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1 cent transportation tax may be on hold

Lawmakers could move date of referendum

POSTED: August 24, 2011 11:30 p.m.

If Georgia lawmakers move the date of a referendum for a special sales tax to fund transportation projects, it won't be until the next legislative session.

In a statement released late Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal said lawmakers will abandon the conversation for now.

"We've had a healthy debate on the T-SPLOST referendum date here at the Gold Dome," Deal said in the statement. "...Our time during this special session, however, is precious, and it's now obvious that it will take too much time to reach a consensus on changing the date. It's best for taxpayers that we not let this special session drag on."

Earlier this year, Georgia lawmakers voted to allow 12 regions throughout the state to ask residents whether to approve a 1-cent sales tax hike to fund a pre-approved list of projects.

Deal spent the day negotiating with Republican leadership about changing the date of the referendum from the July primary to the November 2012 general election.

At one point in the day, a spokesman for the governor said lawmakers had reached an agreement on the date change for the vote. But later, those remarks proved wrong.

"We had high hopes that we would be able to move forward, but coming to a resolution that would please all parties proved difficult," said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. "We have a diverse state and there are many opinions on when would be the best time to hold the referendum."

Lawmakers are in their second week of a special session to redraw political boundaries. A secondary issue in the special session was to be a decision on whether to move the referendum.

But Robinson said the governor called off the transportation talk because he didn't want the special session to "hit a snag or drag on when this was always a secondary issue to our primary purpose."

Robinson would not say if changing the date would be a priority in the legislative session that begins in January.

"We're not dealing with it now," Robinson said.

The transportation fight is expected to be fiercest in the metro Atlanta region, where congestion is among the worst in the nation. Officials in the 10-county Atlanta region on Monday approved a $6.14 billion draft list of transportation projects.

If voters sign off, it would be the area's biggest single infrastructure investment in decades. A final vote is scheduled for October following public comment.

Deal has negotiated with Republican lawmakers this week over changing the referendum from July's primary to November, even conceding to the tea party's request that all referenda on special purpose taxes would be set for general elections.

Critics have said moving all the local tax votes to the general election is the fair thing to do, rather than singling out one issue. House Speaker David Ralston said there is appeal to that argument, but it also raises the issue of local control.

"The question the General Assembly has to ask itself is, is that something they want to do to and for local governments?"

And not all Republican lawmakers were eager to sign on to the permanent date change for sales tax referenda.

Local governments have, for years, been able to call for special elections for voters to decide to pay for certain infrastructure improvements using a 1-cent sales tax.

Normally, those elections are held in spring and voter turnout is usually low.

The Senate clearly remains divided on the issue, and GOP leaders are working to shore up support for the measure.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said Wednesday he supports the governor's decision.

"Allowing changes to local legislation though certain circumstances was genius and shows his leadership ability to move Georgia forward," Mullis said. "No one's going alone here. We're working together to address this issue."

Some, like Sen. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, say perhaps tabling the transportation tax vote until January could be a good idea. Early Wednesday, Loudermilk said he has not yet decided how he will ultimately vote, but is inclined to vote not to move the date.

"This changes the rules to affect the outcome," Loudermilk said. "It's a tough call. I understand where (supporters) are coming from. Monies are needed, especially in the metro area. But is this the right thing to do?"

The compromise could be a game changer for some.

Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said he loves the thought of moving all local tax votes and giving communities the option to change the dates, adding he would not support a vote solely on moving the transportation tax.

"It's consistent without trying to have anybody game the system," he said. He also said moving the transportation vote alone "doesn't reflect what the legislation was originally intended to do."

Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, wasn't sure he could agree to the bill's amendments.

Rogers is a member of the House transportation committee that agreed to change the date of the referendum late last week.

"It makes sense to give us more time to work on educating the voters and showing them all the regional transportation projects," Rogers said. "I really never favored the July date anyway. I thought it left too many people out."

But he said discussion of moving all votes for special local option sales taxes to November ballots concerned members of the Republican caucus.

Advocates for cities and counties in the state had concern, too, he said.

"We've still got a ways to go on this if it works or not," Rogers said.

Deal said in the statement he wanted "as many taxpayers as possible to participate" in the vote.

But he said he had reached a deal with Senate and House leadership to suspend the conversation.

"I think what happened was legislators represent different parts of the state, different interests and opinions and we saw that play out," Robinson said.

A fractured Republican caucus leaves GOP leadership looking for bipartisan support for the measure, which could be scarce with bad feelings over redistricting still looming.

Deal signed new district maps for both the state House and Senate Wednesday. Lawmakers are now focused on a new congressional map for Georgia, which gives the state a 14th seat in the U.S. House.

And while Deal praised the maps and the speed at which Republicans have moved them through the Gold Dome, Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he would encourage his colleagues to vote against a bill to change the date of the transportation vote, calling it "bad policy and bad politics."

"It would be a bitter irony for Democrats and African-Americans to help Republicans pass a TSPLOST change when they have treated us so brutally in the redistricting process," Fort said.

"It is unfathomable that Republicans can work to destroy African-American voting strength and then ask us to pass this."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

 



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