With the resounding defeat of the regional transportation sales tax, TSPLOST, in Rockdale and the Atlanta region on Tuesday, local and regional leaders are reassessing what to do next.
In Rockdale 70 percent of voters said ‘No’ to the sales tax and 30 percent said ‘Yes.’ They joined the rest of the 10-county Atlanta region, which voted overall 73 percent ‘No’ and 27 percent ‘Yes.’
The counties with the most people that voted for the tax were DeKalb, Fulton, and Clayton but even they had only 33 percent and 32 percent voting in favor of the tax. The counties of Cherokee and Fayette had the lowest support for the tax, with 17 percent and 19 percent in favor.
Fred Straub, who sits on Rockdale County’s current SPLOST Citizens’ Oversight Committee, said he voted for the measure but was not surprised at its defeat in Rockdale. “It was a local control versus non-local control issue more than anything else.”
He quipped that if the legislature would simply raise the gas tax by a nickel, there wouldn’t be such a transportation funding issue.
Mike Houchard, who is also on the same committee, said “I did not support it that much because I think the list was done the wrong way. I think the state legislatures advocated their roles in what they did at the start.”
Conyers Mayor Randy Mills said Wednesday morning, "This was a TKO." But, he added, “I think democracy works. You never take any of these things personal.” He and Commission Chairman Richard Oden were on the 21-member Regional Roundtable that formed the final project list.
"You take the message that there was a disconnect and you move forward,” said Mills. “The people that you represent know there’s still a traffic issue... You move onto a different plan." But, he pointed out, "You have less funding, less money."
“Everything goes back to the way it was,” Oden said. “We figure out how we’re going to pay for a crossing bridge… relieve the traffic on 138.” He said the roundtable had not gotten together nor discussed the issue since Tuesday night’s vote.
He added, “I’ll be watching very closely to see if (the state) funds GRTA Express. If they don’t fund GRTA express, we’ll be in jeopardy of losing the Rockdale express routes, which means 1000 plus more cars on the road.” The TSPLOST referendum had about $1 million of funding for GRTA, said Oden.
“The issue that I listen to in our residents was local control,” said Oden. “Bottom line, the citizens doesn’t trust the state government. The elephant has broken so many promises… The citizen residents do not trust state government and local and county governments suffered.”
Critics derided the proposal as an unfair tax on the poor that wouldn't deal with the problems of sprawl.
David Shipp was among a group of local activists, such as the Rockdale County Think Tank and Garvin Haynes. “It was universally disliked,” said Shipp, a former Rockdale Republican party head. “It was a great victory for the people of Rockdale County. The TSPLOST as it was written would not benefit Rockdale County, would not bring in jobs, would only take money out of the economy of Rockdale.”
He said a local, 10-year SPLOST would be able to take care of many transportation projects in Rockdale and more. “Rockdale has some important needs that re coming up. Particularly water and sewer need to be taken care of.”
Out of every sales dollar in Rockdale, three cents are currently collected for local sales taxes – one for county capital projects, one for education capital projects, and one that goes toward alleviating property taxes for homesteaded owners. The state also collects four cents. The maximum total sales tax allowed is 8 percent.
Tuesday's vote "shows the power of the people," said Debbie Dooley, Georgia Tea Party Patriots state coordinator and an outspoken opponent of the measure.
"They ran a top-down, PR campaign, whereas we ran a bottom-up, true grassroots political campaign," Dooley said Tuesday. "The people are sending a message, and elected officials would do well to take heed: You aren't getting any more of our tax dollars until you can show you're responsible and can be trusted with the money you have now."
Supporters included Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat; they were increasingly visible in the days leading up to the vote. They tied the tax to Georgia's economic future and promised the infrastructure projects would ease traffic congestion for frustrated commuters.
Reed, who crisscrossed the city in the final stretch of the campaign, conceded defeat late Tuesday but remained committed to the issue.
"I respect the decision of the voters, but tomorrow I'm going to wake up and work just as hard to change their minds," he told supporters at a rally.
In a statement, Deal also expressed disappointment in the outcome of the vote.
"Given state budget constraints, significant reductions in federal funding and the long time it takes to get projects completed, the rejection of the TSPLOST significantly reduces our capacity to add infrastructure in a timely fashion," the governor said. "This is not the end of the discussion; it's merely a transition point. There's a consensus among Georgians that we need transportation investment, and we must more forward by working with the resources available."
Supporters spent $8 million trying to convince voters that the plan would add jobs, ease congestion and improve the quality of life — making the campaign one of the most expensive in state history. Major corporations, developers and construction companies donated hundreds of thousands to the marketing campaign.
Critics, who spent far less, blasted the plan as not only the heftiest tax proposal in state history, but as a false strategy that failed to encourage smart growth.
Tea party members, the state NAACP and the Sierra Club comprised an unlikely coalition that opposed the referendum, relying on e-mail and social media to urge voters to defeat the measure.
Throughout the state, nine of the 12 regions voted down their T-SPLOST referendums.
The Savannah region rejected the transportation tax, 58 percent to 43 percent. The measure also went down across four other north Georgia districts and in the southern, southwest and middle Georgia districts.
The three regions that approved their T-SPLOST - the Central Savannah River Area district, River Valley district, and Heart of Georgia/Altamaha districts – did so with votes of 52 to 54 percent in favor.
In metro Atlanta, supporters estimated the tax would generate more than $6.1 billion between 2013 and 2022. The 10-county metro Atlanta region stretches from Cherokee to Fayette counties, including Gwinnett, DeKalb, Fulton and Cobb counties — among the state's most populous.
The referendum was years in the making at the legislative level, and many lawmakers touted the choice as one of local control for communities. Regional commissions gathered public input for months before coming up with local project lists of varying scale and budget.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.