Searching for an Answer
How should we Georgians pay for tens of billions of dollars in needed transportation projects?
This past week there was a big clash between Georgia's Tea Party-leaning Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce-leaning Republicans. I know we don't all fit into neat little boxes, as I really fall into both groups, but these two sides carry a lot of weight down at the state capitol. In fact, the tug of war between them really has much more impact and affects you more than the battles between Georgia's Democrats and Republicans.
We saw some skirmishes during the regular session of the state legislature at the first of this year, but the battle this past week between the two groups over the date for the upcoming transportation sales tax (T-SPLOST) referendums is very indicative of the major difference between the political philosophies fueling each side.
In a nutshell, the Tea Party crowd is opposed to any proposal to increase taxes, whether they be income, sales or property taxes. Though most would consider themselves conservative Republicans, the Chamber crowd realizes Georgia has certain infrastructure needs that if not quickly addressed could seriously hamper the state's economy and quality of life for decades to come.
Like me, many of the Tea Party persuasion believe in "user pays." That means we should set fees for government-provided services at a level that covers the cost of the service, instead of making other taxpayers subsidize it. If we need more money to build and repair highways and bridges, I say let the drivers cover the bills. With the gasoline tax the more you drive the more you pay. However, most Tea Partiers would staunchly oppose any increase in the fuel tax, even though Georgia's gasoline tax is among the lowest in the nation and hasn't been raised in more than four decades. Plus, improved fuel economy in today's automobiles means we're driving more miles for the fuel taxes we do pay, putting even more pressure on our roadways.
The Chamber folks and their legislative allies knew it would be political suicide for any legislator to vote for an gasoline tax increase, so they devised a plan for a one-cent sales tax to pay for desperately needed transportation projects. The beauty of the T-SPLOST plan is it requires the public to vote for it, thus taking the heat off the state legislature.
As originally written, the law established the July 2012 primary election as the date each of the state's regions would hold their T-SPLOST votes. However, throughout the past few months, after looking at which races would be on the ballot and how that would affect voter turnout, the Chamber crowd decided the T-SPLOST referendums would have a better chance of passage during the November 2012 general election when turnout, especially among Democrats and moderate Republicans, is expected to be higher due to the presidential race.
Thus when Gov. Nathan Deal issued the call for a special session of the General Assembly to address reapportionment, he also added in a directive to move the T-SPLOST election date from July to November. What normally would have been a mundane under-the-radar vote in past years, suddenly turned into high stakes political poker.
Democrats wouldn't vote for the change as a way of protesting how the new legislative and congressional maps were being redrawn. The Tea Party gang wouldn't go for the change unless state law was also changed to require that all future local SPLOST and E-SPLOST elections also be held only during November general elections from now on. They felt cities, counties and school systems have tried to play games by holding SPLOST and E-SPLOST votes during special elections where turnout would be low and could be dominated by the yes votes cast by city, county and school system employees.
While the Chamber crowd was generally sympathetic to the local governments, as they see SPLOST measures as a vital way to pay for local infrastructure needs, they appeared ready to compromise and hand the Tea Party a victory. However, the lobbyists representing the state's city and county associations, school systems and related organizations went to work and twisted enough arms in the final hours to cause a stalemate. Unless miraculously resurrected this week as the legislature wraps up the special session, the move to change the date is dead until the legislature reconvenes in January, when there may be another push.
We all know that Georgia has serious unmet transportation needs and our failure to address them is already costing us economically as businesses bypass the state for places with better transportation infrastructure and/or a commitment to fund improvements. From our early railroad days, to the establishment of Atlanta as an airport hub, to the building of our interstate system, to the expansion of our harbors at Brunswick and Savannah, transportation has been the key to Georgia's success.
Analysts say it will take tens of billions of dollars over the next 20 years to repair, modernize, and expand our highways and transportation systems to meet demand. While there still may be a little room to shuffle around priorities in state spending, there is no way those dollars can be siphoned off for transportation needs. So my question to my Tea Party brethren is, "How do you propose we pay for it?"
If you are opposed to user pays in this case, meaning opposition to an increase in the gasoline tax, and you are opposed to T-SPLOST, then how do we fund these tens of billions of dollars of needs? I deliberately said needs instead of wants because here in northwest Georgia our regional T-SPLOST list is filled with needed highway projects.
Yes, there are some public/private partnership deals that might lead to toll road solutions for a few major strategic highway expansions like that planned for the Interstate 75/I-575 corridor, but that still leaves the overwhelming majority of our transportation needs unfunded. Personally, I can't even imagine continuing to live in the metro Atlanta area in coming years if we don't take action now.
I'm searching for solutions. Who among you has an answer?