A bill recently proposed in the Georgia House of Representatives would produce more than $1.5 billion dollars for state transportation needs without raising taxes, supporters of House Bill 170 claim. But opponents say it simply takes the money from local governments, forcing them to hike taxes to replace it.
People on both sides of the aisle agree that the General Assembly needs to address the state’s aging transportation infrastructure during the current session. Among Columbus’ House delegation, they also agree that HB 170 needs work and may even need to be scrapped.
Opponents of the bill point out that much of the $1.5 billion would be raised simply by taking gasoline tax funds that currently go to local governments and transferring it to the state. Cities and counties would then be able to levy a new 3 cents-per-gallon excise tax on gasoline to make up the shortfall, but opponents say that would produce less than they get now from gas taxes and the revenue would be restricted to transportation needs, which current funds are not.
Columbus Council unanimously approved a resolution recently urging the local legislative delegation to oppose the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has been lobbying heavily in opposition to the bill. Tomlinson said the bill would confiscate $8 million a year — $5 million from the Consolidated Government and $3 million from the Muscogee County School District. That, she said, would have “a devastating effect on our community.”
“Not only are they taking county monies, but then they’re telling us that we can pass our own tax,” Tomlinson said. “This is what I think is so outrageous about this proposal. They’re boasting that they’ve found $1.5 billion to fix the state’s transportation problems without raising taxes, but then when you read the fine print, you see that they’re actually taking $500 million from counties, such as Muscogee County, and then telling us we can go raise our taxes to make up for the money that they’re taking.”
House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, introduced the bill into the House last week. He said he and other members of the Joint Subcommittee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding traveled the state last year studying the needs and devising a way to fund them without raising taxes, at least at the state level.
“We have studied how to fund transportation in our state going forward, and I believe that this bill provides the best solution,” Roberts said in introducing the bill. “This is the beginning of a process and we are listening to any and all suggestions.”
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, repeated that the bill is in the earliest stages of the process, but he said it is necessary to bring Georgia transportation funding “into the 21st century.”
“I expect the bill to be thoroughly vetted as it goes through the legislative process,” Ralston said. “We welcome constructive discussion and debate. But the time to begin the process is now.”
Criticism, constructive and otherwise, has apparently not been in short supply since the bill’s introduction. The backlash from local governments has been such that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, citing unidentified sources, reported Friday that the bill will be substantially amended on Monday.
Local House delegation members agree that the bill, which is in its infancy, will likely see considerable changes before it makes it to the floor of the House for a vote — if it makes it out of committee at all.
“They may have to just scrap it and start from scratch,” said state Rep. John Pezold, a Republican from District 133.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from District 135 and the dean of the local delegation, stressed that the bill is in the earliest stage of the legislative process.
“This is the starting point, and I’ve tried to stress that to everyone I’ve talked to about this,” Smyre said. “I wouldn’t even call this the first inning. This is the first pitch of the ball game.”
Republican Richard Smith of District 134 said there is still plenty of time to address concerns.
“We’ve just stuck our foot in the water,” Smith said. “Most bills that are this complicated will change a lot.”
Tomlinson and the local House members agree that taking the $8 million from Muscogee County would unfairly punish regions that passed the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in 2013. The larger cities in those regions, such as Columbus and Augusta, are already subsidizing transportation needs in their surrounding less prosperous counties. Taking more money from them to further subsidize the entire state is placing too much of a burden on them.
“We’re being asked to subsidize regional transportation needs through the TSPLOST, which citizens knew full well they were voting to do because we had that very difficult conversation and they chose to do that,” Tomlinson said. “But now they’re asking us to subsidize the entire state with our $8 million a year share.”
Both Smith and Rep. Debbie Buckner, a Democrat from District 137, shared Tomlinson’s concern that Columbus and other regions that passed the TSPLOST would be unfairly targeted by HB 170 as it is written.
“They bit the bullet, by golly, and they raised taxes on themselves so they could have good roads, and now it feel like it’s a little punitive,” Buckner said. “That’s the main thing that needs to be addressed. I’ve said all along that whatever we pass cannot in any way be a negative for the communities that passed the TSPLOST. They were forward-thinking and they were committed to doing what was good for their communities, and this should not punish them in any way.”
“I want to make sure that the three regions that passed the TSPLOST are not penalized for that,” Smith said. “It’s all going to be addressed.”
But something has to be done about the state’s aging transportation infrastructure, all the local delegation agreed. That’s an opinion shared by Sam Wellborn, Columbus’ representative on the state Department of Transportation board, who is the longest-serving member of that body.
“We will need at least a billion dollars more if we’re going to take care of one of the finest highway systems in America,” Wellborn said. “We’re having to spend more and more money maintaining our system, which leaves less money for new projects, at a time when people are paying less and less in gas taxes because of fuel efficiency, electric cars.”
Smyre added: “I can’t think of anything more critical, other than the budget, in this session. It’s not something that we can take lightly. We need to raise at least $1.5 billion to even remotely take care of our roads and bridges.
“Transportation is interwoven with economic development and job creation,” he said, “so it’s imperative that we do something in this legislative session about transportation.”
BY MIKE OWEN