On Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal and many of his friends at the Capitol gathered to announce that the state of Georgia would spend $100 million to help establish a bus rapid transit system along 16 miles of Ga. 400, deep into north Fulton County.
MARTA will run it.
Much has been written about the shift Republicans in the state Capitol have made when it comes to transit. The hunt for the second Amazon headquarters lurks behind this bit of news as well.
But there is an even larger story here, perhaps peculiar to Georgia: The ascendancy of Republicans focused on economic development over a tea party faction that threatened to swallow the state GOP whole only nine years ago.
Consider that last month, voters in Nashville rejected, by a 2-to-1 margin, a $5.4 billion tax package that would have funded a transit system anchored by light rail.
On Tuesday, the same day that Governor Deal made his announcement in Atlanta, the New York Times reported on the hidden hand behind the defeat of that Nashville transit vote, and others. In Tennessee’s capital, in Arkansas, Arizona, Michigan and Utah, a group called Americans for Prosperity has mounted well-organized and well-funded opposition against transit referendums.
Americans for Prosperity, which has been a mainstay of the tea party movement, is funded by Charles and David Koch, the libertarian-minded oil billionaires who advocate smaller government at all levels.
The NYT piece rang a bell.
On April 15, 2009, several thousand supporters of the tea party movement gathered in front of the state Capitol in Atlanta. It was one of the largest tea party assemblies in the nation. Staging was elaborate. Fox News’ Sean Hannity showed up with his own portable newsroom.
The $25,000 cost of that 2009 event was fronted by the Georgia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, cementing the group’s influence at the state Capitol.
The impact was immediate. For the previous three years, metro Atlanta’s business community had been pushing for increased funding for road-and-bridge repair, fueled by a 1-cent sales tax that regions could levy on themselves by popular vote.
Tea partyers quickly swept the topic of transit off the table. In public hearings, they said the very idea was something out of the old Soviet Union.
In his last year as governor, Sonny Perdue finally relented on the road-and-bridge referendums, but he pushed the votes, originally targeted for November 2010, into July 2012. They would be a worry for his successor, who turned out to be Nathan Deal.
As the vote approached, tea partyers thwarted a state Capitol attempt to shift the transportation votes from July, when few voters would participate, to November, when President Barack Obama would be up for re-election. With a handful of exceptions, the regional TSPLOST votes sank like stones.
What has made Georgia different? At that point, key GOP advocates — including Governor Deal, House Speaker David Ralston, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — decided the issue needed to be litigated inside the state Capitol, rather than outside.
“It’s a recognition that we view transit so differently now than we did 40 or 50 years ago in metro Atlanta. The economic development component has been very compelling,” Ralston said this week in an interview.
House Bill 170, passed in 2015, raised taxes on gasoline and other purchases, including hotel room stays, to provide nearly $1 billion for road-and-bridge repair. TSPLOST referendums were authorized, but not emphasized.
Ralston said the vote on HB 170 was the game-changer, the moment when many of his fellow House Republicans decided to go big, or go home. “It was the darnedest thing. In the 48 hours leading up to the day we voted, I’m having members come to me and say, ‘If we’re going to go in, let’s go,’” Ralston said.
The House and Senate passed the bill. The governor signed it. And the walls did not come crashing down around GOP lawmakers.
The lack of rebellion was a confidence-builder. This year’s legislation to set in place a funding framework and a regional transit governing system for all of metro Atlanta wasn’t an easy lift — but passage of “the ATL” bill was never really in doubt.
This is not just about moving you to and from work. When we consider the upstream swim of “infrastructure” Republicans in Georgia, we also have to include Governor Deal’s insistence on state financing for the dredging of the Port of Savannah — ahead of promised federal cash. The Legislature’s recent emphasis on broadband internet access as a rural necessity falls into this category, too.
Part of the declining influence of the tea party within the Capitol can be attributed to the growing recognition that rural Georgia, shorn of health care and job prospects, is on its way to becoming an economic basket case.
Unserious ballot questions on “seceding” from Atlanta aside, one cannot rescue south Georgia with a state government small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.
Ralston doesn’t see the shift as a rejection of tea party supporters, but as a return of his Republican party to its roots. “It’s not a new discussion. What we’re talking about is what the first Republican president of this country spent much of his early political career emphasizing,” Ralston said.
And yes, as a member of the Whig Party, Abraham Lincoln was an advocate for the mass transit of his days — roads and canals. Even during the Civil War, as a Republican, Lincoln made time to lay the groundwork for a cross-continental rail system
Ralston is also a fan of President Donald Trump’s infrastructure package — and has been invited to the White House to learn more. He’s impressed, and says so.
“Now, the current Republican president — I doubt that you would get a lot of applause for his infrastructure proposal at that ’09 rally you mentioned,” Ralston said.
However, so far, this has been a hothouse revolution, one born and raised within the relatively controlled climate of the state Capitol. We have no firm proof — not yet — that it can survive outdoors, in Republican-dominated referendums in metro Atlanta.
In Gwinnett County, Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash has yet to decide whether to put a mass transit referendum on her county’s November ballot. To finish the BRT project announced Tuesday, Fulton County voters would have to agree to raise its sales tax to help pay for the construction of transit stations and other facilities.
“That will be interesting. I think that a referendum in Gwinnett, and probably to a lesser extent in north Fulton, will also tell us the extent to which there’s been any political sea change in those counties,” Ralston said.
Cobb County, he agreed, may be another matter.