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SPLOST campaign gears up

ATLANTA --- Reports of who's in or out of next year's presidential race overshadow another campaign that's forming that could have a more direct impact on Georgians.

It's the campaign for the transportation special-purpose, local-option, sales tax -- nicknamed T-SPLOST by policymakers. Georgians will have a chance on their presidential ballot to say whether they favor paying another 1 percent sales tax for development of specified transportation projects for their region.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce recently announced creation of an auxilary organization tasked with convincing voters and then continuing to lobby for transportation issues.

The new Georgia Transportation Alliance will get an executive director later this spring who'll work long-term on enhancing the state's materials-handling industry, from ports to rails to roads to airports.

Job 1 is hiring a campaign consultant or two and raising about $3 million to fund the T-SPLOST campaign outside of metro Atlanta. The Atlanta business community will handle its own campaign.

It may have to overcome a perception that it's trying to coast on consumers' backs. After all, the business community spent the last year lobbying for a reduction in the taxes it pays for gas and electric energy used in manufacturing, and now it is pushing for consumers to cough up more so companies can move their freight quicker.

The approach is to convince voters to think as drivers rather than taxpayers.

It will actually be more like 11 campaigns, one for each region outside Atlanta, with only a few common elements.

"We're talking to people who know how to run statehouse campaigns because that's what this is," said chamber President Chris Clark, a Fitzgerald native. "It can't be a campaign of Atlanta telling people what's best for them."

As much as people grumble about traffic congestion, winning support for transportation improvements might seem a snap. It's paying for it that could become a speed bump.

Look at last November's referendum on a $10 fee on car tags to fund a statewide network of advanced, trauma-care facilities.

Who could oppose saving lives? But the referendum lost 53 percent to 47, the only one of the six questions on the ballot to fail.

Voters said at the time that, though the goal was worthy, they believed it should be funded with existing taxes.

Gov. Sonny Perdue might have been very insightful or just lucky when, in 2010, he scheduled the T-SPLOST vote for 2012. At the time he did it, critics blamed him for dragging out the process, but most recognize now that last year's tea party atmosphere would have spelled certain failure for any new tax.

The period between enactment of the law setting up the referendum and the actual vote has been spent by local leaders coming up with the projects to be funded. Their first cut has resulted in 4,600 projects totaling many times the amount of money the tax would generate.

After the Department of Transportation eliminates those projects that don't qualify, the local leaders will have to pare the list to a realistic number to present to voters. Political observers say the list is everything. If voters see a personal benefit from the projects, then they'll vote yes.

"It can't be about culverts in somebody's neighborhood," Clark said. "It has to be about transportation in the greater community."

That's the reason for individual campaigns in each region. Voters will be reminded of the possibility of fixing specific roads that they personally travel on, not some nebulous concept like "logistics infrastructure."

Clark said the consultants will set the actual budget, but he anticipates it will be in the range of the $4 million or so groups spent on the trauma-fee campaign.

Besides business groups, Clark is seeking support from environmental organizations that lobbied for the original bill establishing the referendum. Those organizations were drawn to the hope that mass-transit programs would be included in the regional project lists.

So far, no organized opposition has come forward. Tea party groups composed of taxpayers fed up with all forms of government spending may get involved if they're not too preoccupied with defeating President Obama.

If the economic recovery hasn't advanced significantly in the next 19 months, no opposition campaign will be needed to torpedo a new tax.

That means that the most effective strategy for passing the tax would be for the companies that belong to the Chamber of Commerce to increase hiring and expansion. That's a bigger gamble than pitching in a few million dollars to persuade someone else to pay a tax.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.



Web posted on Thursday, April 28, 2011













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