Transportation tax puts some Georgia incumbents on rocky road

Statewide primary

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As bulldozers and pavers rumble across Georgia building and repairing roads, many Republicans lawmakers are getting pounded in their primaries because they voted to raise taxes to pay for the transportation projects.

Some say it could even help topple incumbents in districts where the transportation taxes are a campaign albatross. But those being threatened are getting major financial help from businesses that are benefiting from the road-spending spree.

Proponents of the transportation taxes, including business leaders and highway contractors, have contributed more than $350,000 to Republican and Democratic incumbents as well as political action committees and groups supporting those who voted for the measure in the final hours of the 2015 legislative session.

Among them, the Georgia Highway Contractors Association contributed at least $105,000 to legislative incumbents since the vote (during a similar period in 2003-2004, it contributed about $56,000). Highway builder C.W. Matthews’ total comes in at about $114,000 since the middle of the 2015 session. Yancey Bros., a construction equipment company, gave $85,000. And the Metro Atlanta Chamber, which helped spearhead support at the state Capitol during debate, has thrown in more than $50,000.

“We are backing candidates who support strong job-creating policies and are working on solutions to provide for Georgia’s long-term economic growth,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, the chief policy officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

In addition, the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce that was instrumental in shaping the transportation plan, has promoted the measure across the state.

The 2015 vote and Gov. Nathan Deal's subsequent approval OK'd a sweeping transportation funding plan that provides about $900 million annually for road and bridge improvements statewide. Opponents derided the effort because it raised gas taxes and created a new $5-per-night hotel tax to help pay for the projects.

While the political spending has favored those who voted for the bill, opponents have also opened their wallets. Among them is the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association, which has given at least $26,000 in the same period and opposed the $5-per-night fee.

“Look, you have to understand if you’re a smaller property and especially if you’re on the state border, if your rate is $50 a night — that’s a 10 percent increase,” said Bill Henderson, the chairman of the hotel association’s board and general manager at the Westin Atlanta Airport hotel. “Somebody, instead of staying in Columbus, Georgia, may keep going and stay in Phenix City, Alabama.”

‘Promise was … to cut taxes’

State primaries will be held May 24 in Georgia. In one of the state’s highest-profile races, Republican House Speaker David Ralston of Blue Ridge, faces retired wrestling coach Sam Snider, whom Ralston dispatched with ease in 2014. But Snider has latched on to the transportation tax hike as one of the main reasons voters should give him another look.

“Two years ago, when I lost with only 35 percent of the vote, the promise was made to cut taxes, red tape and to create jobs,” Snider said at an April forum in Fannin County. “And in the first session (after the election) taxes were increased $1 billion a year for transportation.”

Ralston, however, said the gas tax was “probably the most fair tax there is,” and he added that he worked to obtain transportation funding “so we can maintain our roads and improve and replace two long-overdue major bridge projects, or funding for the Highway 5 improvement project that has been promised by the state to this community for almost 30 years.”

As it happens, since the vote, the House speaker has received about $30,000 in contributions from road construction and related companies.

In the nearby Senate District 51, incumbent Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, faces many of the same attacks. Gooch was the Senate Transportation Committee’s chairman in 2015, meaning his fingerprints were all over the final product. After the transportation plan passed, those who supported it or stand to benefit contributed nearly $50,000 to Gooch’s campaign — 25 percent of all the money he raised in that time. Road pavers, contractors, engineers, lobbyists and equipment companies all pitched in.

“He sponsored the largest tax increase in the state of Georgia,” John Williamson, Gooch’s opponent in the May 24 Republican primary, said Monday during a candidate forum in Dawsonville. “I felt betrayed. And mad. And that’s why I decided we should at least have a challenge to the incumbent who voted in that direction.”

Gooch said the tax increase was vital to improving transportation in the state.

"We're seeing some of the fruits of our labor," he said, pointing to work underway on the Ga. 400 and I-285 interchange. Soon, he said, work will begin on Ga. 400 in Forsyth County and a new exit added to the main route to Dawson County.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars are coming to North Georgia,” he said. “We’ll continue to invest in that infrastructure because we have that revenue flow now.”

In fact, the Department of Transportation announced Wednesday that it awarded $246.5 million in contracts for construction projects across the state, the largest monthly investment in Georgia since 2006.

To the west in Dalton, a mill town dubbed the carpet capital of the world, an incumbent in Senate District 54 who voted for the transportation plan admitted the hotel fee was hard to swallow.

“I thought it was a bad idea to do it as a part of the transportation bill and at a set amount,” Republican state Sen. Charlie Bethel said. “But I didn’t run for dictator. I ran for senator, and you have to make decisions with everybody else. And historically, funding levels (for transportation in Georgia) have been inadequate to keep up with the pace of the growth of our economy and the growth of our population.”

Bethel, however, drew an opponent in the GOP primary who cites the taxes as a back-breaker in an area still hurting from the recession.

“People are struggling already and these mills, they’ve started coming back up, but it’s a slow process,” first-time candidate Conda Goodson said. “It just seems like they’re taxing everything.”

‘Serious trouble’ for incumbent

In the Cherokee County-based House District 21, Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, faces business owner Kevin Moore. Much of Turner’s district overlaps with Senate District 21, where investor Aaron Barlow of Milton is challenging incumbent Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta.

Beach, a former member of the state Transportation Board, has received about $33,000 from road construction and related companies since the vote and has been hammered by Barlow for his support of the plan.

It shows, Turner said.

“When I go knock on a door where Aaron has been, people ask me about (the transportation plan),” said Turner, who voted against it. “They ask me how I voted and what I thought about it. I think Brandon is in some serious trouble.”

Seventy percent of Senate District 21 is in Cherokee County, Turner said.

Asked whether he ever hears from voters who wish he had voted for the transportation plan, Turner said, “No.”

“Because I’m targeting Republican voters,” he said. “They thank me for the vote. We’ve got a mail piece hammering that home, that not only did I vote against it but that I was trying to offer alternatives.”

It’s an important point in today’s political climate, he said.

“People are upset with the Republican Party in general, and those of us who continue to toe the traditional smaller government, fewer taxes line, we have to go above and beyond to communicate to voters we kept our promises,” Turner said. “We voted against higher taxes.”