School tax vote bodes well for transit money -- maybe

Despite the no-new taxes drum beat in modern politics, many metro Atlanta voters showed they have a tolerance for at least some taxes, as nine area school districts voted in favor of continuing a penny tax for education.

While that is perhaps a positive for folks pushing for yet another penny-on-the-dollar tax for transportation headed to the voters next year, experts say another yes vote is far from certain.

"What it says is that voters aren't turning their backs on adding new taxes, at least when it comes to education," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "But this shouldn't be seen as any tea-leaf prediction for what the voters might do next year. Transportation is entirely a different animal."

Tuesday's vote extended the special purpose local option sales tax for five years and is expected to raise $3.2 billion for school construction and repair in Atlanta, Buford, Decatur, as well as Cherokee, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett and Henry counties.

The transportation vote would raise taxes by a penny, , but for a bigger area and for twice as long.  Next year, voters in the 10-county Atlanta region (Fulton, DeKalb, Cherokee, Cobb, Gwinnett, Douglas, Henry, Clayton, Fayette and Rockdale) will consider a a tax increase to pay for a list of transportation projects that was drawn up last month. The tax is expected to raise $6.14 billion over 10 years for projects of regional significance, plus another $1 billion for smaller local projects.

Backers of the tax have eight months to sway voters, who can expect a "significantly" more intense campaign, said Kevin Ross, who is helping to lead it. Private businesses are raising more than $5 million to sell the transportation plan to voters.

"One thing we would take out of [Tuesday's] outcomes is, when the voters find there is a need that needs to be addressed they’re willing to respond." Times are tough, though, he acknowledged, and "We've got to make our case."

Tuesday's elections saw other mixed messages for the T-SPLOST. Support for the education tax softened compared to previous years -- which could be a measure of voter tolerance for taxes -- and only one of a pair of politicians who backed the transportation tax survived Tuesday's vote.

This was the fourth time the ESPLOST went to the voters since it was first introduced in the mid-1990s, but approval margins in key counties dropped including Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett.

Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews sat on the 21-member panel that drew up the transportation project list for the referendum, and as part of the Cobb County delegation dealt with arguably the most controversial decisions on the project list, concerning mass transit. He handily kept his seat.

Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele, who also sat on the panel, lost his.

Bob Frey, who is organizing Tea Party opposition to the transportation tax, said local needs are one thing, but the transportation tax is regional.  If it fails in one county but passes the region overall, that county still pays the tax, and gets the projects.

Voters "will tolerate a local tax," Frey said. The transportation tax "puts a tax on some people that get no benefit," when projects are too far away from where they live.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll this fall showed that the transportation tax has a fragile lead, at best. To pass overall it must have strong support in voter-rich Fulton and DeKalb counties. The education tax passage there could be a good omen for the transportation tax.  But it also means they'll already be paying extra for services when they're asked to add a penny for transportation.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was worried enough about it that he tried in vain to get the proposed Atlanta education tax reduced to less than a penny.

He said in a statement Wednesday that he remained "100 percent committed" to working for the transportation tax.

Voters are divided -- some open to the region's education and transportation needs, some weary of scandal and tired of taxes.

"I've voted in favor of these taxes before, but they broke our trust and they misused our money," Charles Gripper, a grandparent of a DeKalb student who voted against the E-SPLOST, and

plans to vote against the transportation tax next year.

Jacqueline Riley, who has two children in DeKalb schools, said that metro Atlanta needs the tax for education.

"Every child at every school should have a chance to have a quality education," she said.

She said that she would consider voting for a transportation tax.

Bullock said that there is at least some good news for proponents of the transportation tax vote.

"If the ESPLOST failed," it would have been a clear signal that the voters have no appetite at all for new taxes," he said. "This at least says that the door is still open."

To see The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's previous coverage of the transportation referendum and a link to the project list, go to