On the June 19th broadcast of "All Things Considered," State House Republican Whip Ed Lindsey of Atlanta said he was willing to push a bill to remove spending restrictions on MARTA--if the transit authority would agree to some changes in the makeup of its board of directors, and who appoints them. House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta responded by saying she's open to discussions. But she called the current proposal from Lindsey a non-starter. Abrams spoke with WABE's Denis O'Hayer, in a conversation recorded in late June. (For the broadcast version, click the top button; for the expanded version, click the bottom button.)
Denis O’Hayer: This is All Things Considered on 90.1 WABE. I’m Denis O’Hayer at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta. Subject is MARTA. Representative Ed Lindsey, the House Majority Whip, Republican from Atlanta, said that MARTA would get some freedom from spending restrictions if MARTA agrees to a change in the composition of its board, and he said that would happen very early in the legislative session. From the other side of the aisle now, Representative Stacey Abrams, the House Democratic Leader. Representative Abrams, it’s good to have you back.
Stacey Abrams: Thank you for having me.
O’Hayer: For you, is it a deal breaker to change MARTA’s governance in order to get the freedom from the restrictions that say they have to spend 50 percent of their sale tax revenue on capital and 50 percent on operations?
Abrams: I think that if the deal on the table is a temporary freedom from restrictions for a permanent change in structure, absolutely, that’s a nonstarter. It’s a false promise because a permanent change in the structure with a very temporary relaxation of the handcuffs simply leads to another change a little further down the road, and that’s not something anyone can rely on.
O’Hayer: But if you’re a MARTA board member and you’re looking at riders who are facing service cuts or fair hikes or both, if you don’t approve the deal that Representative Lindsey is offering, what do you do?
Abrams: It’s a false question, because the reality is if you change the structure of the board, you simply may be putting in place the very people who are going to make those exact same decisions. If you put in place a governance structure that does not respect the major composition of the ridership, but they get to make the choices about fare hikes and line cuts and service cuts without having any input from the very people who ride those buses and those trains, then you’re simply trading one problem for another. In fact, you’re giving them both their cake and the fork to eat it with, and I don’t see the point in doing that.
O’Hayer: What you’re talking about is the idea that some of the appointees to the MARTA board would be taken away from Fulton County and given to the localities particularly those in north Fulton that want more say on the MARTA board. What’s wrong with that?
Abrams: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with increasing the say that can be had. The challenge lies in how we do that. And a wholesale turnover of governance structure to communities that have traditionally shown some hostility to MARTA and then saying we’re doing this in exchange for a temporary relief of some artificial restrictions we have put in place, it’s saying, if you will cut off your own arm, we will take off the handcuffs. That is a very poor deal for anyone to be asked to make. I think the other part of this is that the promise of long-term governance, the promise of long-term funding, those promises have been made since MARTA was created in the 1970s, and there’s a great lack of credibility to those promises when we are being asked, “Trust me, trust me, trust me,” but there is yet to be any delivery on the other side of the aisle in terms of their promises.
O’Hayer: But if north Fulton feels that it doesn’t have a voice in MARTA right now, why not bring them in, and they would feel more of a stake in it and more of a desire to keep it going?
Abrams: You can bring north Fulton into the conversation without giving north Fulton and north DeKalb control of the board, and fundamentally that’s what the deal is—give us control of the board, and we will temporarily relieve you of the very handcuffs we put on you that we can then take off and put back on when we’re ready. It’s essentially give us all your power, all of your control, and all of your leverage, on the hope that we won’t forget that we promised we would do this.
O’Hayer: Speaking of leverage, though, do you have any to work with, or do you just have to say it’s all or nothing, and if nothing happens, if this is voted down, then you end up with MARTA riders facing fare hikes or service cuts, and they’ve already had a lot of those.
Abrams: I think my history as leader has demonstrated a remarkable willingness to work with the other side irrespective of what that side is, and so I never begin a conversation with “absolutely no.” However, the second part of the conversation is the place where I think we have to focus. If you give to the very people who believe that there should be fare hikes, there should be service cuts, and you say, we’re going to do this to you unless you give us the absolute power to do this to you, it’s the prison guard saying, “I’m going to give you the key, if you let me lock you up.” Why would you do that? The leverage we have is that there is something that has to be done if we want Atlanta to grow and thrive, and that means MARTA has to be a credible conversation. It cannot be a conversation that’s being held at the end of a gun, with us being told that we have to shoot ourselves.
O’Hayer: What ideas do you have that you could put into a deal that would attract Republican votes, particularly from north Fulton?
Abrams: I am more than willing to have a credible conversation about expanding the board and adding the new voices that come from Milton, that come from Johns Creek, that come from Dunwoody, but that cannot be in exchange for relinquishing all control, because I have a duty, as do every one of my members in the House Democratic Caucus, we have a duty to our constituents who have paid those pennies for decades, as have north Fulton and north DeKalb, but they should not lose any say simply because they’re at the end of a bad deal. Not everyone’s going to get what they want, but not everyone should have to lose what they have, and that’s a conversation I’d like to have, and no one has had that conversation with me yet.
O’Hayer: House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democrat from Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us again, we appreciate it.
Abrams: It’s always a pleasure to speak with you, Denis. Thank you.