ATLANTA -- When Georgia counts votes on the evening of July 31, the news will bring more than the chosen nominees for the general election and a decision on a sales tax but also confidence vote of sorts on the state’s leadership.
In parliamentary forms of government, a vote of no confidence forces those in power to relinquish it in favor of a new election. Our founding fathers rejected that approach as too disruptive and instead favored set terms in office as more conducive to statesmanship and less prone to populist pandering.
Even though governments here are not required to fall after losing a no-confidence vote, the savvy ones recognize the message and change strategy.
This month’s referendum on a transportation sales tax, coupled with straw-polls about limiting lobbyists’ gifts on the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, can be considered a confidence vote of sorts.
To some extent, they will reflect attitudes toward previous leaders. Sonny Perdue was governor and Glenn Richardson was speaker of the House when the sales-tax referendum was devised. Richardson resigned over his ex-wife’s revelations that his rumored affair with a lobbyist was documented by copies of e-mails in her possession.
Voters around Atlanta frequently cite Perdue’s decision to perpetuate the toll on Ga. 400 after the roadway was paid off as their reason for opposing the proposed transportation tax. Politicians will never let the proposed tax expire after 10 years as it is scheduled, they argue, because government can always find a new use for the money, as Perdue did for additional exit ramps on the tollway.
“Our pols always behave this way. Any doubts? Ask the people who pay the Georgia 400 toll every day,” wrote Michael A. Scott in a letter to the editor of the Newnan Times-Herald.
“I think we could say there is an element of distrust,” said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University who’s studies the transportation-tax debate.
We have a new governor and a different speaker, but the vote will reflect on them, too, since they’re at the helm now. Indeed, Gov. Nathan Deal is campaigning for the transportation tax.
Speaker David Ralston, while neutral on the tax, continues to resist a limit on lobbyists’ gifts, dismissing it as a gimmick even though he championed other ethics legislation -- like doubling the frequency that lobbyists file reports -- which consumer-advocacy groups have said are just as much a gimmick.
Ralston, after all, took his family on a $17,000 trip to Europe to view high-speed trains at the expense of a lobbyist.
The chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Don Balfour, R-Snellville, is being investigated by his colleagues for claiming a Senate daily-work expense on days when lobbyists were entertaining him out of town. Even a rank-and-file legislator like Rep. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, is facing the same accusation from his primary opponent.
“Why would legislators get any kind of gift?” Owens asks. “I can imagine there are people who perceive the receipt of gifts in a very negative light. They are asking why was the gift exchanged? Is it because they are a just a really nice person or is it because they are going above and beyond for this person giving it and not for other public interests?”
Legislators warn that ever-legalistic strictures on their ethics will lead to gotcha technicalities and flimsy complaints filed for political mileage rather than substance. Ralston also predicts that unrealistically strict limits on gifts won’t stop them but merely drive them underground because lobbyists will no longer report them.
Of course, politicians could simply stop accepting free meals, junkets and event tickets. Even though having a lobbyist pick up the tab for a fact-finding trip saves taxpayers the expense, the ability to gain the moral high ground may bring bigger benefits if it ensures elected officials have the moral authority to be effective community leaders, and not just title holders.
Another aspect to the likely no-confidence vote on the transportation tax is that legislators could have raised the tax themselves if they thought it was necessary.
“How do we get people to trust us? By doing right,” Owens said.
University of Georgia Political Science Professor Charles Bullock, who has studied Georgia political leadership for decades, points to long-time speaker, the late Tom Murphy and the Democrats he led.
“They were not tax-and-spend liberals by any measure, but they were willing to take steps that they thought would be beneficial for the community at large in the future,” Bullock said.
Murphy supported the appropriations for Atlanta’s MARTA, the Georgia Dome and massive World Congress Center. He also presided over a 33 percent increase in the sales tax in 1989 from 3 cents per dollar to 4 without a referendum.
Legislators opted for a referendum to address the current concerns about transportation problems because they were afraid they’d be defeated if they raised the tax by statute. While they may have been right about that, their lack of fortitude robbed them of one facet of a leader, namely courage.
State officials will have to devise a Plan B if the transportation tax fails as most observers expect. Bullock said one option is to steel their backbone and exercise forceful leadership within the General Assembly.
“One of the versions of a successful leader is not just to be loved but to be feared,” he said. “... Leaders have to make investment in the future.”