ATLANTA — Confusion erupted at the state Capitol on Wednesday as an effort stalled to push back until the 2012 general election the public vote on a proposed tax hike for transportation.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said early Wednesday that Republican leaders had reached an agreement that would pave the way for moving the vote. But House Speaker David Ralston said it’s too early to declare a deal.
The public votes were set for the July 2012 primary. Now, supporters, including the governor, are calling to move the vote to November to increase voter participation.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the agreement would move all local tax votes to the November 2012 election — not just the transportation vote — addressing concerns from tea party groups. 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.
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.
Ralston said he and GOP leaders have been discussing what to do about moving the date, but was adamant that a solution had not yet been reached.
“I think it’s a little premature to say there’s a deal,” Ralston told reporters Wednesday. “Both parties are working in good faith ... to reach an agreement that everybody is comfortable with, but we still have some work to do.”
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. 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?”
Tea party leaders say it’s unfair to change plans simply to maximize the tax hike’s chance of passing. They said they don’t support the move unless lawmakers add an amendment mandating that all local tax votes must take place during the fall general election.
“Our people would be extremely disappointed if anything happened at this point where the speaker’s office took any action to try to delay this matter,” said Tea Party Patriots State Coordinator Julianne Thompson. “We do commend them for working together, and we strongly encourage the speaker’s office to move forward with this.”
What is not at issue, Ralston said, is that moving the vote to November is about getting more voters to weigh in. He rejected the notion from critics that the change is about trying to get voters to support the tax.
“I think that’s nonsense,” he said. “This is very simply about giving the greatest opportunity for the most Georgians to participate in one of the most important decisions they’ve been asked to make in a long time. It’s not about outcome. I frankly believe Republican voters are going to turn out in 2012. That’s why I don’t think it’s a legitimate spin.”
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 that 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 — when the Legislature reconvenes — could be a good idea. Early Wednesday, Loudermilk said he has not yet decided how he will ultimately vote, but is currently inclined to vote not to move the date.
“This changes the rules to affect the outcome,” said Loudermilk. “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 and said 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, adding that moving the transportation vote alone “doesn’t reflect what the legislation was originally intended to do.”
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. Minority Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he would encourage his colleagues to vote against the bill, 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,” said Fort. “It is unfathomable that Republicans can work to destroy African-American voting strength and then ask us to pass this.”
In calling for the special session which began Aug. 15, Deal put the issue of changing the transportation tax vote date on the calendar, making the measure the most important issue aside from the redrawing of the state and congressional political boundaries as is federally required once a decade in response to population changes as reported by the U.S. Census.