By Tom Baxter
Before you get too exasperated with Gov. Nathan Deal over his cautious, some might say timid, approach to transportation funding, consider the alternative. That’s what South Carolina is for.
In a bold plan unveiled in her recent State of the State message, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has proposed a tax swap: increase the gas tax by 10 cents over the next three years to patch up the state’s transportation system, in exchange for a 2-percent reduction in the state income tax phased in over the next 10 years. Sounds great, but some spoilsports have reported that the overall shortfall in state revenues would be as large as this year’s budgets for entire agencies of state government.
Deal has not tried to shell-game the need to spend more on roads, and in his state of the state speech seemed to put the bull’s eye on the gas tax as the preferable means to raise money. But his support for any kind of tax increase has been soft as a cat’s paw on marble. When the word “suggests” makes it into a headline, you know the governor isn’t risking too much political capital in this effort.
At least judging by how the latest drive to do something about transportation funding has unfolded so far, there’s little reason why Deal should.
Fulfilling what has become almost a ritual role, both Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston warned at the outset of this year’s session that “doing nothing is not an option.” Keith Golden, who surprised Capitol observers earlier this month when he announced he was leaving, even went so far as to say he was stepping aside now because he’d reached his retirement age, and didn’t think it would be appropriate to be “overly active in seeking the much-needed funding” right before bowing out.
But doing nothing certainly is an option. It’s the option which has defined this issue going back into the past decade. With the exception of the legislation setting up the 2012 transportation initiative, the legislature has repeatedly failed to do anything about the growing problem of an inadequate transportation system. The failure of that initiative across the entire gridlock belt further solidified the option of inaction.
For harried commuters it’s a terrible thing to say, but we may even be getting accustomed to the problems the legislature repeatedly fails to address. The huge backup caused by the gruesome death of a pedestrian on I-285 last week caused headlines, but dozens of jams never get noticed past the radio traffic reports. Traffic around Atlanta is abysmal; the fact that it’s abysmal isn’t news anymore.
None of this would be happening anyway, if gas wasn’t below the two-dollar level and the economy wasn’t coming back. The dire economic impacts of not doing anything, outlined by the latest blue-ribbon panel tasked to study the problem, are real enough. It just remains to be seen whether a public numbed by the annual jousting, a legislature which views any tax question with a mixture of abhorrence and terror, and a governor not prone to lead any charges on the issue can achieve very much this year.
However, as the South Carolina example teaches, things could be worse. Ideas about public transit are evolving, and the climate for legislative action on that front may improve with time. The funding mechanism for building and maintaining the state’s roads is flawed, but there’s many a broad ax solution that could be worse. Meditate on this, as you inch forward.