The TSPLOST Debate: Statewide, grassroots group opposes funding proposal
By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
(Editor’s note: This is the second package of articles in a two-day series looking at the TSPLOST proposal to be voted on on July 31.)
The statewide vote on regional transportation sales taxes is less than two month away, and a statewide, grassroots organization has formed to oppose the tax — and counter the pro-tax information being disseminated.
The one-percent sales tax, popularly known as TSPLOST — for Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax — would last for 10 years, if approved. The sales tax will apply to most purchases, including groceries, but not to gasoline. The sales tax on gasoline would not increase with the passage of the TSPLOST.
The regional sales taxes will be voted on on July 31, during the non-partisan election and general election primary.
The all-volunteer Transportation Leadership Coalition operates the website www.traffictruth.net . The website has been up for a while now, but it previously only had a single page, with one fact sheet download and the ability to sign up for newsletters.
The site “went live” last week, providing more information.
And more information should be added as time goes on, say representatives.
“We are going to be having a press conference soon to talk about ‘Plan B,’” said Claire Bartlett of the Transportation Leadership Coalition.
The group is also looking for leaders from all the different regions of the state. Bartlett said they have people from six of the 12 regions so far.
Coweta County is one of the 10 counties in the Three Rivers region, and residents of Three Rivers will vote on a package of projects for counties in this region. This is a separate set of projects from those being considered for the metro Atlanta counties served for transportation planning purposes by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“We really don’t have anybody from the Three Rivers area, but I’m hoping that we can get somebody involved soon,” Bartlett said.
There is a region-by-region section of the website, and they’d like to get more information on Three Rivers for that, Bartlett said. They’d like for the website to be a central spot where people from the region can go for information.
Anyone interested in getting information from the Transportation Leadership Coalition can sign up for alerts on the website. Most alerts and e-mails that are sent out are specific to the region the receiver lives in.
The group is also printing yard signs.
There is a “volunteer” button on the main page of the website. There are downloadable handbills and fact sheets, and also information about how to participate with social media, from liking the organization’s Facebook site to retweeting on Twitter and using certain Twitter hashtags. There’s also a blog that volunteers can contribute to.
The Transportation Leadership Coalition got started when an e-mail was sent to several people in the state inviting them to a meeting, which was held in March.
There were between 75 and 100 people at the first meeting, Bartlett said. Most were from the Atlanta Regional Commission area, but there were some from other regions.
“We had the meeting, kind of divided ourselves up into groups and focuses and functions,” and starting getting busy. “We’re working hard,” Bartlett said. “There are some people in our group who have been following this since 2008,” she said, while others have only recently gotten involved.
The TLC is a non-partisan organization, Bartlett said.
“It’s more of an issues-based thing,” she said. “In fact, I’ve had people call from the Republican Party in certain counties, and then from the Democratic Party in the same county,” she said. “So we’re trying to put them together. Politics makes strange bedfellows.”
The group is up against well-organized and well-funded public relations campaigns.
“We’re up against at least an $8 million campaign,” Bartlett said. And one of the advertising agencies working on the pro-TSPLOST campaign is the same one that came up with the “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” advertising campaign.
“So we’re up against some pretty PR-savvy folks,” Bartlett said. “We’re just an all-volunteer organization trying to get the facts out there.”
From the other side, “we’ve seen a lot of stuff come out that, quite honestly, I would say is more propaganda than reality,” she said. She mentioned a recent “info graphic” put out that shows people are more likely to get divorced, be overweight, and have back problems if they have a commute longer than a certain time.
The information being put out by the pro-TSPLOST camp is “done by PR organizations and we understand that,” Bartlett said. “But our focus is really just on the facts and the truth and — let’s make logical decisions, and decisions that make the most sense for the region and the state.”
There are two major pro-TSPLOST campaigns, both of which are associated with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
In the Atlanta region, there is the UntieAtlanta.com site, paid for by Citizens for Transportation Mobility, and the TransformmetroAtlanta.com site, put together by the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network (MAVEN).
In the rest of the state, there is ConnectGeorgia2012.com . Information on the homepage says the site is paid for by Doug Callaway, president of the Georgia Transportation Alliance.
The Georgia Transportation Alliance has been seeking campaign contributions, via e-mail. An e-mail from Callaway was released on Monday. In part, the e-mail states: “With our limited resources, our attempts to fund the TPLOST education campaign in every corner of the state are restricted ... our greatest need is the funding required to make our message more effective.”
The fundraising e-mail also had links to information on the Connect Georgia website.
Callaway ends his e-mail message by saying: “This is the start of local dollars being used for local transportation improvements. Only with your help can we continue to share this message and give voters a chance to make an informed decision on July 31.”
Members of the TLC have been paying close attention to what the pro-TSPLOST groups are saying.
Some have heard representatives from the Atlanta region and MARTA talking about funding MARTA maintenance and operations with TSLOST proceeds, Bartlett said, “when that is clearly outside of the bounds” of what is laid out in the law.
The TSPLOST was created by the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, better known as “TIA.”
The TLC has put together a speakers bureau as well as a marketing and messaging team. They’ve been gathering information for the website. “It’s finally not bare bones” Bartlett said, and “we’re going to be adding a lot more.”
“We get calls from all over the state because people are wanting things like yard signs,” Bartlett said.
“We’re anticipating a ramp up by the MAVEN/Citizens for Transportation Mobility/ Connect Georgia alliance,” Bartlett said, and for “the chamber of commerce to start kicking in in the next couple of weeks,” Bartlett said. “We’re kind of in that post-school lull right now. Soon we’ll see it, those millions of dollars coming into play,” she said.
“We’re David versus Goliath,” Bartlett said.
“But with an army of Davids, I think ... Goliath can be a big target.”