The long-awaited “Plan B” for transportation funding is, well, still being awaited. Due a week ago, recommendations from a legislative task force are expected to get a limited pre-screening this week in Athens.
Better late than never.
And best to get it right from the get-go. Two and a half years have passed since legislators’ last brain child, the T-SPLOST referendum, failed in nine of the state’s 12 regions. Some of the lessons from those defeats should still be top of mind as the new plan is rolled out.
1. Don’t pass the buck. Members of the committee, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston all have spoken of the need for more money for roads and bridges with an urgency I don’t recall from 2010, when the T-SPLOST was created. Good.
That’s all the more reason for the General Assembly to take ownership of whatever changes it deems necessary — and not to foist that responsibility onto voters in another referendum.
As a complementary piece, allowing local governments to band together to fund certain road or transit projects is fine. As the centerpiece, it’s the kind of dodge voters didn’t appreciate two years ago and won’t welcome in the future. You understand the importance of acting, so act.
2. Don’t get cute. The idea is to spend more money, and anyone paying attention knows that means raising more money. Don’t try to disguise that.
One idea I’ve heard includes adjusting the sales tax upward to some degree, the income tax downward to a lesser degree, devoting the marginal revenue to transportation and — voila! — calling it “tax reform.” That’s a no-go, for a few reasons.
It would reduce the likelihood of more meaningful tax reform. It would move Georgia away from the “user pays” concept, in which money for roads comes from the gas taxes paid by motorists. It would jeopardize future transportation funding, as the new revenues wouldn’t be legally tabbed for the DOT. It would also smack of the kind of sleight-of-hand the public hates. Lack of public trust was evident in T-SPLOST’s failures.
3. Choose your front men and women wisely. It appears the Atlanta business community, confined to the sidelines after the twin embarrassments of T-SPLOST and getting caught trying to whitewash the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, wants back in the game. Watch out.
Delta benefits from a reduced tax rate on jet fuel. Developers’ projects often are subsidized by local governments. They don’t have a lot of credibility asking Joe Motorist to pay more at the pump. UPS, which pays a lot of motor fuel tax in Georgia and says it would pay more to reduce congestion, has more of a leg to stand on.
4. Don’t pretend this is the end of the road. Any changes made to the gas tax won’t last long. Rising fuel efficiency, among other factors, means the gas tax is a revenue source in decline. Within a decade, legislators will probably have to consider an even more radical funding change, perhaps taxing motorists on the number of miles they actually travel.
The temporary nature of this change isn’t a bad thing; it’s just reality. Don’t tell Georgians otherwise.