This week’s Courier Herald column:
One of the bigger myths of Georgia politics is that our legislators only serve 40 days a year. True, our model is for civilian legislators to all meet in Atlanta during the winter each year. For those 40 days to be most productive, however, a lot of work must be done during the rest of the year to make sure complex issues get the effort, attention, and scrutiny they deserve. One of the ways this is accomplished is through an appointed study committee.
Often, study committees are viewed as a way to “kick the can” – a move to appear busy on a political issue during the session but in reality punting the issue to later. Other times, it’s a way to gift an issue to a newly elected class and/or administration. Even still, the extra study time can be a way to allow building consensus on how to solve complex and expensive problems. These reasons are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps one of the most “studied” issues in recent Georgia political history is that of transportation. As such, the appointment of a joint House-Senate committee to again study the issue over summer vacation is likely to generate eyerolls from those who believe that once again, it is easier to study a problem than to fix it. Well, this fact is stipulated.
As the first meeting of this committee commenced in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building last week, there was a sense that this time, it may be different. The room was filled beyond capacity. For an early August day that’s somewhat unusual.
There was significant presence from the legislature as well. All legislators appointed to the Committee – including both chamber’s Transportation and Appropriations chairs – were on hand. But there were others, not members of either the committee or either standing transportation committee, who were also present.
Jan Jones, Speaker Pro Tem of the House, was on hand and asked a few questions when given the opportunity. Senator Rene Unterman – currently said to be in the running for President Pro Tem of the Senate – was also attentive. She was especially attentive when the issue of tolls on I-85 HOT lanes were discussed.
The inclusion of the Appropriations chairmen and the attendance of those in Leadership and would be leadership is not an accident. This first session was to set the table in a manner to frame the problem: Georgia spends less on transportation per capita than any other state. We divert a significant portion of the taxes we collect on the sale of motor fuels to many other uses than transportation.
Moving the roughly eleven cents per gallon of gas collected in taxes but not spent by the Department of Transportation to fill part of our funding gap will require the work and support of the Appropriations chairs at a bare minimum. That change would add about three quarters of a billion dollars to the DOT’s annual budget.
The DOT’s gap between funding and identified projects is estimated at $74 Billion according to a Presentation made by Commissioner Keith Golden. A one slide breakout of “priority” projects included redesign of interchanges for I-285 at I-20 on both sides of Atlanta ($700M), “Revive I-285” and addition of managed lanes ($4 billion), I-85 widening from metro Atlanta to both South Carolina and Alabama ($800M and $450M respectively), the I-16 and I-75 interchange in Macon ($300M), the Atlanta Managed Lanes Tier 1 System ($2 Billion), and completion of the Governor’s Road Improvement Program (GRIP) at 6.8 Billion.
That’s about $15 Billion, just in the priority category. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Trust Fund which Georgia has grown to rely on for the majority of our new construction money is insolvent, with Congress currently only allowing for a short term patch to fix. Long term solutions could likely mean less, not more, money coming from DC.
Studying the problem will likely be easy. Solving the problem will be harder – Thus the attendance and attention of legislative leadership. Reallocating the almost $750 Million taxed on motor fuels but not appropriated to the DOT will take a major legislative initiative. The Study Committee will have to decide if that is adequate and if not, what else is politically possible.
It should be noted that in the Senate, 30 of the 38 members of the GOP caucus have been elected during or after the 2010 Tea Party elections. That’s not a group that is likely to fully embrace a tax increase. And yet, with all metrics available, the question has been called directly as when it comes to transportation funding if Georgians really are taxed enough already.