published Friday, August 26th, 2011

Gov. Deal backs off transport tax delay

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ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signaled Thursday that he’s backing off efforts to delay a transportation tax vote to the November 2012 general election, a schedule change that supporters hope would boost the measure’s chance of winning voter approval.

Deal told reporters at the state Capitol that if lawmakers want to consider moving the date of the vote when the Legislature reconvenes next year, they can. But the Republican governor said he won’t play a leading role in the effort.

“If there’s a reason to revisit it in January, that can be done, but right now that is not on my agenda items,” Deal said. “It will be left up to the members of the General Assembly.”

Earlier, Deal had said it was important to put the vote on the general election ballot to allow more Georgians weigh in. He and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had been publicly spearheading the effort to shift the date.

The plan, adopted by legislators earlier this year, allows 12 regions around the state to ask voters whether to raise their sales tax by 1 cent to pay for a pre-approved list of transportation projects. The public votes are set for July 2012. But supporters — including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce — had pressed to delay the vote until the November general election. Deal added the date change to the short list of issues the lawmakers could take up during their special session.

which is primarily focused on redrawing legislative and congressional maps.

Georgia tea party groups weighed in against the move, unless all local tax votes were changed as well. And support for the bill — which had sailed through a House committee with a unanimous vote — quickly crumbled.

Deal was left red-faced as negotiations faltered. Early Wednesday, his spokesman said a deal had been struck to move the measure forward. But House Speaker David Ralston stepped forward soon afterward to caution that there was no agreement. By the day’s end the governor announced the issue was off the table for the special session.

Deal told reporters Thursday he couldn’t bridge deep divisions between the House and the Senate.

“I just did not feel like it was worth wasting any more time on that issue,” Deal said.

And Deal — who campaigned against tax hikes when running for governor — volunteered that the transportation tax plan was never his idea to begin with.

“This was a piece of legislation that passed before I became governor,” he said. “If they (lawmakers) are satisfied with the date, that’s fine with me as well.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, an early supporter of the transportation tax, called the breakdown frustrating

“At the end of the day, the governor was very committed,” Cagle, a Republican, said. “I was committed to helping him, but others were not as committed. There is no leadership in the Senate, and therein lies the problem. I think it’s an issue that the Senate certainly has to deal with, because the Senate doesn’t need to continue to be in a weakened position on significant issues.”

Ralston said Thursday he would take up the date change again in January when lawmakers reconvene for the regular session, but only if they could build more consensus around the issue.

Ralston said “it was always a reach” to add the issue to the special session focused on redistricting.

“There just wasn’t enough time to do it in a way where we could reach an agreement,” he said.

Cagle was less committal, saying that there would be significant discussion about how to move forward after the special session and before the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“As far as, should we take this up again in January or not ... that decision has not been made,” Cagle said. “People really needed to know now. They’ve got a campaign to plan. It may be too late in January. I think the likelihood of it coming back up in January is somewhat diminished.”

Cagle said those working on both sides of the transportation tax issue would have needed a full year to prepare, which they would have had if the Legislature had approved the date change during the special session.

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