Troubled Road For Transportation Taxes

July 6, 2011 13:00 pm

by Charlie · 19 comments

Today’s Courier Herald Column.

In the waning days of the 2010 session of the Georgia General Assembly, a compromise transportation bill was passed which called for the state to be divided into 12 regions, with each to consider a referendum for a 1% sales tax to fund local transportation projects. The plan passed many big decisions to a new governor and allowed members of the general assembly to run for re-election without the charge that they had once again refused to make progress on one of the major issues facing the state.

A little over one year later and one year before the planned referendums, state leaders are starting to acknowledge that the votes for the state’s largest region may be in trouble. The 10 core counties comprising the Atlanta Regional Commission are sharply divided over the current funding model for regional transit, with citizens of Fulton and DeKalb county seeking equity for the additional 1% they currently pay for MARTA. Outlying counties generally view any additional tax with great suspicion and disdain, and aren’t inclined to shift their transportation dollars to support a transit system that many of their residents oppose.

A recent poll suggests that as few as 30 percent of the Atlanta region’s voters approve of the plan in its current form. Other regions across the state are also somewhat cool to the idea. State leaders are growing more concerned by the day over the fate of the plan, with transportation funding and appropriation to be added to the Governor’s call for the special session which will convene August 15th to address re-districting.

The referendums are currently scheduled for July 2012, corresponding with the partisan primaries for the 2012 elections. The current fear is that these contests, especially in the Atlanta region, will be dominated by Republicans who will be anti-tax, with Democrats likely to have few contested battles with which to drive presumably pro-referendum voters to the polls. A bill to move these referendums to November 2012, when President Obama will be on the ballot and driving Democratic turnout, is now viewed as a virtual certainty.

Adding legislation to the special session which would move the referendum is an attempt assist the likelihood of passage by changing the rules before the ground game has begun. This would avoiding the appearance of trying game the system during the 2012 regular session, when the campaign to pass the referendums will be in full swing and presumably, average voters have begun to pay attention to such things.

Behind the scenes, however, another threat to the bill as it stands is beginning to be understood. The funding allocation for state transportation dollars is changed for regions which do not choose to pass referendums, punishing them by withholding a share of state transportation dollars. Current state law mandates transportation dollars to be divided equally between congressional districts. By the time these resolutions are voted upon, Georgia will have 14 districts, but only 12 transportation regions. Obviously, they do not overlap. State leaders are expecting a constitutional challenge presuming any region passes a TSPLOST, thus withholding transportation dollars from those which do not.

A memo was circulated last year by various members of the transportation community which questioned the legality of regional transportation funding (likely for the purpose of advancing their own preferred alternatives). Powerful road building interests are believed to be associated with the memo, adding to the political and legal power behind a challenge to the existing law.

State leaders were recently stung by the State Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the State Charter Schools Commission, reversing several years of education policy and throwing thousands of students and parents into educational limbo. Fear is now growing that a similar result after November 2012 votes on transportation initiatives would set back much needed and delayed infrastructure improvements even further. Presuming successful injunctions and time for a Supreme Court decision, projects approved on November 2012 ballots may not be green lit for funding until 2014 or later. Were the decision of this court battle to go against the state, any legislative correction and implementation could push current projects into the next decade.

State leaders need to recognize that the 2010 transportation initiative was a way for an exiting governor and timid legislature to kick the problem down an unfunded road. Georgia has a new Governor and Atlanta has a new mayor. While it would require significant political capital, the two should consider an entire re-work of the current plan. The risk of failure of the current initiative is great. The cost of failure and continued delay is even greater.

Rambler1414 July 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Not to mention,

all of the changes that will have to be made to MARTA. (abolishing the archaic 50/50 rule, et al)

Debra July 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm

This legislation should have been for the Atlanta and surrounding counties only. I live in Dooly County and could give a flip about MARTA, and Atlanta’s traffic problems. Dooly County’s transportation improvement is to put turn lanes and passing lanes etc…. on Hwy 41. We don’t need the improvements to 41 and we are a Transportation Tax Revenue Neutral County. We will get the same amount of local $$$$$ back as we pay in taxes. BUT, if we don’t approve the tax less annual $$$ back from the state for local road projects.

To make matters even worse……. put yourself in my shoes…… I will pay higher taxes and I LIVE ON A DIRT ROAD. Now wouldn’t that burn your butt!!!!!!

Harry July 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Tax his land, tax his wage,
Tax his bed in which he lays.
Tax his tractor, tax his mule,
Teach him taxes is the rule.

Tax his cow, tax his goat,
Tax his pants, tax his coat.
Tax his ties, tax his shirts,
Tax his work, tax his dirt.

Tax his chew, tax his smoke,
Teach him taxes are no joke.
Tax his car, tax his grass,
Tax the roads he must pass.

Tax his food, tax his drink,
Tax him if he tries to think.
Tax his sodas, tax his beers,
If he cries, tax his tears.

Tax his bills, tax his gas,
Tax his notes, tax his cash.
Tax him good and let him know
That after taxes, he has no dough.

If he hollers, tax him more,
Tax him until he’s good and sore.
Tax his coffin, tax his grave,
Tax the sod in which he lays.

Put these words upon his tomb,
“Taxes drove me to my doom!”
And when he’s gone, we won’t relax,
We’ll still be after the inheritance tax.

Scott65 July 6, 2011 at 7:43 pm

you get what you pay for…enough said

bgsmallz July 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Charlie-

Great piece of writing. It’s time for our legislature to take hold the maxim that leaders lead.

It’s a tough sell when someone says ‘we need this’ and then puts it on a referendum to decide whether we actually ‘need this.’ You begin the process having already undercut the urgency and necessity of the item by passing the decision of what is necessary and urgent to someone else.

Deciding what is necessary and proper is their job…the governor, the mayor, the legislature, etc….they need to do the job they were elected to do and make a decision.

Harry July 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm

The whole point is, tax increases are political poison and rather than cutting elsewhere in the budget to allocate for transportation, the leg would rather pass what they thought was a more attractive sell to the voters and let them vote to tax themselves. So, the transportation lobby would be happy, the state employees who would still have their jobs would be happy. Hopefully the voters will see through the bait and switch and will vote it down. Then the legislature can go back to what they are supposed to do — taking responsibility for appropriating the budget within the parameters of what is feasible.

TPNoGa July 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Let me see if I have this right.

The GOP controlled legislature wants to move the election to a date where there will be fewer GOP voters as a proportion of the whole. Stunning.

What on God’s green Earth is wrong with the GaGOP? Say what you will about our neighbors to the south, but their GOP seems to legislate like, oh I don’t know….Republicans!

SOGTP July 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

“What on God’s green Earth is wrong with the GaGOP?”

There are too many Democrats registered Republican.

1. Identify them.
2. Primary them.
3. Defeat them.

Three Jack July 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

on top of the absurdity of moving an election to get more dems voting, the gop is doing so in order to pass a tax hike.

Scott65 July 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Because they know it needs to pass because the alternative is so awful. Republicans dont even act like republicans anymore. At least in GA they are acting with at least some common sense.

bgsmallz July 7, 2011 at 8:35 am

Scott65- I think that is the point of the article. If they know it needs to pass, they should pass it rather than passing the buck to a referendum.

Harry July 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I hoped some of these folks would quit acting like Democrats when they switched over.

John Konop July 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

A rather ironic point David Brooks is making about the GOP. Is David brooks right that GOP has gone too far on the no tax increase issue?

….David Brooks: GOP ‘May No Longer Be A Normal Party’

……..A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.
The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party…….

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/05/david-brooks-republican-party-debt-ceiling_n_890738.html

Harry July 6, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Aside from the Huffington Post being anything but an agenda-free source, and David Brooks likewise with his own personal version of reality, I nevertheless concur with the observation it would be a great idea to “close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves discretionary”. We should always be asking ourselves what would be ideal in a perfect world. I myself would be fine with a dollar’s reduction of tax for every dollar of revenue gained from eliminating loopholes. My opinion also happens to be the view of the majority of the GOP in Congress. Is it going to happen? No, because of the vested interests, and thanks to the Democrats who these days generally carry water for those vested interests far more than the GOP.

saltycracker July 6, 2011 at 10:43 pm

The is no fairness in eliminating loopholes in this winner/looser game unless they eliminate all of them and completely rework the tax system.

Statements being made indicate that the DOT intends to use the sales tax as a club on the districts. For that reason alone it should be opposed.

Dave Bearse July 7, 2011 at 2:04 am

It’s been easy to convince erstwhile Fulton and DeKalb T-SPLOST supporters that they’d be foolish to trust the General Assembly with reorganizing MARTA and addressing Fulton and DeKalb paying twice as much for regional transportation as other metro counties after the T-SPLOST.

For starters, the T-SPLOST legislation is openly hostile to MARTA. (No T-SPLOST proceeds can go to existing MARTA, but a check of the list of T-SPLOST projects will show that Gwinnett and Cobb are offloading existing Gwinnett County and Cobb Community transit operating subsidies to the T-SPLOST to the tune of a few hundred million.)

Beyond that, I suggest to them they try courteous communication about MARTA or twice the taxation with General Assembly transportation leadership representing a suburban-exurban area like Donna Sheldon. (I’ve written a couple of dozen people with not so much as an acknowledgement of receipt from any but my own representation.) People readily understand that it’s idiotic to think that people that aren’t accountable nor listening to them now will care or suddening start listening after T-SPLOST.

Cassandra July 7, 2011 at 6:35 am

An article in Barron’s states that oil will jump to $150 per barrel next summer, slowing, but not reversing the economic recovery, down to a paltry 1.5% annual growth in GDP. So far, the highest price for Brent crude was $110, so the $150 number seems plausible.

One effect of sky high oil would be a $4.50 p/gal gas pump price. Put that into the transportation plan mix and what any rational economic thinker sees is places with existing, yet under utilized infrastructure are going to become somewhat economically advantaged. Those places dependent on cars, lacking efficient roadways will suffer economically, somewhat.

Mayor Reed said as much calling the trans plan, a choice between continued growth or decline. What I see is the specter of higher fuel prices coupled with inevitable Fed spending cuts causing even less Fed money for roads in Georgia.

I see deep social upheaval. This upheaval will be most visible to in the ‘marginal middle’. Ultimately, we will overcome this bit of grim economic reality with super efficient cars, new transportation means. The path will be rocky, but navigable.

We needed this transportation plan in the 90’s as the Atlanta metro population grew by roughly 110K people per year. Growth is expensive, and bold, new cohesive regional leadership, both elected and private, is needed to keep the ATL a value destination for business.

Barrons:

http://online.barrons.com/article/SB50001424053111903617204576411791590055646.html?mod=BOL_twm_ls#articleTabs_panel_article%3D1

saltycracker July 7, 2011 at 11:20 am

A balance will need to be sought between the needs in the next ten or so years and long term transportation changes. Atlanta metro is not being developed nor is sprawled business community indicating any slowing of reliance on the automobile.

Getting cars off the streets into public parking buildings inside the perimeter can facilitate a lot of movement at a nominal cost & maintenance with a revenue stream and in a short time frame. $4.50 or $5.00 gas will serve to move commuters into smaller more efficient vehicles not buses & trains. So where are the plans for public parking buildings and efficient traffic flows ?

Example: Cherokee Co.’s new multi-million dollar county administration building is several miles outside of downtown Canton, in an undeveloped area of a commercial park with a large asphalt parking lot and they have various other offices spread all around. Car friendly, yes, public transportation friendly, hardly.

The proposed MARTA improvements are multi-billion dollar long term projects serving narrow bands of the population. Half the wish list of all projects is on the chopping block and needs to get to $6.1 billion. Even these projects take time and lots of money. The beltline streetcar proposal alone is a $1.6 billion dollar program. Fixing the interchange at 400 & 285 (what about 400/85 ?)is a $500 million dollar fix.

http://www.ajc.com/news/georgia-politics-elections/proposal-would-cut-transportation-1002591.html

Dave Bearse July 7, 2011 at 10:38 pm

With the I-85 / SR400 interchange improvements costing half as much as expected, SR400 tolls, and not the T-SPLOST should be used for I-285 / SR400 interchange improvement.

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