Charlie Harper: Five Georgias: Atlanta’s Urban Core

Charlie Harper

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

In this, the third in a series explaining the regions that make up Georgia’s political factions, we’re going begin to take a look at each region one by one, beginning today with Atlanta’s Urban Core.  For purposes of review, the other regions are Suburban Atlanta, The Mountains, South Georgia, and Coastal Georgia.  This is an exploration into the economic and cultural forces that enable each region to form political coalitions as no individual region has dominant power to stand alone on any legislative matter.

We’re going to start with Urban Atlanta to help illustrate what we’re not talking about with respect to dividing lines, in order to later help illustrate where those lines likely are.  The Urban Core is a land of haves and have nots.  It encompasses neighborhoods that are among the most prosperous in the state.  It also has Georgians suffering from some of the state’s worst poverty. The majority of the region is non-white, but there are many neighborhoods that are mostly white.

Because of all of these differences, there was quite a bit of feedback from last week’s column suggesting that this region should be further divided.  Such division may be in Urban Atlanta’s future.  But for now, this region elects almost exclusively Democratic legislators in a state where Republicans are dominant.  It remains one region not because of its political power, but for lack of it.

This is not to say that the Urban Core lacks political power.  The political power in this region lies in the economic engines contained within, and the Republicans’ belief that local control is nearly infallible.

Were it not for Atlanta’s economic power and the understood though scarcely ever said out loud fact that for suburbs to remain prosperous satellites the big city must be viable and healthy, Republicans would have long since gone to war with the big city. 

Sure, there’s the occasional sabre rattling.  As Republicans came to statewide power there was talk of privatizing Hartsfield Jackson Airport or placing it under a state authority.  Then there was 2010 gubernatorial candidate John Oxendine’s plan to raze much of East Atlanta to build a freeway parallel to the downtown connector.  Many believed that was more of a plan to curry favor with Atlanta loathing suburbanites than an actual plan to fix traffic.

The reality is those with the duty to balance Georgia’s checkbook understand that a healthy urban core is essential to keep tax revenues flowing, and public assistance to a minimum.  For Georgia to be prosperous, all of Georgia must work to its best ability, and that starts with the Urban Core.

Many within the core grouse about the lack of state help on certain issues, with transit being chief among them.  And yet, the principle of local control should probably get more credit from those in the core than it does. 

Georgia hasn’t changed its statewide sales tax since the administration of Governor Zell Miller, now set at 4%.  The use of special purposes local option taxes has accelerated since that time. 

The two counties that have most of the population of Atlanta’s Urban Core – Fulton and DeKalb – have base sales tax rates of 7.75% and 7%, respectively.  The parts of these counties covering the City of Atlanta rake in 8.9%.  These counties pump a disproportionate share of the state’s 4% sales tax that is divided among residents in Georgia’s 159 counties. 

In the City of Atlanta, more than half of the sales taxes generated remain in the city where much of Georgia does its shopping, recreation, and convention businesses. It’s likely that many in the rest of Georgia that don’t want to pay for urban issues have no idea that by relying on local funding and keeping state taxes low, they’re actually keeping money from flowing to state coffers, not from them.

These sales taxes and the transit issue also help draw the dividing line between the Urban Core and the City of Atlanta.  Atlanta increased their sales taxes to fund expansion of MARTA during the 2016 session.  Fulton County outside of Atlanta passed a smaller tax to fund road improvements and maintenance. 

North Fulton is clearly in “Suburban Atlanta”.  The City of Atlanta remains within the Urban Core.  Sandy Springs separates the two, and depending on the issue, could be considered part of either region.

What currently holds the Urban Core together as one region is the need to work together to exert as much influence as the region can while being represented by members of the minority party.  Those within the core largely do not represent the social conservatism that became fully enjoined to the Republican party during the 1980’s with the rise of the Christian coalition.  The politics of the Core is much more likely to be a coalition of those who oppose the politics and tactics of social conservatism.

The Core is likely to hold as one region despite its differences so long as Republicans hold sway at the state level.  If and when the day comes that Democrats again assume the majority party position in Georgia, the Core would likely quickly redefine itself (as Republicans themselves have done), with the disparate members of the coalition of the Core asserting individual influence over their new found majority.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.