Nine of the 12 regions across the state soundly rejected the proposal to add a 1-percent sales tax to fund specific transportation projects in their areas. Only the regions centered on Augusta, Columbus and Vidalia approved it.
In crafting a fallback strategy, officials’ first question is whether to keep bonus provisions the three regions earned as part of their enticement to support the tax. Within days after Tuesday’s returns, politicians from regions that nixed the tax were calling for repeal of the bonus which requires less local funding for state road projects in the three regions.
Regions where it passed will only need to put up 10 percent of the costs while the other nine will have to shell out 30 percent.
“The coercive nature of this law is unthinkable. Our state leaders should not hold our own fuel taxes hostage because ‘the people’ voted down a bad referendum,” said Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, a spokesman for the anti-tax Transportation Leadership Coalition.
The same law setting up the tax vote allows the regions to schedule another one in two years. Some leaders, like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, have already said that’s their intention.
Research shows that tax referenda rarely pass the first time they’re before voters, partly because their complexity takes several elections to explain, according to Georgia State University Professor Sean RIchey.
“The default position for many voters is no,” he said.
Gov. Nathan Deal is also saying no, at least to any new vote. He issued a statement Wednesday saying he got the message of what voters were thinking the first time.
“The voters of Georgia have spoken,” he said.
His next step is to use existing state revenues and the higher local match to tackle the high-priority projects.
“It’s certainly disappointing that we won’t have the resources to accomplish all the projects needed to get Georgians moving quicker, but it does force state officials, including myself, to focus all our attention on our most pressing needs,” Deal said.
He offered as the top of the list an interchange on Ga. 400 that he travels through between his home in Gainesville and the Capitol.
Two of the most vocal opponents of the road tax announced their own version of Plan B prior to Tuesday’s balloting. The Sierra Club and Atlanta Tea Party Patriots unveiled their joint blueprint which calls for dedicating the existing 1-percent tax on gasoline sales to transportation and away from the state’s general fund.
The groups also want to allow local governments to hold referenda on taxes for any fraction of 1 percent, letting them partner with one or more neighboring governments if they choose.
For different reasons, the two groups agree on tapping so-called consumption tax to get the road users to foot the bill. The conservative tea party wants to minimize reliance on income taxes, and the conservation-minded Sierra Club wants to discourage driving in favor of mass transit.
“Although the Sierra Club and the tea party will never agree on everything, we can find common ground,” Colleen Kiernan, Sierra Club executive director, said at a joint press conference.
Whether Deal and legislators share that common ground remains to be seen.
One thing that has already become clear is that without the tax, money will be scarce.
“There will be belt-tightening,” the governor said.
He had called on all state agencies last week to trim another 5 percent of their budget next year, including the Department of Transportation.
Deal vowed to pare the projects getting funding to the barest essentials.
“We’ll have a ‘need to do’ Transportation Improvement Program list, but not a ‘want to do’ list,” he said. “In addition to tight state budgets, we’re also facing a significant reduction in federal funds, so tough choices await.”
No doubt, he’ll take time in coming days to confer with members of Georgia congressional delegation while they’re home for the August recess about automatic cuts about to trigger for the federal budget. If Congress doesn’t disarm the trigger with tax hikes or targeted spending reductions, transportation grants to the states will be among the cuts.
Deal concluded comments after the primary returns with an understatement of sorts.
Tuesday’s referendum isn’t the end of the discussion but rather the beginning of a larger one.
“We have much to do,” he said.