“So 400,000 people are going to vote, 160,000 of them are going to vote ‘yes,’ 160,000 of them are going to vote ‘no’ — that’s a given,” Leithead said. “So it’s the rest, and the rest is about 80,000 people, and finding out who those people are and making sure they’re informed as to the choice they’re making is what we’re working to do.”
Leithead spoke with the Journal about the proposed 10-year, 1 percent sales tax increase following the Thursday meeting of the Cumberland Community Improvement District’s board of directors, which he also chairs.
He gave an update on the two-pronged campaign to pass the referendum, saying the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network led by developer Bob Voyles and lobbyist Michael Paris has committed to spending $2.1 million to educate the public about the referendum. That money has largely come from CIDs in metro Atlanta.
The advocacy arm of the campaign — Citizens for Transportation Mobility, chaired by Post Proprieties CEO Dave Stockert — has targeted raising $6.1 million.
“Last time I heard, they were at about $5.5 (million),” Leithead said. “They’re well on their way. ... They’ve developed the TV spots. They’ve budgeted for the salaries of the consultants. All that’s done. The more they can raise, the more you’re going to see them on TV.”
Leithead cited a recent Metro Atlanta Chamber poll that revealed that out of 650 likely voters, 51 percent favored and 33 percent opposed the tax increase.
“The opposition is very vocal,” Leithead said. “Clearly, it’s become a campaign issue. In the public meetings, recently one in Cherokee, we’re seeing around the region, the opposition tends to turn out in force and be very vocal in their opposition.”
At the same time, Leithead said the challenge he’s run into is that many people aren’t even aware of the referendum.
“It’s totally anecdotal, but I’m finding that if people are at a cocktail party or playing bridge, when you say, ‘what do you think about the upcoming transportation referendum,’ the No. 1 question is ‘what’s that?’ There’s some extraordinary percentage of the population that is simply not informed about the issue.”
Leithead addressed the argument that some, like Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairman candidate Bill Byrne have made, which is that the proposed tax is unconstitutional.
While there is clear constitutional law regarding statewide and local elections, this is the first time the Georgia Legislature has called for regional elections. In statewide elections, everyone knows that the governor is in charge, just as in county elections, everyone knows the commission is in charge, but who is in charge of the $8.5 billion project list for the region if the tax is approved, Leithead asked.
“It’s going to be the Citizens Oversight Committee is going to be responsible for being the voice of the region,” he said, answering his question.
That will be a five-member group made up of two appointments by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and three appointments by Speaker David Ralston, appointments that have not been made yet.
“If there is a constitutional challenge to the referendum, it will be on the basis that I just said that there’s no precedent for regional binding elections where 10 counties agree to be bound by the majority in that region,” Leithead said. “On the other hand, up or down, pass or fail, it is a referendum that’s going to the people of the region, so you’re not talking about a challenge to overturn the legislation, you’re talking about a challenge to overturn the vote of the majority of the people and … all of us recognize that the will of the people is what really is most important to this country.”
He also addressed a suggestion made by people like state Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation), who believes the current project list should be voted down and a new list be prepared and voted on two years hence.
“I’ll tell you from an ARC perspective now, if we were asked in two years to develop a list, we would develop the same list,” Leithead said. “Now politics might be different, a different list might be selected based on whatever the process was in the new law, but in ARC’s professional opinion, the projects that were selected are the projects that needed to be selected.”