The Jolt: Metro Atlanta gets commuter rail and something called ‘the ATL’

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, receives an ovation after the passage of HB 930, the mass transportation bill. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

caption arrowCaption
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, receives an ovation after the passage of HB 930, the mass transportation bill. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

With all due apologies to Nancy Pelosi, the state Legislature of Georgia late Thursday night passed a historic bill aimed at expanding commuter rail throughout metro Atlanta.

Now we've just got to figure out what is in House Bill 930. A brief and completely inadequate description:

-- It allows for 10 districts to be created from 13 counties and referendums to be held to enact a 30-year local option sales tax of up to 1 percent.

-- An “ATL” board would be created, consisting of 15 members, including 10 elected from those districts.

-- That board will fall administratively under the Georgia Regional Transit Authority, but last-minute negotiations diminished the next governor’s authority over the body – a concession by the state Senate.

-- The bill would permit Gwinnett County to join MARTA outright by referendum.

-- A slower, more Byzantine system would allow Cobb County to approve commuter rail, and contract with MARTA.

Though he, too, is still poring through the document, Robbie Ashe, the chairman of the MARTA board, gave the legislation a passing grade: “We, MARTA, we the metro metropolitan Atlanta region and we the people of Georgia are better off because this bill passed,” he said this morning.

It’s worth studying last night’s final votes. Cobb County lawmakers cast a number of them. In the Senate, “no” votes included:

-- Lindsey Tippins of Marietta, who had previously sponsored and passed legislation requiring a countywide referendum before commuter rail is brought across the Chattahoochee into Cobb;

-- Kay Kirkpatrick of Cobb County, a first-termer;

-- Michael Williams of Cumming, a Republican candidate for governor;

-- Josh McKoon of Columbus, a Republican candidate for secretary of state.

-- and Renee Unterman, a Republican representing the Buford area of Gwinnett County.

On the “yes” side in the Senate was David Shafer of Duluth, a candidate for lieutenant governor.

In the House, among those casting “no” votes:

-- Matt Dollar, a Marietta Republican;

-- Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican;

-- Rich Golick, a Smryna Republican who is not running for re-election;

-- David Wilkerson of Austell – one of the few Democrats in opposition;

-- Tom Kirby, a Republican from Loganville;

“Yes” votes in the House included:

-- Buzz Brockway of Lawrenceville, a Republican candidate for secretary of state;

-- Earl Ehrhart, a Republican from Powder Springs who is retiring after 30 years in the Legislature. Ehrhart had been among those opposing a special transit district in south Cobb in an early version of the bill. We’re told he helped write the current section that will govern whether Cobb participates in commuter rail expansion.

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Other highlights from the night:

-- SB 403, which would have mandated the purchase and installation of new electronic voting machines across the state, failed to pass.

-- Likewise, the Hidden Predator Act, which would have extended the statute of limitations in child abuse cases, failed to make it to the governor's desk. Critics raised the specter of youth organizations bankrupted by having to hire lawyers to defend themselves from decades-old accusations with scant evidence.

-- Last-minute attempts to derail a proposal that would ask voters whether they want to carve out a section of Stockbridge to create the new city of Eagle's Landing were unsuccessful.

-- Several attempts to revive SB 375, the “religious liberty” bill to protect child placement agencies that refuse to deal with LGBT couples, all failed.

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You could be excused for thinking that the leaders of the Senate and the House had been abducted last night and replaced by friendly impostors.

A year after the legislative session ended in a bitter stalemate between the heads of both chambers, a strange spirit of bonhomie ruled the evening.

Example 1: About two hours before the session's final gavel, the Georgia Senate welcomed an unusual guest.

House Speaker David Ralston made the short trek across the hall to honor his “good friend,” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, in his last day of the legislative session as the state Senate’s leader.

“He has been a pleasure to work with,” said Ralston, adding that “hopefully since I’ve been in this position we’ve had better relations between the chambers.”

We were assured this morning that Ralston's visit was planned well before state Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, took to the well to rail against state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, and the lieutenant governor in very specific terms for failing to act on his bill HB 764, intended to add PTSD and "intractable pain" to the list of ailments that could be legally treated with medicinal cannabis oil.

“Those are two of the most corrupt individuals I’ve met,” Clark said. His emotional outburst was unusual, the naming of names and could have derailed the evening.

If Ralston’s smoothing visit wasn’t spurred by Clark’s tirade, it was at least serendipitous. Afterwards, in its closing minutes, the House took Cagle’s legislation to establish a study commission on medicinal marijuana, added Clark’s two new categories, and sent it back to the Senate. They approved it.

Ralston and Cagle have had an occasionally stormy relationship, including the stalemate over adoption legislation that ended last year’s legislative session.

But Ralston will soon be the only remaining cornerstone of a triumvirate that has ruled Georgia politics for much of the last decade. Gov. Nathan Deal is term-limited and Cagle is running for his job.

"I don't know what the future holds, but I know Casey Cagle is my friend. And I want to wish him well and y'all well."

As he walked out the door, your Insider remarked to Ralston what a strange sight that made. Ralston seemed to agree.

“That’s a little history,” he said.

Example 2: Cagle and Ralston both banged the final gavel about 10 minutes into Friday, breaking an agreed-upon resolution that called for a midnight end to the session.

Shortly before they did, the Senate approved a measure that allows more automated security cameras to crack down on speeders in school zones.

It’s exactly the type of proposal the Senate may have held back on if there were a feud. Why? Ralston’s son was among the lobbyists pushing the bill.

Example 3: Around 12:45 a.m. today, the leaders sent out a joint press release, praising their own accomplishments this session, including a compromise over the very adoption bill that stymied them last year.

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We told you earlier this week about DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond's "state of the county" address at Stone Mountain Park, and his renewed effort to push the park's history beyond a Lost Cause telling of the Civil War.

We had state Sen. Fran Miller, R-Dunwoody, on GPB's "Political Rewind" on Thursday -- we relocated to the state Capitol for the hour. Millar, who represents north DeKalb, said Thurmond was on point.

“I don’t know how anybody would argue with that, the fact that you’re trying to set history straight,” Miller said. “I think his heart is in the right place. He’s not going to be sandblasting Stone Mountain, and yet he’s going to want to put some things in historical context. And I think that’s what’s necessary.”

That’s the first Republican endorsement of Thurmond’s project we’ve heard.

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Buried in our AJC colleague Alexis Stevens' story about Andrew Ekonomou, the longtime Atlanta lawyer who just joined President Donald Trump's legal team, is a little Georgia politics nugget worth remembering. Then-Georgia U.S. Sen. Max Cleland had recommended Ekonomou for a federal judgeship during Bill Clinton's administration. But the president never nominated him and more than a year later Ekonomou withdrew his name from consideration.

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Watching a Georgia lawmaker's workout class isn't exactly something we were seeking out on a Friday morning, but U.S. Rep. Tom Graves' "miserable" bipartisan gym class is certainly something to behold.