The Metro Atlanta Chamber will make expanding transit, workforce development and heading off laws that might be discriminatory as its top state legislative priorities in 2016.
Those key legislative aims all go toward the chamber’s goals of job growth, improving the state’s business climate and sustaining the region’s quality of life, said outgoing chamber chairman Larry Gellerstedt said during the organization’s annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown Atlanta.
The transit push will ride on the coattails of the state business community’s successful push during last year’s session to raise taxes for nearly $1 billion per year in new revenue for transportation projects. Those taxes will go to roads and bridges, and the next step chamber leaders said, is to expand mass transit.
It won’t be an easy push in an election year when many tax-averse lawmakers cast votes to raise gasoline taxes just one year ago.
But transit has emerged as a major factor in businesses’ growth planning, as well as the region’s job growth momentum and retaining and attracting young professionals, Gellerstedt said.
Gellerstedt, who is the CEO of real estate development and investment firm Cousins Properties, said he met in the past week with the CEOs of two major companies that relocated to the Atlanta region in the past 18 months.
“The No. 1 thing from both of them was: ‘We love Atlanta. We’ve got to do something about traffic, and it’s got to be transit.’”
Fulton County and its cities are examining a local transportation sales tax program and MARTA has crafted a plan to expand its rail network through a bond program funded by a half-penny sales tax. The MARTA plan would require legislative action to approve the sales tax increase and long-term bonds.
But balancing the interests of local communities who need to fund road projects and expanding regional transit with finite resources will not be easy, Gellerstedt said.
The chamber has not taken a specific stance on individual projects or a funding plan, but the chamber said it wants to facilitate discussions and help elected leaders make informed decisions.
Getting smaller municipalities on board with expanding MARTA rail got tougher with a recent harshly-worded resolution by the city of Johns Creek that said it had no desire to pay for an expansion of the transit system.
Chamber polling has found “a key component to passing anything for an extra half-penny is going to be transit,” Gellerstedt said. “If you look at the polling, a half-penny for roads only doesn’t poll that strongly.”
Gellerstedt also said that the state has a vested interest in providing a dedicated funding source for mass transit like it does with other infrastructure, such as highways.
“Long term it’s in the state’s interest,” he said.
In a briefing before the chamber of commerce’s annual meeting, outgoing chamber Gellerstedt also said the business alliance will oppose any legislation that could be discriminatory.
This coming election year has already seen heated rhetoric about immigrants, Syrian refugees, a proposal by leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the country and a continued debate over religious liberty in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.
Gellerstedt mentioned a proposed religious liberty bill that business leaders helped scuttle last year that critics say could discriminate against gays and lesbians. The chamber has said the bill could hurt Georgia’s reputation and cost jobs.
Gellerstedt said any such bill should have anti-discrimination language.
“To attract to people to this city, as great as this city is, we have to have a completely inclusive place where everybody is welcome,” said incoming chamber Chairman and SunTrust executive Jenner Wood. “That benefits not only the citizens of Georgia but it benefits the businesses that needs the workers. We won’t tolerate any discrimination. We want to be known as being inclusive.”
Asked about recent debate over Syrian refugees in Georgia and comments by Trump on Muslim travel bans, Gellerstedt said: “Anything that discriminates against any group, we are not going to be for. That will be (our) base and there won’t be waffling on that.”