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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Plan B Committee: Two years later, Republicans gear up for a transportation re-match

Jim Galloway writes in the AJC's Political Insider:

Two years after the humiliating, tea party-driven defeat of a penny sales tax for transportation, Republicans in the state Capitol are gearing up for a rematch.

It is a mere study committee, but one that includes top House and Senate lawmakers, including those who control the state budget, plus Georgia’s top business leaders.

The timing is the chief giveaway of the committee’s importance.

The first hearing won’t occur until after the July 22 primary runoff. And no recommendations will come before the Nov. 4 general election – after which Georgia will have either a Democratic governor, or a Republican one who will never be on a ballot again.

There’s no doubt about it: The central question hasn’t changed since 2012 – how to repair and grow a network of roads, bridges and rails that has been starved of cash for decades. Including the mess that is metro Atlanta.

“Our goal is really the funding source for this. How do we find the sustainable stream of revenue that will carry us into the next 20 or 30 years?” said Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and co-chair of this particular gathering as well.

Gooch’s partner, House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, agreed. “We’ve got to try to figure out a way, for us as a state, to put more money into transportation,” Roberts said.

The formal name of their group is the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding. But the better name may be the Plan B Committee.

The 2012 $7.2 billion TSPLOST vote failed in nine of 12 regions – including metro Atlanta. Perhaps it was always doomed by the rise of the tea party, and perhaps that movement is now past its apex.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed may have seen a high-speed rail connection between the Atlanta of 2050 and Savannah.

But back here in 2014, the territory should still be considered hostile. Only last Saturday, in Clayton County, which has no transit system, arms had to be twisted before the county commission relented and put a penny sales tax for MARTA up for a November referendum.

On the north side, Cobb County Commission Tim Lee has postponed a debate over a rapid-bus system linking Acworth and midtown Atlanta until at least 2016.

But if anything, the funding situation has worsened in the last two years. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, fueled by an 18-cent per gallon tax on gasoline, is insolvent. Fixing it may become yet another confrontation between President Barack Obama and House Republicans in Washington.

Georgia, like other states, is also suffering from the success of efforts to wean ourselves from Middle East oil. Owners of gasoline-powered cars and trucks pay a four-penny state tax on every gallon. Three of those pennies go toward transportation. A fourth goes to the state’s general fund. Alternative-fuel drivers now get a free ride.

Funding options that the Plan B Committee will look at include grabbing that fourth penny, which can be worth between $180 million and $200 million a year. Tolls are another option, along with smaller versions of the 2012 TSPLOST, involving smaller groups of counties and fractional sales taxes.

But the most delicate, long-term portion of the Plan B Committee’s assignment may be designing a new way to tax alternative-fuel vehicles.

“We all want cleaner energy, but at the end of the day, those vehicles are still traveling up and down our highways, and we’ve still got to maintain [the roads],” Roberts said.

The House transportation chairman is familiar with that Oregon pilot program that looked at taxing motorists based on odometer readings. “I’m not saying that’s the model you look at, but at some point you have to start addressing those vehicles,” Roberts said.

One civilian member of the Plan B Committee is attorney Edward Lindsey of Atlanta, who until last week was a member of the state House, and until May 20 was a GOP candidate for Congress. He resigned his state House seat a few months early to take a seat on the committee designated for a private citizen.

With all those political obligations now behind him, I suggested to Lindsey that he could now play the role of Cassandra, the unsparing predictor of the future. “If I remember the story of Cassandra, she’s the truth-teller that no one believes,” Lindsey rejoined.

“We’re at a crisis, and part of it is that we haven’t convinced our citizenry that this is a crisis,” Lindsey said. Georgia is spending only 60 percent of what surrounding states are pouring into their infrastructure.

“You’ve got to respect the history here,” the former lawmaker said. “We were created in the 19th century by transportation – railroads. We made our great leap forward in the 20th century because of transportation. That was the Atlanta international airport.

“The challenge of the 21st century is whether we’re going to drown in our earlier success,” he said.
Like I said — Casandra.

It is a point of pride among those in the state Capitol that Georgia, unlike the federal government, is constitutionally required to balance its budget each year. Unlike Washington, it cannot operate at a deficit.

The Plan B Committee will have to persuade Georgians that neglect is just deficit spending by another name, a tax that is levied without a referendum. Two years later, it’s still a tough argument.

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