A Big “No!” In Georgia

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

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.