Georgia voters sent a very clear message in last week’s primaries: They don’t trust the state’s political leadership.
This mistrust came through in two of the most widely discussed issues on the ballot: the T-SPLOST transportation tax and the straw vote questions for a cap on lobbyist spending.
T-SPLOST lost by lopsided margins in nine of the 12 regions that voted on the one-cent sales tax for transportation projects. In the Metro Atlanta region, where business groups raised $6.5 million to campaign for its passage, the sales tax increase was defeated by 62-38 percent.
Tax opponents estimated they raised less than $25,000 to campaign against T-SPLOST, but their grassroots efforts, combined with the traditional anti-tax sentiment of conservative Republicans, was more than enough to sink it.
Critics of the tax told pollsters they didn’t trust state and local government officials to use the tax proceeds honestly. They also didn’t believe the tax would be terminated after 10 years, as specified in the T-SPLOST legislation.
One legislator shared these messages he received from constituents in the days prior to the vote:
• “I will long remember this as it again burdens us for nothing but politicians’ pockets and their donors’ pockets.”
• “T-SPLOST is horrid legislation, a 10-year boondoggle for contractors that will inevitably lead to further taxes, overruns, corrupt waste, and a failure to fix our roads and congestion.”
• “This is a slush fund that will lead to huge waste and not help solve traffic issues.”
An example cited frequently by tax opponents was the move by Sonny Perdue in 2010 to extend the tolls on Georgia 400, even though state officials had promised for 20 years the tolls would be eliminated when the bonds issued to build the tollway were retired.
Late in the campaign, Gov. Nathan Deal said the Georgia 400 tolls would be taken down at the end of 2013. Deal acknowledged he was doing this in part to restore peoples’ trust in government, but the gesture failed to turn around voter sentiment.
T-SPLOST critics also argued that the tax was designed to take money from low-income and working-class families for the benefit of politically connected businesses that would profit from the highway construction projects.
Debbie Dooley of Tea Party Patriots said this feeling was reinforced in April when Deal replaced Todd Long as planning director of the state Department of Transportation with Toby Carr. Long had more than 20 years experience as a traffic engineer and planner, while Carr was a political operative who had worked as executive director of the Georgia Republican Party.
“That hurt the T-SPLOST, when Gov. Deal appointed Toby Carr,” Dooley said. “That fed into, and legitimized, everything we were saying about how political cronies will control the process.”
The straw vote on the lobbyist spending limitation was more one-sided than the votes against T-SPLOST. This again reflected a voter mistrust that was stoked by media accounts of the large amounts of money lobbyists spend to influence legislative votes.
In the Republican primary, the vote was 87-13 percent in favor of “ending the current practice of unlimited gifts from lobbyists to state legislators by imposing a $100 cap on such gifts.”
In the Democratic primary, voters approved a similar ballot question by a 73-27 percent margin.
Those votes were a rebuke of House Speaker David Ralston, who took a $17,000 lobbyist-paid trip to Europe with his family in 2010. Ralston has blocked legislation that would limit lobbyist spending, and says the current state law requiring disclosure of expenditures is sufficient.
When he spoke to the Republican Party’s state convention in May, Ralston contended that “liberals” and “media elites” were the only ones pushing for ethics reform – an argument that lost much of its credibility when 87 percent of Republican voters supported the lobbyist spending cap.
Ralston seems to be falling into the same trap as Tom Murphy, who was speaker of the Georgia House for more than 28 years. Murphy became so blinded by the power of his office that he could not see how the political landscape in Georgia was changing.
Voters clearly don’t trust their leaders and want changes to be made. I wonder if the elected leadership is smart enough to hear that message.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)