By Maria Saporta
The transportation plan unveiled last week by leaders in the Georgia House of Representatives initially showed promise, but when details emerged, sadly, it totally missed the mark.
I will let others try to explain to state legislators how they underestimate the intelligence of the public. If we can all agree we need to invest more in our transportation infrastructure, the public probably understands that it will cost taxpayers more money to do so.
Just because some lawmakers have painted themselves into a “no new taxes” pledge corner, it does not mean Georgians can’t understand that we need to invest in our future so we can create the quality of life we need to have to be a competitive state in the 21st Century.
But let’s set that aside and let others debate whether the state will be able to raise $1 billion in new revenue without raising taxes (unless it’s on the backs of the meager budgets of city, county and school governments).
Let’s just take the extremely confusing mixture of motor fuel taxes – the 4 percent sales tax on motor fuel that the House proposes changing to a motor fuel excise tax; there’s the current motor fuel excise tax and then there are local sales taxes on motor fuels that are collected when counties and school boards pass local option sales tax.
According to the Georgia Supreme Court’s interpretation of the State Constitution, the revenue from the motor fuel excise tax must be used solely on roads and bridges.
But there is flexibility in how the state can use the revenue from the sales tax charged on motor fuels.
So instead of changing the sales tax to an excise tax, the state should be doing the reverse. The General Assembly should convert most or all of the motor fuel taxes currently collected to a sales tax on motor fuels and mandate that the revenue be spent on transportation.
The Georgia Department of Transportation could receive all of that revenue, or a portion could go to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the State Road and Tollway Authority could get a share of those dollars for their operations.
Perhaps an agreement could be reached with local governments that they could keep their sales tax revenue that they currently collect, but mandate that it be spent on transportation.
The beauty of this alternative proposal is that the revenue could be spent on ALL modes of transportation – roads, bridges, airports, trains, buses, public transit, bicycles, sidewalks and multi-purpose trails. The state and local governments would have the flexibility to decide how to spend their dollars based on the current need.
No one can argue about giving our governments the flexibility to decide on which transportation modes are best suited for each part of the state at any particular time.
Next, the idea of having a one-time $100 million bond issue for transit is misguided. We have found that like all modes of transportation, transit needs both capital and operating funds. It would be unfortunate if the state were to allow GRTA to buy new buses, but then not provide any money to actually operate them.
Again, ongoing funding for all modes of transportation is what we should be shooting for. We need a balanced transportation system. And to meet that goal, we need a balanced transportation budget.
Lastly, placing a $200 to $300 annual surcharge on electric vehicles also is self-defeating.
As a state, we should want people to be driving electric cars because they are not polluting our air and contributing to greenhouse gases. They also are helping us conserve gasoline – which also is a plus for our state. Why then would we be punishing people for buying electric cars?
I’ve always said that my favorite tax is the motor fuel tax. The more fuel a vehicle consumes, the more the owner of that vehicle should pay. And the farther distances a person drives, the more that person should pay.
That means – from my vantage point – the motor fuel tax encourages positive outcomes. If the cost of gas gets too high, people will buy more energy efficient cars, and people will cut down on their driving by living closer to where they work or minimize their amount of travel in a single-occupancy vehicle by taking transit, car-pooling, walking, cycling or teleworking.
It does make sense to have other pots of money to pay for our transportation needs so that we are not totally dependent on the sales tax on motor fuels.
But let us make sure that as we shift our tax dollars around that we are forward-thinking and strategic. Give us the flexibility to pay for all our transportation needs of today and of our future.
The current House Transportation bill falls far short of on all counts.