AJC poll: Georgians back transit, but say no to tax hike to pay for it

Georgians overwhelmingly support greater access to buses and trains to improve transportation in the state, but they have very little interest in increasing taxes to pay for them, an exclusive new poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

The poll, conducted Monday through Thursday, found nearly 60 percent of Georgians believe improving transportation is important and nearly 70 percent support new bus and rail lines. Yet only 36 percent of respondents said they’d pay higher taxes to fund any kind of transportation project.

That split in opinion exposes the challenge lawmakers will face when they return to Atlanta for the 40-day legislative session that begins Monday. A special study committee late last month released a report that shows the state needs at least $1 billion a year in new revenue just to handle routine maintenance and up to $5 billion a year to expand roads, fix bridges and create new rail lines for mass transit.

An increase in the state’s gas taxes and a general sales tax increase are among the options the committee identified to raise the money. But the AJC’s poll shows lawmakers have much work to do to persuade Georgians to go along.

Laura Caceres-Nall, 47, of Peachtree Corners feels certain the state can find the money it needs from existing sources.

“They should allocate the money better and be more responsible with the way they manage it,” she said. “Anything that increases the cost of living I don’t agree with. No more taxes.”

Some of the resistance to new or higher taxes is certainly related to Georgians’ continuing concerns about the state’s economy, availability of jobs and a lack of trust in the state’s leadership.

The poll found that Georgians are more concerned about the economy and jobs than any other issue, just as they have been each of the past three years that the AJC has conducted its pre-legislative session survey. And confidence in the state of Georgia’s economic situation has stagnated.

A year ago, 59 percent of respondents were satisfied with how things are going in Georgia. This year, 57 percent were satisfied. Last year, 40 percent said Georgia’s economy was good. Now, 42 percent believe the same. An additional 54 percent described the state as not doing so well or doing poorly economically.

That antipathy also shows itself in Georgians’ opinions of Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly. A year ago, Deal enjoyed a 54 percent approval rating in the AJC poll. Today, 47 percent give him the highest marks. The Legislature fared worse, with a 39 percent approval rating this year compared with 45 percent last year.

Deal, of course, was just re-elected with 53 percent of the vote, and only a handful of legislative incumbents lost elections.

Howard Walden is among those worried about the economy.

The 54-year-old Thomasville resident said jobs should be plentiful.

“But the people that have the money won’t create them,” Walden said. “It’s everybody’s problem.”

Walden also doesn’t put much trust in government and therefore isn’t keen on raising taxes to pay for transportation projects.

“They should have figured that out already,” he said. “There’s got to be another way.”

April Stanford of Gainesville would love to have a transit option to get to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Stanford, 41, has studied the issue. She says it takes an average of 2.3 minutes per mile to drive through metro Atlanta.

“If I had to go to the airport, it’s not going to be 2.3 for 60 miles,” she said. “I could jump on a train and get there and the airport (would be) more accessible.”

Unlike many, however, Stanford is willing to pay for improved transit and said she supports raising the gas tax.

While the transportation study committee identified a gas tax increase as one way to pay for new roads, it’s unclear whether the Legislature will actually consider it. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who has great say on those issues, would not commit to any funding plan last week.

“The one thing we can’t do is do nothing,” Ralston said. “I’m not sure what the something is going to look like yet. This is one of those issues that comes along every once in a while where we have to look down the road. This can is too big to kick down the road anymore.”

Georgians also have little interest in lowering the state income tax in exchange for paying higher state sales taxes, including any new tax on groceries. A solid 62 percent oppose the idea, compared with 34 percent who supported it.

How to raise cash to help fix Georgia’s aging transportation system will likely dominate the legislative session, but a number of hot-button issues have already sprung to life.

An overwhelming 84 percent of respondents supported legalizing a limited form of medical marijuana to treat certain conditions. The backing comes as state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has pushed legalization of cannabis oil to treat certain seizure disorders in both children and adults — afflictions that can cause hundreds of seizures a day and often lead to death.

The oil is harvested from the marijuana plant but does not create the high that recreational users of marijuana seek.

Peake was pleased with the poll results.

“This just confirms that Georgians are ready for safe, legal and timely access to medical cannabis,” he said, “and now it’s our job to find the right regulatory structure that is the most prudent and expeditious for the benefit of our citizens that are hurting.”

Meanwhile, a near majority in the poll also support going further: legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Nearly as many respondents, however, aren’t so sure. Forty-nine percent support fully legalizing marijuana, while 48 percent disagree.

Those results come after state Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, has proposed to provide Colorado-style access to marijuana at licensed retail shops while also allowing its use through medical providers for treatment of conditions including cancer, glaucoma and HIV/AIDS.

Efforts last year to allow Georgians to vote on Sunday also received overwhelming support, with 70 percent throwing their weight behind the concept. The backing comes after 11 counties joined in an effort for last year’s midterm election by holding early voting on Sunday, which has traditionally been an off day at the ballot box in the Peach State.

More than 12,800 voters took advantage of that decision, beating expectations. Deal and other GOP leaders, however, frowned on the practice since not all voters statewide had an opportunity to participate. There is no ban on the practice in state law, and other states also allow Sunday voting.

Many of those who took advantage of Sunday voting last year applauded its convenience.

“It just gives everybody that extra day, if that was the only time you had to go vote,” said Covington’s Kelly Boswell, 29, a stay-at-home mom of three who participated in the AJC poll.

Georgia law only sets a 21-day early-voting period and mandates that it include at least one Saturday. Otherwise, the schedule is left up to local officials. Those rules remain fine for a majority of respondents in the poll, with 52 percent saying there is no need to make any change to the state’s voting laws.

It was not unanimous, though.

Kalven Burton, 50, lives in Gwinnett County, and he would like to see Sunday set aside.

“I oppose Sunday voting,” Burton said. “Sunday is supposed to be a day of peace and worship. That’s the way I was raised. The way I was raised you went to church, then you came home and spent time with family, got ready for the week ahead and rested.”

Outfitting all police officers with body cameras received the highest ranking among Georgians in the poll, with 89 percent backing the idea. Senate Democrats are prepping legislation that could require both body cameras and vehicle cameras for all local police agencies. Many local officials, however, have asked for it to be voluntary because of the expected cost, which the state estimates to be as much as $125 million over three years for local agencies.

Georgians in the poll split on local issues, backing local control of minimum wages but nixing the idea of creating new cities.

A significant majority — 77 percent — said they liked the idea of allowing cities and counties to raise the minimum wage above the state’s current $5.15-an-hour rate. That can’t happen unless lawmakers loosen the reins. The Georgia General Assembly more than a decade ago barred local governments from requiring a minimum wage higher than the federal standard.

Milledgeville resident Henry Boyle, 70, was among those who liked the idea, saying that there should be some provision for local communities to decide what works for them.

“It’s getting back to community-based government,” said Boyle, a retired manager for the Colonial Bread Co. who still works a part-time job. “I don’t think the Legislature or the federal government should dictate as much as they try to. What works in one community might not work in another.”

Only 25 percent of respondents said they supported the creation of more metro Atlanta cities, an idea that has gripped some communities in DeKalb and Fulton counties. Sixty-nine percent gave the idea a thumbs-down.

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Staff writers Rosalind Bentley and Richard Halicks contributed to this article.