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Tag fee cut helped launch Talmadge

POSTED: June 8, 2008 5:01 a.m.
The recent Georgia Legislature's fussing about car tags revives memories of other tussles that became election campaign topics.

And this past session appears to be much of that: fueling fodder for candidates at the ballot box, whether it be this year's legislative and local races or future statewide campaigns.

Some wanted to eliminate the vehicle tax that happens when you buy your license tags. Some wanted to attach a $10 fee to the tag to upgrade statewide trauma care. Neither happened.

Because so many people own vehicles and have to have licenses for them, tags come close to home as a pocketbook issue. Recall the hassles over purchasing tags, which once meant long lines at offices that sell them. Finally, somebody thought of staggering the tag sales according to the vehicle owner's birthday, and that brought about some order.

While car tags aren't up there with traffic congestion, education, environment and water supply as the most crucial issues the state must confront, they resonate with a lot of people. Ole Gene Talmadge knew what issues turned people on, and car tags were one of them when he ran for governor in 1932. He promised the voters he would cut the price of tags to $3 when most vehicle owners were paying $5 to $10. Truckers were shelling out as much as $1,000 though, and the candidate felt their pain.

After the election, Talmadge began to implement his program. But the car tag plan didn't sit well with the Motor Vehicles Division. The Public Service Commission and the highway department at that time also had some say in the matter, and they refused to cooperate, too.

That so incensed Ole Gene he declared martial law and had armed troopers remove his opponents from their offices.

His over-the-top action on vehicle tags was one of the biggest reasons voters re-elected him, some historians say. One wouldn't think a flap over car tag fees would warrant the calling out of troops, but Gene's supporters appreciated his going to war for them.

In his second term, Gov. Talmadge threw out the comptroller general and state treasurer because they refused to disburse funds based on the previous budget when the legislature failed to approve a new one. That legislative session became so heated a fist fight broke out between a Talmadge opponent and a supporter on the floor of the House.

The governor broke into the treasurer's vault to get state bonds, but they weren't there. The case went to the Supreme Court, but four of the six justices recused themselves for conflicts of interest. That allowed Gov. Talmadge to replace them, so once again he prevailed.

Believing the tag issue was so popular, Talmadge ran for the U.S. Senate in 1936 on a promise to cut the price of postage stamps from 3 cents to 2 cents. But his opposition to President Roosevelt's New Deal, did him in. Neither did it help that his opponent was the revered Sen. Richard Russell of Winder.

Talmadge's final hurrah led to the infamous three-governor controversy in 1946. He won the gubernatorial election, but died before taking office. The legislature elected his son Herman, but the sitting governor, Ellis Arnall, said he would serve until a successor was elected by the people. The lieutenant governor, M.E. Thompson, also claimed the office, and Arnall resigned to make way for him.

Herman Talmadge eventually won election over Thompson for the unexpired term of his father. He also beat Thompson for a full term.

The younger Talmadge's gubernatorial years weren't quite as raucous as his father's, and instead of proposing a tax cut as Gene Talmadge did, Herman Talmadge was the one who started Georgia's sales tax. Nevertheless he was popular enough that he eventually won the U.S. Senate seat his father had yearned. He served there until 1980.

That ended the political era of the Talmadges that had begun a half century earlier at least in part on a populist proposal to reduce the fee on vehicle tags by a couple of bucks.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times, and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle, N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone/fax, 770- 532-2326; e-mail, vardeman623@charter.net. His column appears Sundays in The Times and on gainesvilletimes.com.




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