Anyone who’s lived in metropolitan Atlanta in recent decades (as I did until 1995) knows its infamously snarled highway traffic. But any Georgian also knows that it would be impossible to raise taxes to do something about it—at least since 2004, when Republicans achieved control of both the legislative and executive branches of state government for the first time since Reconstruction. Last week’s calamitous defeat of a sales-tax-for-transportation referendum in metro Atlanta and most of the state showed that when push comes to shove, Republican governing can’t survive the Republicans’ anti-governing message.
Shortly before he left office in 2011, Sonny Perdue—modern Georgia’s first GOP governor—set up a complex mechanism whereby voters would impose temporary higher sales taxes on themselves to pay for specific transportation projects, as agreed upon by local elected officials in twelve specially designated regions of the state. But he and other GOP leaders—including the current governer, Nathan Deal—and a business community desperate for a solution to the transportation crisis, did not anticipate that the Tea Party Movement they did so much to encourage would take so seriously its violent anti-government rhetoric, to the extent of fighting these TSPLOST (for Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) referenda tooth and nail.
They know it now: In a vote held on Primary Day, July 31, TSPLOST went down hard in nine of the state’s twelve regions, including metro Atlanta (where it lost 63-37), despite an unopposed $8 million pro-TSPLOST ad campaign and official support from most Republican and Democratic party leaders.
There are plenty of micro-explanations for the outcome. The whole referendum was complex and unprecedented. Whatever TSPLOST supporters gained in credibility from identifying specific projects to be funded, it may have lost from NIMBY opposition to those same projects. Odd coalitions emerged: In metro Atlanta conservative suburbanites thought too much money was earmarked for public transit projects, while liberal urban voters thought it was not enough. (Both the Sierra Club and the NAACP opposed the referendum). Many voters from different parts of the political spectrum disliked increased sales taxes as a vehicle for transportation funding (Georgia has among the lowest gasoline taxes in the country).
But the overriding factor leading to this humiliation of the business community and the state GOP leadership was simple: Having spent years demonizing higher taxes and government spending, Georgia Republicans were in a poor position to ask for more of both for any purpose under the sun. And with about 62 percent of the total vote last Tuesday being cast in Republican primaries, that was enough to doom the referenda. The only three regions where TSPLOST (narrowly) won were in central and south Georgia areas (including those surrounding the minority-dominated mid-sized cities of Augusta and Columbus) far from the GOP heartland of North Georgia, where the referenda were trounced by two-to-one margins or more.
The loss of Republican voters for TSPLOST was made most evident by business-community ads running in the metro Atlanta media markets just prior to the vote that cited Ronald Reagan’s support for tax increases aimed at infrastructure investments. That’s ironic, given the la-la-la-can’t-hear-you resistance of conservatives to Reagan’s tax heresies, which were cited repeatedly by Democrats during the tax struggles in Washington of the last few years.
The Georgia experience matters nationally for a simple reason: Since 2008, the GOP and its business allies have energized its movement-conservative base (rechristened as the Tea Party Movement) to savagely fight for radically reduced public spending. Now, when increased public investments and the revenues necessary to pay for them are obviously essential to keep a state economy growing, Republicans can no longer dial back the rhetoric, or even count on Democratic voters to help bail them out.
If Republicans conquer Washington in November and Republican-controlled state governments derive the bitter harvest of radically reduced federal support for public services, it will be interesting to see if a “governing wing” of the GOP survives at all in state capitals around the country. And it will be equally interesting to see whether business interests are happy with obtaining better tax rates and less regulation in exchange for dysfunctional government from sea to shining sea.