Regrettably, it has come to this.
Debbie Dooley and I have worked closely together on issues in the past. Some of these times have been public. Other times have been more behind the scenes. She has many critics. Anyone trying to do anything in politics will have them. Anyone who doesn’t likely isn’t getting much done. I give her tremendous credit for what she’s accomplished. There were no training classes offered on “how to start the TEA Party”. She was in the right place at the right time, saw the need, and has filled it. You can argue about a lot of things, but you can’t ignore the TEA Party’s effect on national and Georgia politics since 2010.
Debbie is a TEA Party leader. One of the things conservatives and especially TEA Party members demand is accountability. Today, I’m asking for some of that from Debbie.
One year ago, I launched PolicyBEST as a public policy advocacy group to focus political debate around issues of Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. Our initial press conference included Debbie, along with members of the Sierra Club and the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. We presented a list of items we agreed to as common ground to start a discussion of transportation funding increases. It was the result of many informal discussions and more formal sit down meetings. We knew the list to be inadequate. It was designed to start a process, not to be a complete one. We all knew at the time that the conclusion was likely to be for significantly more funds than out outline called for. Tax increases, while not mentioned in our plan, were on the table.
The goal was to have a public discussion, which meant that a high level and serious study committee could be the conduit between the end of session and the next. Ultimately, this was achieved. 8 meetings were held around the state. I went to most of them. I don’t recall Debbie participating, though it’s possible she did. The point here, is that much data was discussed and disseminated. The need was quantified. Specific options have been put on the table. And now the House has led with a proposal. Debbie, unfortunately, has since only proven her worst critics correct. She is clearly prepared to oppose everything, even when her own demands are incorporated into legislation.
Let’s go ALL THE WAY BACK to November 11th, 2014. It may be hard for some of us to remember what we said less than 3 months ago, but if you are a leader and hoping to shape public policy, it’s not unreasonable to expect consistency from Veterans’ Day to the introduction of the first serious bill on a topic. Here’s what Debbie said on that day:
“…Start with giving the 12.2 cents to transportation and think about distance ridden transit fees, think about a toll road expressway that completely goes through the metro Atlanta area without exits, etc. Start small and prove to tax payers you can be responsible with the projects ..”
This – the part about the 12.2 cents and not the part about the “small” new toll road built thru the middle of Atlanta funded by private money and the tears of unicorns – is exactly what the House bill does. This is not an insignificant point, as the members and leaders of the general assembly, in both parties, have been working hard to find a solution that meets the need while maintains as much public and political consensus as possible. Frankly, I’m aware of even more of them than usual have been reading our comments section on transportation topics to gage strengths and weaknesses of proposals. A TEA Party leader laying down this kind of marker matters.
Well, to others, maybe. But apparently not to Debbie. This is how she characterized using these same funds within hours of her directive being publicly released as the basis for the House bill:
“There is a billion dollars surplus that is projected that is being spent on education and other items and not on transportation. I agree education is important and that is why I find it so ironic the House Republican Plan cuts needed funding from local school boards. House Republicans first impulse is to tax-not cut.”
On Facebook, she phrased it this way:
“Since Georgia is projected to have an almost billion dollar surplus in 2016 or 2017, why isn’t that surplus being allocated for transportation instead of raising taxes on gas? Elected officials and those closely aligned with Georgia Chamber of Commerce and spouting their talking points will say that money is going to education and other needs. I am amazed they have the nerve to say that considering the House Transportation Plan actually takes money away from local school boards and local governments. Elected officials should not be given more tax dollars until they have proven they can be trusted with the money they currently have. The House Republicans haven’t talked about cuts or not allocating money to the Falcons stadium or reforms to the corporate tax credit structure. They just want to reach into your pocketbook and take more of your money to create a giant slush fund to spend more unwisely.” (emphasis added)
Taking the money she demanded we start with in November is now derided as a cut to local governments and local school boards. Even in the same answer, Debbie wants to eliminate the state’s education budget increase (apparently oblivious that this money is almost a direct pass through to local school boards) while decrying the local school system’s losses due to the proposal to end their ability to tax gasoline.
More importantly, the above was actually a re-post. Her initial question (as is just Debbie’s custom) was a question designed to instill doubt and distrust in any proposal among those who follow her. It merely asked “Since Georgia is projected to have an almost billion dollar surplus in 2016 or 2017, why isn’t that surplus being allocated for transportation instead of raising taxes on gas?”
I posted my own response, which included “…Georgia’s year over year mandatory spending (think entitlements) grew $700M last year, and the Governor has recommended $280M for additional education spending to end furloughs and return schools to a 180 day school year. There is no “surplus”.” My comment was immediately removed and I was blocked by Debbie, with her reposting the longer answer about those who would spout the Chamber’s talking points added. This is apparently passes for a public debate from this “leader”. (As an aside, if anyone wants more background on this non-surplus, I wrote a column about it here. It’s easy to find information if you’re just willing to look for it and/or ask anyone that works in the budget process.)
One year ago, Debbie told Martha Zoeller and Tim Bryant “activists are excited to be at the table”. Today, she shuns everyone at the table as “chamber aligned”. One year ago, Debbie was setting the table for what was coming by noting “…eveyone assumed that the Tea Party is just against any tax increase.” She now calls a House plan that preserves the average amount raised over the past four years as a tax increase. One year ago and three months ago she spoke and wrote of the need to take taxes on gasoline and apply them to education. Today, she suggests the state not send money to local school systems that will restore austerity cuts, but is troubled that the local governments may not be able to tax gasoline in future ESPLOSTs.
Leaders lead. To lead in any specific and purposeful direction, consistency is required. And to be constructive in any meaningful way, a leader must also make some attempt at learning facts, not posing questions that fit a narrative with total disregard to the easily discernible truths.
On this issue Debbie had the opportunity to help lead. Instead, she has chosen the disappointing but marketable path of obstruction.
I had hoped for better. I was warned of what is now the reality. The disappointment is real. The effects are quite tangible.
Those of us who have worked for change in how the GOP governs have come from many backgrounds. Our efforts have taken many forms. The definitions of “insider”, “establishment”, “activist”, and other words have blurred. We’ve elected a large number of Tea Party, liberty minded, and other independent thinking GOPers since 2010. The Senate alone has 30 of 38 Republicans elected since the TEA Party election of 2010. We don’t just have a seat at the table, we’re in a position to lead. Leadership is required.
We have a responsibility to govern. This means making hard choices. This means taking consistent positions. Above all, this means being “for” something – and sticking to it when the inevitable criticism and skepticism creeps into the debate. Let’s be clear – no public policy should ever be adopted without healthy debate, vetting, and careful evaluation of the criticism that arises. We should remain an equal part of this vetting while we propose conservative solutions. It’s how we’ll make sure we end up with the best proposals with the fewest unintended consequences.
We cannot afford to squander the seat at this table by arguing against everything – even positions we demanded just a couple of months ago. It confuses both activists and our elected officials – many of whom now reflect our values – when they need our support.
We as conservative activists must decide if we want to influence the laws and policies as they are passed, or if we want a permanent seat on the sidelines. We need not give those in the traditional seats of power reasons to ignore us. And that is exactly what my friend, the leader, has spent much of the last year doing.