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A group of metro Atlanta residents recently hit the road -- literally -- to publicize its opposition to a 1 percent sales tax to help fund dozens of transportation projects across the region. They drove around I-285 with their vehicles decorated to signify their disapproval of the proposed tax.
Many of the reasons the group, Lights for Liberty, opposes the tax have been well-documented. But there was one claim on the list we hadn’t seen much of before.
Voters will decide the tax in a Tuesday referendum after a hard-fought campaign by supporters and opponents. .
"The tax proceeds will be spent to complete a project list in which the voting public had no say," Lights for Liberty said in a press release.
No say, you say?
PolitiFact Georgia took a ride on the information superhighway to see if the group’s claim is correct. We were particularly curious about this one since we rated True a statement several months ago that 200,000 residents had a chance "to identify projects they preferred."
The Georgia General Assembly voted in 2010 to allow a voter referendum this year that gives citizens the choice to increase the sales tax for projects that proponents believe will reduce traffic congestion. State officials and transportation planners in a 10-county region that encompasses and surrounds Atlanta came up with hundreds of ideas. Those 10 counties are Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.
A regional "roundtable" of 21 elected officials was charged with winnowing the wish list to a final list of projects that could realistically be paid for during the 10 years the tax is scheduled to be in effect. The elected officials included the head of each of the 10 county governments, a mayor from each of those counties and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Atlanta lies in both Fulton and DeKalb counties.
In October 2011, 18 of those 21 officials present unanimously approved the list of more than 150 projects.
A few months before that vote, in June 2011, roundtable staff held a telephone town hall meeting in each of the 10 counties. An estimated 1.3 million area residents were called (there are slightly more than 3 million adults in the region) and encouraged to ask questions. About 134,000 participated in the town hall meetings and were asked a specific question concerning transportation in their county.
In September 2011, roundtable officials held meetings in each county where maps of the proposed projects were shown. Attendees were able to take a survey about the projects and talk to the staff. Afterward, an hour-long question-and-answer session was held between the public and staff.
The Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network pointed out these and other efforts to engage the public when we fact-checked their claim that 200,000 people have the opportunity to identify projects they preferred.
Lights for Liberty is a grassroots group with about a dozen members. A Lights for Liberty member said he was aware of the outreach, but still believed the claim in the group’s press release is on target that the public had no say in completing the project list.
"Maybe, there was an attempt to talk to the people, but the people weren’t really involved in this," said Billy Wise, who lives in Gwinnett County and describes himself as a taxpayer advocate.
Wise argues there has been no cost-benefit analysis of the projects. He has decried the lack of public input in the referendum. Wise said telephone town hall meetings aren’t the best method to get public input from people who are busy raising a family and working and have had little time to digest the proposed sales tax.
"The guy out there mowing his lawn would absolutely have no clue (about the tax) and I think a lot of that happened here," he said. "I’ve been a phone screener and I’ve gotten a lot of ‘What?’ or people hanging up."
In Cobb County, leaders hit the brakes on plans for a light rail line from the Cumberland area to the MARTA Arts Center station in Atlanta after residents, tea party activists and others voiced their opposition to the idea. Meanwhile, many south DeKalb County residents have literally begged for a rail line to the Stonecrest area, with no success.
Wise makes an interesting argument that average voters haven’t had a fair shot at weighing in on a list that was approved by 18 elected officials.
The shift from the rail line in Cobb, however, shows the voting public has had a say in the project list. There have been varying degrees of public involvement on the list, much of it minor.
Still, there is a grain of truth in the Lights for Liberty statement.
Our rating on this one: Mostly False.
Lights for Liberty website, http://www.lightsforliberty.com/
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Atlanta region’s $6.14 billion transportation list ready for voters," Oct. 13, 2011
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Cobb wants transit tax money switched to toll lanes," Jan. 24, 2012
Atlanta Regional Roundtable list of members, http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/documents/roundtable_members_roster.pdf
Atlanta Regional Roundtable telephone town hall summary report, http://www.atlantaregionalroundtable.com/documents/final_tth_report_7-7-2011.pdf
PolitiFact Georgia, "MAVEN: 200,000 given chance to sound off on tax," April 13, 2012
Telephone interview with Lights for Liberty supporter Billy Wise, July 20, 2012.
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