Georgia's Metro Breakthrough: Self-Tax Power, Region by Region

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- "Sodom and Gomorrah," Biblical cities destroyed by God for the sins of their inhabitants, is a term that rural politicians used to vilify Atlanta. At county barbecues, they'd rail against the alleged debauchery of Georgia's lead city.

Habits persist: Even today, the state of Georgia does little for the city that put it on the world economic map. The story is not totally unique: there's perennial suspicion, especially in rural and small-town areas, of America's top cities and metropolitan regions--even as these "citistates" become the engines of creative activity that drive entire statewide and U.S. economies.

But in Georgia, the ice has started to melt. With strong bipartisan support from a conservative Republican governor and a liberal Democratic mayor, and with a determined Chamber of Commerce president leading the campaign, the Georgia Legislature has finally agreed to let the Atlanta region--and in the process others around the state--vote on whether they want to add a penny sales tax for transportation improvements.

For the Atlanta region, this is close to a make-or-break move. With its spectacular economic growth of recent decades, the area has been convulsed by world-class traffic gridlock. The region's roadway and anemic public transportation systems lag so seriously that metropolitan Atlanta is becoming three or four "truncated" labor markets, very difficult to commute in or among. The situation threatens to trigger some corporate move-outs and represents a red flag for potential new employers.

But the state government, up to now, hasn't seemed to care--a reflection, it seems of its rural, anti-Atlanta prejudices. And those prejudices are ingrained. Case in point: while state governments nationwide provide about 15 percent of their cities' operating budgets, for Atlanta the figure is just 2 percent, according to consultant firm Bain & Company and National League of Cities reports.

The traffic impasse became a cause celebre for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and its president, Sam Williams. He recounts how "we beat the drum for four years" to get permission for a regional transportation sales tax add-on, enlisting aid of the Georgia State Chamber, top Atlanta corporations, county officials and mayors, plus Chamber allies in such regions as Savannah and Macon.

A pointed message was also telegraphed to would-be candidates for state office: Their position on transportation funding would be a "litmus test" of whether they could expect campaign support from the business community.

Then Williams and his allies claimed a dollars and cents carrot--that the new transportation funding would add, in 10 years, about $7 billion to $8 billion of private sector investment that otherwise couldn't be expected. …