Atlanta Voters Reject Transportation Tax, Slap Down Political Leaders

Published August 3, 2012

Atlanta-area voters have overwhelmingly rejected a proposed $7 billion transportation tax even though tax supporters outspent opponents more than 500 to one.

A diverse coalition of grassroots opposition including local Tea Party activists and the NAACP led the charge against the measure. The July 31 vote resulted in the measure losing 63 percent to 37 percent in the 10-county Atlanta region. The measure had bipartisan support from some of the most powerful politicians in the state and city, as well as Atlanta business groups.

“We took on the governor, the lieutenant governor, the mayor, big business, and slick political consultants. We emerged victorious,” local Tea Party leader Debbie Dooley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

She said people “are sending a message, and elected officials would do well to take heed: You aren’t getting any more of our tax dollars until you can show you’re responsible and can be trusted with the money you have now.”

$8,500,000 vs. $15,000

Supporters raised $8.5 million to promote a one-cent increase in the sales tax rate. Opponents raised approximately $15,000.

The additional penny-per-dollar sales tax was estimated to raise more than $7 billion to pay for transportation projects over the next decade. Most of the money would have gone to public transit rather than highways.

This presented a major line of attack for opponents, who said the emphasis on public transit was misplaced. Atlanta has seriously clogged highways, and public transit carries almost no traffic compared with highways.

‘A Blow for Rational Policy’

“Voters were asked to tax themselves $7 billion to not reduce traffic congestion,” said urban planning expert and Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Wendell Cox. “People knew that spending more than 50 times as much per transit rider as [per] car passenger could not reduce traffic congestion in a city where transit moves only 1 percent of travel. As a result, the voters struck a real blow for rational public policy.”

Cox added, “Atlanta needs transportation that builds the economy by minimizing travel times and reducing traffic congestion. That means getting the traffic moving, not politically correct dead-ends out of a radical environmentalist playbook.”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, worked feverishly in the days leading up to the election to turn out votes for the tax increase. He and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and other high-profile supporters argued the tax increase was needed to create jobs, reduce traffic congestion, and maintain the region’s economic strength.

Opponents also argued a sales tax increase would hit lower-income residents harder than higher-income earners.

Missed Message?

Despite the trouncing of the tax-increase proposal, Reed remained steadfast in his support for it.

“I respect the decision of the voters, but tomorrow I’m going to wake up and work just as hard to change their minds,” he told supporters at an election-night rally.

In a statement after the vote, the governor said the rejection of the measure is “merely a transition point.”

“Given state budget constraints, significant reductions in federal funding, and the long time it takes to get projects completed, the rejection of the [tax increase] significantly reduces our capacity to add infrastructure in a timely fashion,” Deal said. “This is not the end of the discussion; it’s merely a transition point. There’s a consensus among Georgians that we need transportation investment, and we must more forward by working with the resources available.”