City slickers vs. good ol’ boys

Will new mayor improve rural vs. urban rivalry?

Tyrone Brooks has seen a lot of things in his 22 years as a state representative. But what he saw last week was a first.

Shirley Franklin, newly minted as Atlanta’s mayor, waltzed into the Capitol on the opening day of the 2002 Legislative session and addressed the state House of Representatives.

As the first Atlanta mayor to welcome lawmakers back to their Capitol in 13 years, she received a standing ovation. The same thing happened in the Senate.

“I have never seen a mayor of Atlanta get a standing ovation from this house,” says Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat. “It was very symbolic. Shirley’s presence meant a lot.”

The question is, is a symbol enough to thaw the chilly relations between urban lawmakers like Brooks and their rural colleagues?

Historically, bills that metro lawmakers take to the state General Assembly are dead on arrival. And it’s understandable. Voters in the rest of the state would rather their elected officials help them out, not the city slickers in Atlanta. That mindset has ensured that — whether the subject is Grady Hospital, Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport or MARTA — Atlanta and the metro area get the shaft.

“I have seen legislators on these floors curse Atlanta, literally using profanities and getting furious when someone brings a piece of legislation for Atlanta,” Brooks says.

The rift between rural and urban lawmakers was the worst in 1999, Brooks says, when the state General Assembly passed a law that made it illegal for the city of Atlanta to sue gun manufacturers.

“That the state interceded and passed a law that pre-empted the city from being able to sue, it was unprecedented,” Brooks says. “It was a slap in the face for Atlanta.”

The fissure isn’t limited to the General Assembly and the city of Atlanta either.

DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones has felt the sting of rejection too. For more than a year he’s been trolling for funds to analyze whether MARTA could extend a rail line to the Emory area. While Gov. Roy Barnes and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority are willing to spend $2.8 billion on a 36-mile light rail line connecting Cobb County’s Town Center with MARTA in Midtown, Jones can’t get a mere $200,000 for the Emory study.

“How is it that all of a sudden we find money to build a line from Cobb to downtown Atlanta?” Jones says. “A lot of this is just political malarkey.”

Malarkey or no, that rift is rooted in what Rep. Bob Holmes, chairman of the Fulton County legislative delegation, calls a wrong impression.

“Politically, there is obviously some animosity between the rural members [of the General Assembly] who view the big city as a den of iniquity,” Holmes says.

“I think many of them perceived Atlanta as a city that didn’t want cooperation with the state. They perceived the leadership of Atlanta as arrogant, aloof and you know that perception becomes reality.”

Former Mayor Bill Campbell, having shunned the Atlanta Regional Commission and other local governments, only made the gap worse.

Franklin’s presence at the Gold Dome on opening day will go a long way, but not all the way, to repair the damage previous administrations have done.

The real test will come when Atlanta delegates ask the General Assembly for a laundry list of financial help.

Rep. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, will ask the General Assembly for homeland security funds for the city to spend on police and security. Rep. Billy McKinney, D-Atlanta, will ask the state to change the law so that MARTA can spend 55 percent of its tax revenue on operational costs, freeing up millions of dollars each year that could keep the transit agency from slashing even more services. (Right now, MARTA is required by law to spend just 50 percent of its tax revenues on operations.)

And most importantly, someone from the Atlanta delegation, possibly Brooks, will ask the state to put MARTA under the financially secure umbrella of GRTA, so that other governments besides Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County will have to shoulder the backbone of the region’s public transit system.

Several lawmakers, including Sen. George Hooks, Sen. Steve Thompson, Sen. Eric Johnson and Rep. Bob Irvin, gave a lukewarm reception to the ideas of sending money Atlanta’s way, saying they’d listen to requests but would need more information.

Barnes himself could, but hasn’t yet, redirect more of the $8.3 billion he’s willing to spend on transportation projects to MARTA, Jones’ Emory corridor study or other overlooked projects in the Atlanta area. The governor’s office did not return phone calls for this story.

Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same. On Jan. 16, Irvin proved that it’s still a good idea for a rural lawmaker — especially one who’s fighting for his party’s nomination against Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland — to milk anti-Atlanta sentiment.

In the wake of news that Atlanta faces a $90 million shortfall, Irvin last week appealed to rural voters by calling for a state audit of the city’s finances.

Atlanta remains the redheaded stepchild.??