Thursday was not your run-of-the-mill day under the Gold Dome. The Senate passed a constitutional amendment to put Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District on the ballot in 2016. Senators also approved Senate Bill 129, a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with language making clear legislators consider discrimination would remain illegal. A House bill to permanently suspend the 50-50 restriction on MARTA’s sales-tax revenues would have garnered larger headlines if not for the passage of those Senate bills.
Oh, and one other “simple, little clean-up bill.”
For the first 26 days of the 2015 session, most conversations at the Capitol, regardless of their actual topic, have revolved around the question of transportation funding. As in: how much of the budget would transportation end up taking (the plan to shift some $230 million in funding to the Georgia DOT is unaccounted for in the 2016 budget the House already passed); or, how much horse-trading will there be on other bills to get transportation passed.
On the 27th day, the House let everyone exhale, if only for a day or two.
House Bill 170 passed with what turned out to be surprising ease, but only after a period of genuine drama in a place that resorts to manufacturing intrigue from time to time. Lawmakers voted down an amendment — authored by Majority Leader Larry O’Neal and Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, against the protests of Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, who retained the backing of Speaker David Ralston — to set the new state excise tax on gasoline at 24 cents/gallon instead of 29.2 and the rate for diesel fuel at 28 cents/gallon instead of 33. After another amendment failed, Ramsey asked the body to table the bill, an effort that fell well short. In the end, the bill passed 123-46.
There were a few noteworthy things about the vote. One of Deal’s House floor leaders, Rep. Chad Nimmer, made it clear the governor wanted the bill to keep moving rather than stall out; he and the other two floor leaders sided with Ralston and Roberts on every vote. In the end, HB 170 won an outright majority of the GOP caucus (71-43), even if their votes alone wouldn’t have secured its passage. The measure passed thanks in large part to the overwhelming support of Democrats (51-3) despite concerns they would hold out to take advantage of the fact they held the bill’s fate in their hands; the longest-serving member of the House, Rep. Calvin Smyre, saw to that.
But the most important thing about the bill the House passed was this: It keeps the discussion around the level of $1 billion, which is where it needs to be.
The exact mechanism for getting to $1 billion is subject to change — it will almost certainly change in the Senate, and then probably again when the two chambers appoint a conference committee to hammer out their differences. But the end goal of $1 billion needed to remain intact, and it did.
“Everybody’s listened, they’ve paid attention, they realize the need’s there and we need to get to that number,” Roberts told reporters after the vote.
The need is there, the result of 30 years of legislative neglect combined with 30 years of rapid growth. More growth is coming, both from people continuing to move to Georgia and from the additional freight that will begin arriving in Savannah’s port within the decade. Solving the problem is harder than it ought to be because of those decades of neglect. But it’s not going to get any easier next year, or two years from now, or 10.
It will only get harder, for a variety of reasons. The longer road and bridge maintenance is deferred, the more costly it becomes, especially if repaving or repairing turns into tearing apart and replacing because there’s been too much wear and tear. The longer we wait to add capacity, the more expensive it will become to do so. Federal funding is already in decline — Georgia’s annual allotment is about $240 million less now than it was seven years ago — and no one should hold their breath waiting for stability from Washington.
State revenues are growing now, but history tells us the economic expansion, meager as it has been nationwide, may not last too much longer. Those revenues will fall one day, too.
The gas tax, though imperfect, is the closest thing to a transportation user fee this side of ubiquitous tolling. We should have more tolls, and we should look to a vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) tax or whatever else is coming down the pike as fuel-efficiency and alternative fuels eventually render the gas tax obsolete. There is value in diversifying GDOT’s revenue stream. But for now, the gas tax is the best option to carry the bulk of the load.
On the specifics, HB 170 has gotten the most muddled in its attempt to make local governments whole after shifting local gas-tax revenues to transportation. The principle of dedicating all gas-tax revenues to transportation is correct. But the result has been to put local taxes, in many cases, in the position to grow even beyond what they are now. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to scrap those parts of the bill, leave all local taxes where they are, and create a series of carrots and sticks to encourage local governments to dedicate their gas-tax revenues to transportation on their own. And then, have the state do what the state needs to do to meet its responsibilities.