Considering the important issues at stake during the 2015 Georgia General Assembly, the session ended fairly quietly at midnight, Thursday, April 2, but the its impact on Georgia’s future will be big. And, for the metro Atlanta region, the session stands as a qualified success.
On many of the major issues important to the region — transportation, water and aging services — legislators made advances that will pay dividends for years to come. More importantly for the Atlanta region, dialogue about how to move forward on the issue of adequately funding public transit, a topic that has vexed lawmakers for years, was begun in a serious way and holds great promise for the future.
Legislation to address the chronic underfunding of transportation infrastructure in Georgia was one of the most highly anticipated bills taken up by the General Assembly this year. The Transportation Funding Act of 2015 passed and will substantially increase our state’s investment in critical transportation infrastructure, a top priority for the region and for the state’s leadership.
The effect of the bill will be to add nearly $1 billion annually to state transportation infrastructure funds. This is a critical investment to the state’s future and demonstrates a commitment from state leaders to address challenges that might negatively impact economic prosperity in the future.
This legislation shifts taxation away from a complex formula of excise and sales taxes on motor fuel to a direct 26-cents per gallon excise tax. This shift ensures that these monies will be spent on transportation uses and not diverted to the state’s general fund. In addition to the excise tax, a new fee on hotel rooms per night, expected to raise about $200 million annually, will not be constitutionally restricted to roads and bridges, and therefore will be eligible for purposes such as transit.
There were other encouraging signs for transit in the 2015 legislative session. For the first time ever, the state budget contained a line item in the amount of $75 million for transit needs, statewide. These funds are expected to be administered as a competitive grant program, through which transit agencies can address urgent needs.
In addition, legislation was passed that will allow individual counties in the Atlanta region to put before their voters a funding opportunity for transportation and transit projects and services. This “county T-SPLOST” option, available as early as 2016, is a variation of the larger regional T-SPLOST that failed at the ballot box in 2012, and allows for a vote on a fractional sales tax in .05-cent increments, up to a full penny, to fund a specific list of transportation or transit projects over a five-year period.
These advances suggest that the state may have reached an important tipping point on transit. Public comments made on multiple occasions from top state leaders such as Governor Nathan Deal, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston stressed that transit can no longer be an afterthought in our transportation future.
In addition to the positive movement on infrastructure funding and transit, the Atlanta region will benefit from bills passed that will provide much needed relief for Georgia’s aging population. Added funding in the state budget will help to remove 1,000 persons from the waiting list for home and community-based aging services. This $1.7 million line item will benefit many families whose loved ones are better able to be cared for in their own homes, rather than in an institution. The state budget also contained funding for eight new GBI agents specifically for investigating cases of abuse against elderly persons, and legislation was passed strengthening the penalties for such offenses. Finally, the new Georgia Adult and Aging Services Agency will bring much needed attention to the many issues specific to the rapidly growing share of the population of older adults in the state.
The Atlanta region also has good news in the area of water resources. A specific $500,000 line item in the state budget will allow the Metro North Georgia Water Planning District to have adequate resources to begin its required Water Plan Update for the Atlanta region. This will be a critical update, in light of ongoing litigation in the federal courts between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Looking back over the 2015 General Assembly session, residents of the metro Atlanta region can be thankful for the work of the General Assembly toward generating outcomes that can lead us toward a more prosperous and livable future.