significant amount of funding to additional lanes on I-75 and I-575. Clearly, the northern Atlanta suburbs will get traffic funding, despite the area’s voters overwhelming rejecting T-SPLOST. It is where the demonstrated need is, but it is not likely to sit well with those stuck with a new tax to pay for improvements that other areas will receive at no additional cost.
The penalties give the do-nothing legislature a chance to own this issue for a third straight election cycle without actually doing anything constructive on transportation or congestion. In 2010, T-SPLOST was hurriedly crafted and passed as an admittedly flawed bill, knowing there would be plenty of time for a new Governor and General Assembly to fix it or replace it. It was sufficient to get through the 2010 election without being tagged by opponents as having done nothing for transportation.
With 2010’s election results demonstrating that the Republican super-majority was for real, there was no motivation to risk political capital to solve the uncomfortable problems within the bill such as the equitable split between MARTA counties and non-MARTA counties in Atlanta, the differing penalties for LARP funds across regions, or to fix the known problems within the GA DOT and the proliferating agencies like SRTA, GRTA, the ARC, and others who have various fingers in traffic planning.
As such, many legislators that created the bill in 2010 ran against it in 2012 if they drew primary opposition. They now look to their next re-election and are starting out of the gate wanting to remove the LARP penalties. The ones that they created back in 2010.
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, whose body created the regional approach for the 2010 bill and was an ex-officio member of the group that picked the Atlanta region’s project list campaigned heavily against the T-SPLOST in Atlanta. He is now telling every television camera he can find that he will take the lead in removing the LARP penalty. As to why it was in the legislation to begin with, he states “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
This isn’t leadership. This is just another round of the game.
Legislators are now preparing to spend the upcoming session of the General Assembly undoing what was done to secure their own elections in 2010. In the process, voters of middle Georgia will face higher taxes for projects that they will pay for, while voters that played the game along with their legislators will get priority for projects from existing tax revenues.
This is how the game is played now in Georgia. Non-suburban Atlanta voters need to learn the rules. Meanwhile those of us looking for actual traffic solutions should probably accept the fact that games will continue to take precedent over actual solutions.