ATLANTA — Tuesday’s Georgia primaries offered a theme of voter dissatisfaction demonstrated with both the defeat of a heavily promoted a transportation sales-tax increase in nine of 12 regions and the ouster of 11 incumbent legislators.
When it came to the questions on the ballot, voters made clear they don’t approve of legislators getting free meals, junkets and trips from lobbyists. A bipartisan majority, 87 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats, answered a straw poll in support of limits on the gifts.
William Perry, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, predicted the results would send shock waves through the Capitol, arguing that the outcomes generally resulted in success for candidates favoring tougher ethics.
“House candidates in competitive primaries made a strong stand and put the priorities of their voters over the desire of the House leadership to maintain their unlimited gift-receiving legislative lifestyle,” he said.
THE OTHER QUESTIONS weren’t as clear cut. The only binding question, raising a regional sales tax of 1 percent for transportation projects, passed in some areas, such as Augusta, but failed spectacularly in most others.
Atlanta business leaders had originally asked for the referendum when lawmakers refused to raise taxes themselves for roads and mass transit. Then, when the Atlanta groups had the chance with voters, they couldn’t deliver.
They couldn’t overcome widespread opposition from a number of corners.
The sales tax had other hurdles.
Environmentalists said road projects funded by the tax would only increase automobile emissions. Conservatives said the mass-transit projects were a waste of money. Liberals said the tax fell too heavily on the poor.
The NAACP said not enough projects would be built by black-owned firms, and tea party activists pointed to the extension of a toll on Atlanta’s busy Georgia Highway 400 as evidence that politicians refuse to let limited-period taxes such as the proposed 10-year sales tax ever expire.
Of course, no one is eager to pay more in taxes in a weak economy.
Media coverage and ads about the Atlanta tax debate carried far beyond the 10 counties voting as a region there to the conservative suburbs. Some suburban voters mistook the Atlanta ads that listed road projects as suggesting that their own region’s money would go to the capital city rather than staying in their local region.
“That certainly confused folks,” said Chris Carpenter, a Democratic strategist who co-managed the statewide campaign.
THE THREE REGIONS where it passed were all outside of Atlanta’s television-viewing area, including regions centered on Augusta, Albany and Vidalia. Some regions outside of Atlanta’s halo also killed it, though, including Savannah and the Valdosta region, where it went down with 58 percent opposition in each. The Macon region voted 56 percent no.
The tax fared best where turnout was the highest. For example, a heated Democratic primary for sheriff in Richmond County brought out a 35 percent turnout, significantly above the statewide average of 31 percent. Likewise, Vidalia’s Toombs County had a 38 percent turnout, and Albany’s Dougherty County showed 33 percent participation at the polls. On the other hand, Fulton County’s turnout was just 26 percent.
Of course, who turns out is as important as how many. Statewide, the recent trend continued of the GOP’s outpacing the Democrats. Of the 1.6 million votes cast, 60 percent were in the Republican primary.
That GOP ballot gave voters a chance to speak on a pair of controversial issues, casinos and abortion.
Because the casino results were a tie, they illustrate a pronounced division that is as much geographic as it is philosophical. Republicans in Atlanta, Columbus and Athens and most of their suburbs support casinos, along with most of the areas linking them. Macon’s suburbs support it but not Bibb County. Richmond, Chatham and Glynn counties rejected it.
A convoluted question about a constitutional amendment banning abortion, however, won approval from two-thirds of GOP voters, carrying in every county but Clarke, where it failed, and Liberty, where it tied.
WHILE MANY VOTERS were rejecting the sales tax, they were also booting incumbent lawmakers.
Among the losers were Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, who sponsored a new law that shortens the period for abortions, and Rep. Yasmin Neal, D-Jonesboro, who made national news fighting his proposal with a tongue-in-cheek bill to regulate vasectomies.
Neal was a freshman, the most vulnerable of incumbents, and McKillip was in his first election since switching parties. Democrats didn’t find anyone to run against McKillip, so they rallied behind his GOP challenger, Regina Quick, who beat him by just 64 votes.
It wasn’t just freshmen or party switchers getting upset. Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, got the boot after serving since 2005 and rising to become chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee. Rep. Judy Manning, R-Marietta, led the House Children & Youth Committee and had been a fixture in the Legislature since 1996.
An even longer tenure ended with the defeat of Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, who has served since 1992.
Three of the most conservative members of the Legislature lost Tuesday, and another four got a scare. Reps. Steve Davis, R-McDonough, and Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock, lost their re-elections, and Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, failed in a bid for the Senate.
At the same time Sens. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, and Bill Heath, R-Bremen, must endure runoffs to win their nominations, and Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, and Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, came within a hair’s breadth of defeat.
Two Democratic senators in the liberal camp also face runoffs, Miriam Paris of Macon and Gail Davenport of Jonesboro, but both of those are rematches with former legislators.