Transportation Plan Matches Sources To Uses

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.

9 comments

  1. blakeage80 says:

    “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.”
    I’m not putting words in Charlie’s mouth here. However, I will say that education, as an industry, seems to never have enough. I really believe that no matter what you allocate for education, they’ll always have need for one dollar more. If using taxes on transportation to fund only transportation causes us to look more carefully at other departments’ taxing and spending, then that is a good thing. If it causes us to pay attention to our local government taxing and spending and not just allow them to raise taxes without making a good case, then good.

    • androidguybill says:

      “However, I will say that education, as an industry, seems to never have enough.”

      Neither does the oil industry. Yet with them, the problem, is that we don’t give them enough, right?

      Liberals have never stated how much education spending is enough, granted. But conservatives haven’t either. The difference is that where liberals have pretty much rejected objective educational standards in favor of the social justice agenda for public schools, conservatives CLAIM to support the idea that 75% of public school kids should actually perform on grade level. OK, fine, how much money do conservatives believe need to be spent to make this happen? And if this money is spent and the goal is not reached, then what?

      Conservatives evade this question by promoting “school choice.” Here is the deal: providing choice costs money too. You want to open 100 charter schools in this state? Fine, that is a quarter of a billion dollars – $2.5 million per school – if you want charter schools that will actually outperform the local school board-run schools, and even that presumes that the charter schools will be able to get decent buildings on favorable (meaning far less than market value) terms, and a great many can’t. So where is that money going to come from?

      A main reason why red states often can’t have nice things is their unwillingness to admit that such things cost money. If you want Georgia go from one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation to being towards the middle of the pack, that costs money. And now, thanks to this proposal, public schools in Georgia are going to have even less to try to do it with.

      • blakeage80 says:

        Well, you seem to have it worked out by asking all the right questions and giving all the right answers, including needlessly bringing the oil industry into a comment about school funding. Graduation rates are affected by lots of things in culture and not just the giant piles of money thrown at education. The same amount of money, in any given public school, was spent on children that did graduate and children that didn’t, excluding the special needs pupils. To turn your question around, how much will it take to get Georgia’s graduation rate up a single percentage point? There is no spending formula.

        • androidguybill says:

          @blakeage80:

          Your response is typical of the “knownothingness” that passes for policy debates these days.

          1. “Graduation rates are affected by lots of things in culture and not just the giant piles of money thrown at education.”

          Don’t you realize that the Georgia graduation rates have ALWAYS been low? ALWAYS? Georgia has NEVER had a high graduation rate. Meaning that there was NEVER this golden age of education in Georgia where strong, pro-family cultures produced graduation rates that were at the top, at the middle or anywhere else BUT THE BOTTOM. The difference is that in times past, we were able to abide the low graduation rates because of the abundant agricultural and factory jobs. Now that the economy relies on skilled labor, we can’t afford to be third from last on lists like these anymore: http://www.governing.com/gov-data/high-school-graduation-rates-by-state.html
          King cotton has been dead for decades and we have yet to adapt.

          2. You pretend as if Georgia is unique among states with cultural problems. So, Georgia has cultural problems but Texas doesn’t? Yet Texas graduates 86% of its kids to our 67%. You don’t think there are cultural problems in Illinois? Their rates are 84%. Maryland? Massachusetts? New Jersey? 83% Arkansas and Missouri? 81% Virginia and Ohio? 80%! North Carolina? 78%!

          Your angle: you do not regard Georgia’s 67% graduation rate to be a problem. Either that, or you prefer the “problem” of the 67% graduation rate as being preferable to any “solution” that would get it up to 75%. The fact that Georgia has been importing skilled workers from other states to displace people whose families have been in this state for 100 years from the job market: you are fine with that. Georgia spending hundreds of millions on incentives to get companies to relocate their workers here and being willing to spend $1 billion on transportation to lure millennials from Boston and Los Angeles to the condos that the developers that are giving campaign contributors to these legislators want to build? To you, that is less outrageous than using that same money to give all those teachers who were born and bred in Georgia and attended Augusta State University (no longer exists due to budget cuts), SPSU (no longer exists due to budget cuts) and Georgia Perimeter (will soon no longer exist due to budget cuts) their first real raise in 10 years and a manageable class size.

          3. “There is no spending formula.” Well the one in Texas sure seems to work. Why not use theirs? You want to talk about “cultural problems”, Mr. Richard Nixon? Texas is a majority minority state! 56% nonwhite! Yet their graduation rate is within 2 points of 93% white Iowa and keeps steadily increasing! Their 58% graduation rate of kids with limited English proficiency is not much lower than our overall 69% rate and you want to talk about culture?
          Their 84% graduation rate for black students easily surpasses Georgia’s 78% rate for white students, but it is all about culture, right?

          And that is the problem: you have accepted the commonly trafficked myth that these things can’t be improved. Fixed? Of course not. But improved? Yes, because other states have done it. Look, I am a school choice guy myself, and I would much rather this $1 billion be spent on charter and magnet schools and expanding that private scholarship program than to be spent adding lanes to Georgia 400, I-285 and I-75 (plus a few more bus routes for MARTA thrown in) because I actually think that taking that money starting a STEM or classics-focused charter school in Georgia’s 100 most populous counties (and allowing the other 59 to cross county lines) would actually WORK. I think that taking some of that money and using it to significantly improve college dual enrollment opportunities for our best students and vocational education options for the rest would actually WORK. You meanwhile don’t seem to think that ANYTHING – even things that have been proven to work in other states similar to Georgia – can work because, you know, culture.

          If I am wrong, tell me where we disagree.

          The Georgia legislature should have just imposed a combination of a statewide tax plus tolls on the Georgia-Florida parkway (and similar) to raise the $5 billion that their own analysis showed that we needed and left the local county and city education budgets alone. They could have done that and still given Debbie Dooley her smaller, more ethical government agenda. But they didn’t and won’t because they are a bunch of cowards when it comes to policy.

  2. chefdavid says:

    Good Article. I hope to see a picture of the Sponsors so we can see all the “and others” that jump on this bill. I think it’s going to make the local county and city politicians have to “justify the spending more” as long as the sales tax they can add keeps it on transportation and that verbage doesn’t get dropped in the sausage grinder.

  3. Rambler14 says:

    Charlie,

    When are you going to be on Erick’s WSB show discussing HB 170?
    An hour-long discussion would be fun.

  4. Al Gray says:

    OK. I read the bill and am on board.

    Is there any way possible to immediately bring this bill to the floor and pass it verbatim this week?

    I will cheer every year past year 1.

    Debbie Dooley please join us. (winking from the piney woods)

  5. benevolus says:

    I am a little uncomfortable with dedicating a variable amount of money to a particular purpose whether it is needed or not. I mean, at some point in the future we (hopefully) would be at a point where there are other priorities, and DOT is just going to be making projects up to spend the money. I would suggest a built-in review every year with opportunity to redirect something like 10-20% to other purposes if necessary.

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