This week’s Courier Herald column:
The recent Georgia joint House-Senate study committee on transportation held its meetings publicly throughout the state. It was a direct appeal and acknowledgement to emphasize that Georgia’s transportation system – and related funding deficiencies – are a Georgia problem and not just an Atlanta problem.
The geography of the locations was as varied as Georgia allows, stretching from Tifton to the south and Blue Ridge to the north, with places such as Augusta, Columbus, Rome, and Savannah in between. A hearing at the Capitol was included as the only “Atlanta” stop.
At virtually every hearing the message was quite similar. Elected officials from the area brought a list of needs. They were also generally insistent that the state should provide more revenue, as their local needs were something “essential” to the state at large. Without getting into the merit or prioritization of some of the specific projects, they were essentially correct.
Transportation is a critical function enumerated in Georgia’s constitution. While there is a local role, the very nature of the topic is that the state has an interest in our ability to move from one locale or region to another. No local official found any project of need not to be worthy of state funds. But there was also a universal caveat. They wanted to protect their existing revenue streams for themselves.
The Georgia House last week unveiled the first proposal and related bill to be backed by leadership since the conclusion of the committee’s work. In it, they attempt to create over $1 Billion in funding for GDOT while consolidating the taxes collected on gasoline for distribution by the department.
The state will have to give up the 1% tax added to gasoline when the sales tax was increased statewide from 3% to 4% in the late eighties. This will restore the collection of tax to fit with the specific instructions of the Georgia constitution. “…all money derived from motor fuel taxes received by the state…is hereby appropriated….for all activities incident to providing and maintaining an adequate system of public roads and bridges in this state…”
Georgia has further crept away from the spirit of the constitution’s directive with the expansion of local option sales taxes over the past three decades. Many of those who appeared before the study committee asking for more money for essential transportation projects are currently using taxes they collect on gas for non-transportation projects.
The overriding point is that virtually every government official at all levels realizes there is an essential need for additional investment in transportation infrastructure as well as funds just for maintaining all the roads and bridges “we’ve already paid for”. The need is not in dispute.
Equal in those that testifying to the need of increased funds was the message from voters that before we consider raising gas taxes, Georgians want to ensure that we’re currently spending the taxes we collect on the proper uses. Georgia currently spends less per capita on transportation than any other state, but the prices that we pay at the pump are close to the national average. This is because roughly 11.2 cents per gallon of gas are diverted to the state general fund and local uses.
For taxpayers to understand what we’re paying for these roads “we’ve already paid for”, as well as to properly match the source of tax dollars to their uses, the Georgia House has proposed to restructure all gas taxes to an excise tax, eliminating the sales tax component. This is an important step toward good governance, as well as returning to the original directive of the Georgia constitution.
Those who are complaining that the burden is shifted to local governments are missing several key points. The locals don’t argue the need. They’ve testified otherwise. They object to being the ones to have to raise taxes.
And yet, they will not have to raise taxes to preserve existing revenue. Funds for existing SPLOSTs will be collected as sales taxes until the SPLOSTS expire. The locals can replace any LOST money with a 3 or 6 cent per gallon excise tax with the caveat that the money must be used for transportation.
Education leaders complain that this leaves them out in the cold with the state passing the buck to them. They should be wary of this line of criticism, lest state leaders choose to push back. Hard.
As Georgia’s tax revenues have recovered since 2008 collapse, the vast majority of new revenue has been dedicated to education. Well over one billion dollars per year has been added over the last three years, the vast majority of which is paid directly to local school systems. Transportation has received no additional money over and above the current gas tax.
Furthermore, according to numbers prepared by Ballotpedia, Georgia spends a significantly higher proportion of its total budget on K-12 education (State and Local funds) than any neighboring state. Conversely, Georgia’s total transportation budget is significantly lower than any neighboring state.
Beware of the criticisms coming from other elected officials. The real shell game being played is by those who want the state to do the heavy lifting of tax increases, while maintaining an inefficient misdirection of funds away from intended transportation uses.