Environmental outlook in 2010 session partly sunny

By Maria Saporta

At the monthly Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable this morning, four state legislators were relatively upbeat on how the 2010 General Assembly will address environmental issues.

The biggest cause for optimism was the water conservation bill that was introduced by Gov. Sonny Perdue and his leadership team earlier this week.

Jill Johnson, program director of Georgia Conservation Voters, said such a water bill had been one of the top priorities of the different environmental groups in the state.

State Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry), who chairs the Senate’s Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said the state had laid the groundwork when it supported having a statewide water plan that addressed the needs of metro Atlanta as well as the rest of the state.

Tolleson also said he was hopeful that Georgia, Alabama and Florida soon would be able to reach an agreement on the use of water between the three states.

“I believe that during the year, we will get a compact (between Georgia, Alabama and Florida on water usage),” Tolleson said. “It’s the most important thing right now. It’s a very sensitive time, and people need to be very careful about what they say.”

State Sen. Steve Henson (D-DeKalb) agreed that a water compact was crucial.

“The most environmentally friendly way we can do this is through conservation,” Henson said. “We need a compact with other states. But it will not provide Atlanta the water it needs without conservation.

State Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Columbus) said she was pleased with the governor’s proposal. But she also believes more could be done. She has introduced a bill that would have an outdoor watering schedule to prevent people from watering their lawns during the middle of the day when there is the greatest amount of evaporation.

Securing funding for transit also is another top priority of the Georgia Conservation Voters, but the prognosis on that front is much cloudier.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-DeKalb) said he is seeing growing consensus between the House and Senate, largely because Gov. Perdue has proposed a regional approach to a possible new penny sales tax.

But it was unclear whether such a new penny would be transit-focused.

“The governor’s proposal is a lot more road oriented than transit,” Jacobs said. “That’s open for discussion.”

Jacobs, who serves on the House oversight committee for MARTA, said removing the 50/50 restriction for the MARTA penny could be a difficult issue. By state law, MARTA has to spend 50 percent of its sales tax revenue on capital improvements and the remaining on operations.

MARTA is the only transit agency in the country with such a restriction, and it would like the flexibility to spend its own money where it’s needed. Remember MARTA does not receive annual operating support form the state, the only agency among the nation’s top 10 to receive no state support.

Jacobs said he had proposed waving that restriction for two years, but now MARTA has to invest in major technology improvements so it will need capital funding over the next two years.

The question Jacobs didn’t answer was why not remove that sales tax restriction entirely and permanently.

But he is accurate in saying that a flexible MARTA sales tax will not solve the transit agency’s immediate and dire need for operating funds. Unless it can secure new funding, MARTA likely will be facing a drastic decline in service this July.

Jacobs mentioned that one option could be using some of the $300 million transportation bond program that has been proposed by Perdue for MARTA and other transit agencies.

That also is a long shot. The governor has identified all the projects in that $300 million bond program, and there is no money for transit. It is mostly dedicated to freight and road improvements.

Someone asked whether it’s time to change the state Constitution to allow its motor fuel tax to fund transit and alternative modes of transportation rather than just roads and bridges.

Jacobs said a change in the Constitution would require a two thirds vote in the House and Senate. “That is a real tall order,” he said.

But Tolleson was not so pessimistic, saying there’s an evolution underway.

Georgia has watched hundreds of millions of dollars flow to its competitor states for rail projects, and it likely will not get its share of federal dollars until it begins investing in transit and trains.

“I don’t know if it would be that hard to change the Constitutional amendment,” Tolleson said “It is a matter of talking through the process of where we stand today.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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