The most important thing about the transportation bill going forward

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House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts listens during the debate on HB 170. (AJC Photo / Ben Gray)

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.

Reader Comments 0

52 comments
honested
honested

FACTUAL ERROR ALERT!

"for when more freight starts arriving at the Savannah port in a decade".

There will not be 'more freight' at the Savannah port, only fewer larger ships bringing the same amount of stuff.

Heck the Chinese may not even use bigger ships, since they will be able to use the Port of Mariel (Cuba) to swap the stuff coming to Georgia off the big ships and onto the 'local ships' to keep their profits up and their big ships constantly in motion.

While the taxpayers of Georgia slowly realize they have been duped again!

Plumb Krazy
Plumb Krazy

Republicans have distorted logic on everything. Chamber republicans anyway. Tolls are good, then toll the savannah river and ports and pay for dredging and port expansion. Sales taxes are the fairest taxes of all. just not for business, agriculture, home sales etc etc etc. Giving freebies away to deadbeat moms is bad, but giving freebies to corporate deabeats, bllionaires etc is good. CPI and inflation gimmicks that raise wages and government is bad. But one tied to fuel taxing  the common man is good. Perhaps one raising the corporate tax rate at the same rate fuel taxes get the whammy is good. 


Bottom line, I am going to work to have some yes voters removed. Dont care by who or what party. The house is more akin to whiners and the NAACP these days, if we let them take us an inch with this bs then they will come back for a mile when chambers of commerce tells them to.

JAKilgoreBrunswick
JAKilgoreBrunswick

OK, set aside the semantics argument, here is what you wrote :


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.


How do you know that is where "...it needs to be?"



Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@JAKilgoreBrunswick Apparently you don't actually read anything I write, because I also explained that I arrived at that figure based on the information I gathered.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@JAKilgoreBrunswick If you want more specifics, I have written about this issue multiple times in the past 3-4 months. Look up Transportation in the Categories feature on the right-hand side of the page.

MANGLER
MANGLER

Georgia is unique in that there are so few tolled roads.  None, actually, if you count the hot lanes as a user fee and not a required toll, since you don't actually have to use those lanes.  If we went to a VMT fee (or tax, whatever), that would cause an issue on all of the existing and under construction roads and highways that are being partially funded and managed by non-government entities and are relying on toll revenues to operate.  I wonder what could be proposed in those situations if we did get the VMT?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MHSmith We are not disagreeing. I am not saying VMT + gas tax. I am saying managed-lane tolls should be kept in place whether we have a VMT or a gas tax.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MANGLER As I said below, tolls on managed lanes are different and ought to work alongside a VMT the same way they work alongside the gas tax.

MHSmith
MHSmith

@MANGLER 

This is not all so complicated, the VMT would apply to ALL road use at all times in addition to these managed fees or whatever fee to limit use. Kyle is really reaching on this as a "how to separate something issue" that just plain doesn't need treating separately. Since all the funds collected would be used to pay for ALL roads and bridges. The Federal VMT part would cover mostly the Interstate usage with a rightly divided portion sent back to the states by the taxed miles used in each state.   



Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MHSmith You take the tolls off the managed lanes, you render them useless. If the VMT is equal to what the average person pays in gas tax now, why would anything about the managed lanes change? 

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Kyle_Wingfield @MANGLER 

I absolutely DISAGREE!!!


The gas tax needs to go away altogether and be replaced by the VMT. Keep your other management fees added on top of the VMT.

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Kyle_Wingfield @MHSmith 

You misunderstood what I wrote, so slow down and read my post again, this part namely:

.

.


"the VMT would apply to ALL road use at all times "in addition" to these managed fees or whatever fee to limit use."

 .

.

 

Nowhere did I take the management limitation fee away or any other special tacked on charges or prohibit any future ones from being added. 


.

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And, the VMT would in all likelihood be LESS than what the average person pays in gas tax now, since more people would be paying the true costs of their road use. It might cause some problems for those complying with the latest cafe' standards and alternative fuel users who don't now pay the average costs through the gas tax like most of us.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MHSmith Evidently, I misread you. As you did, if you think I'm talking about having a gas tax and a VMT.

I don't think we actually disagree about this.

IReportYouWhine#1
IReportYouWhine#1

I kind of agree with Grover, where are the offsets? Where are the cuts?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@IReportYouWhine#1 Well, $180M would be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Another $50M or so comes from ending the market-skewing tax credit for electric vehicle purchases. That's about 1/4 of the money between those two.

JAKilgoreBrunswick
JAKilgoreBrunswick

Kyle - You state with certainty that the "requirement" is $ 1 Billion.  I have two questions.  How do you know that is, in fact, the requirement ?  How do you know that is enough ?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@JAKilgoreBrunswick I did not use the word "requirement" in the entire piece.


I did, however, state my opinion that that's the amount legislators should try to raise with this bill, based on all the information I've gathered. There's a case to be made for more funding, perhaps through a different means such as the so-called mini-TSPLOST that allows cities and counties to form their own regions for whatever time period they choose, up to 1 percent at a time, to fund new construction.

leftisedzacharyright
leftisedzacharyright

Does the increase in the excise tax mean a .29 cent increase in the price of a gallon of gas?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@leftisedzacharyright No, that would be the total state tax per gallon. Local taxes could add up to 2.5%, which comes out to roughly 7.5 cents/gallon -- add that to the 29.2, and you have about 36.7 cents/gallon. The current rate is about 28 cents/gallon.

(These are all approximations, in which I covert 1% of sales tax to 3 cents/gallon of excise tax; that's the rule of thumb based on current prices, but it's not necessarily precise.)

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

You would think the left would be happy--taxes are going up!

I guess they're sad because just about everyone will be paying their fair share of the new taxes.

Plumb Krazy
Plumb Krazy

@LilBarryBailout Democrats have wanted this and more for 12 years. We are in Roy Barnes second term he never got elected to. i think Roy has sent Nathan flowers and a thank you card.

MHSmith
MHSmith

A VMT is a "TOLL" Kyle for every inch of roadway used. That's the only TOLL or USER FEE we need. We don't need more tolls or user fees with a VMT (Federal and State) in place. It is the Toll to replace all tolls or fees accurately and fairly as possible for all users.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MHSmith Tolls like the ones on managed lanes are not there to raise revenue so much as to use price as a mechanism to limit demand and keep traffic flowing. As far as more general tolls (like the erstwhile Ga. 400 toll), it depends on how high the VMT is.

MHSmith
MHSmith

@Kyle_Wingfield @MHSmith 

You are really reaching on this Kyle for an excuse to a problem that doesn't need creating. Charge the VMT on the managed roads too, in addition to price you want to use as a mechanism to limit demand and keep traffic flowing. 



 

MarkVV
MarkVV

When Kyle claims that “the principle of dedicating all gas-tax revenues to transportation is correct,“ he has it exactly backward. As a matter of exigency, using all gas tax revenues for transportation funding may be necessary to meet the urgent need. As a matter of principle, on the other hand, it is not correct. It puts gas on a different level than other commodities, and it ignores the fact that not all gasoline is used for transportation on roads and bridges.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV I used the generic term gasoline, but in the code the term is actually "motor fuel," defined as: "any source of energy that can be used for propulsion of motor vehicles on the public highways."

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV  That does not address my point. Whether it is gasoline or diesel fuel, there are significant uses other than for transportation on roads. For instance, motor fuels used in agriculture, or gasoline-driven generators of electricity.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV And what percentage of motor-fuel sales would you suppose generators account for? I'd guess less than 1%.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 

One more time: You wrote that it was a matter of PRINCIPLE. Does the percentage matter about PRINCIPLE?. The fuel for agriculture is not "taxed differently" when purchased-  the tax is PARTIALLY refunded. And again - what "in principle" makes motor fuel different from other commodities?

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 

I take notice that you have failed to answer why motor fuels should be treated differently from other commodities, as well as you cavalier notion of what a principle means.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV And which principles without exceptions would you offer as examples?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV If my questions are so easy, and the answers so universal, surely it won't be so difficult to offer an example or two.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV When the only exception even the most pedantic critic can muster is so negligible, I'm comfortable calling it a principle.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 

Examples of what? Commodities we buy? If I go and buy kitchen supplies in a supermarket, or tools at ACE, I pay sales tax, but that revenue is no used directly to something associated exclusively with those kitchen supplies or tools. So why should the motor fuels be treated differently, in principle? I submit that in principle (as opposed to as a matter of exigency, as I said before), motor- fuel taxes should NOT be used exclusively for transportation, not only because it makes them different from those other things we pay sales tax on, but because there is no clear correlation between the motor fuel tax revenues and the money needed to be spent by the state on transportation. The wear and tear on roads and bridges does not correlate with the fuel consumption (and yes, the alternative fuel vehicles are one of the factors), but more importantly, transportation is such an important factor in any civilized society, that the funding should be treated accordingly. People who actually drive are not the only people who benefit from the transportation system – both roads and other forms of transit. Road are used by police, military, firefighters. Even people who not drive get the advantages of a good transportation system, so why should the main part of the burden be on those who drive?

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 

And that is the substance of your argument, what are things we pay sales tax on called?. That is truly pathetic


Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

commodity

noun com·mod·i·ty \kə-ˈmä-də-tē\

something that is bought and sold


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@MarkVV Commodity has a specific meaning in economics.

And the only thing that's pathetic here is your failure to realize I've been trolling you the way you normally troll everyone else here.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @MarkVV 

No, the pathetic way is that you either do not realize, or you do not want to admit, that you wrote something you have not been able to defend.

straker
straker

Kyle, the number one goal is a state Govt. that honestly meets the needs of the people rather than those of the special interests.


I wonder if that will ever happen in Georgia?

DontTread
DontTread

@straker No, the number one goal is a government that protects the rights of the people, which is its primary function by definition.


It is not government's responsibility to "meet your needs" except to provide necessary services that individuals cannot provide on their own (such as roads).  It is not government's responsibility to be like your mommy and take care of your every desire.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@straker

If you're depending on the government to "meet your needs" then I feel sorry for you--you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Big boys and girls tend to their own needs.

Government has a limited role to play, by protecting our rights and freedoms, and to do a limited number of things the people can't do on their own, such as building an interstate highway system.