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Crawford: The tea party brings out the anti-tea party

POSTED: August 31, 2011 1:00 a.m.

The battle over the T-SPLOST election date during this special legislative session has been described as a showdown between the anti-tax tea party and the various chambers of commerce who supported the transportation tax.

That analysis was accurate as far as it went, but does not give enough credit to another major player: the state's local governments, which are represented by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association.

ACCG and GMA lobbyists worked against the deal that was nearly made to move the date of the transportation tax referendum from the July 31 primary to the November general election.

The tea party, working through Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, appeared for a time to be successful in their demand that the T-SPLOST vote could only be moved if all future tax votes were also held in conjunction with general elections. Tea party members figured that such a move would make it easier for them to campaign against the passage of any local tax increases.

Local governments prefer to hold their tax votes on other dates, however, and their lobbyists worked the Capitol hallways effectively to shoot down that tea party compromise.

Tea party leaders could still claim a partial victory. They were successful in keeping the T-SPLOST vote from being moved to the general election. But their attempt to hinder future tax referendums by also moving them to November election dates fell by the wayside, largely because of pushback from the groups representing local governments.

With the legislature's Democratic caucuses becoming politically powerless in the face of strong Republican majorities, ACCG and GMA have essentially stepped into the breach to become the "anti-tea party" group at the capitol.

It's a role they were playing before the tea parties were even formed. Four years ago, when Speaker Glenn Richardson and his House colleagues were trying to pass a "GREAT" tax plan that would have stripped local governments of their ability to collect tax revenues, ACCG and GMA helped stop that initiative, too (and earned the undying hatred of Richardson, who's no longer a legislator).

One thing working in their favor is the fact that there is a growing cadre of legislators who cut their political teeth serving in city or county governments before they were elected to the General Assembly. Many of these lawmakers decided to run for the legislature after Richardson nearly succeeded in passing the "GREAT" tax bill that would have neutered local governments.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, is a former county commissioner, as are Sen. Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia, and Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove. Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, worked as a county manager before he was elected to the Senate. Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, is a former city councilman while Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, and Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, are former mayors. Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, was a Thomas County commissioner before he was first elected to the Legislature.

Over in the House, Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, and Rep. Lee Anderson, R-Grovetown, were county commissioners before running for the General Assembly. Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet, was a county commissioner who served as president of ACCG before she decided to run for the House.

Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello, and Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, were once the mayors of the cities they represent (Powell was also president of the GMA). Other former mayors include Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, and Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville. Rep. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, and Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, were once city council members.

"They understand how local government works and they understand inter-governmental relationships," said an ACCG lobbyist. "When you put an idea out there, they can think it through to reality."

That sounds about right. If you've ever been a county commissioner or a mayor, you know that many of your constituents will expect to have roads paved, schools built and parks opened. The only way local governments can pay for such things is by collecting taxes - and sometimes a tax increase is required.

If the fight over the T-SPLOST election date should be renewed in the regular session next January, you can bet that both the tea party and the anti-tea party will be right there in the middle of it.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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