Last night, Georgia legislators were handed a brand-new transportation bill barely an hour before they were required to vote on it, a bill that had been drafted in secret and then handed to them as a finished product. They passed it.
With some $900 million in additional and much-needed annual funding for transportation, the bill does represent real progress. In fact, it’s fair to say that House Bill 170 is probably the most far-sighted, responsible transportation funding bill that the Georgia Legislature is capable of adopting.
And if that sounds like faint praise, it is. We’re caught in a situation in which the best that our legislators can do is not nearly enough. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Take the word of the legislators themselves.
Before the General Assembly even began, the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding released a report on the inadequacy of Georgia’s transportation funding.
“In order to merely preserve the current transportation system, namely the maintenance of roads and bridges at acceptable levels, the state has a funding gap of $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually,” the study committee stated.
To do more than merely preserve the status quo, to actually begin addressing the state’s critical transportation needs after years of neglect — “boosting regional mobility, increasing interstate highway capacity, expanding transit availability, improving intermodal options, and building new interchanges” — the committee found that the state would need $2.1 to $2.9 billion in additional revenue.
That committee was created by and led by legislators. In other words, by the standards that they themselves set, the best that they could accomplish still fell short of the minimum that they told us was necessary.
And the consequences of that failure? Again, let’s turn to the legislators’ own report:
“Without significantly increasing transportation spending to the levels identified above, Georgia’s existing transportation networks will deteriorate, the needs identified in the (state transportation plan) will go unmet, and Georgia’s longstanding position as a leader in transportation infrastructure and economic growth will erode.”
That’s where we are.
It’s also important to point out the poisoned apple that was amended into HB 170 at the last minute. As passed last night by both the House and Senate, the bill creates a “Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure” that is required to produce a tax-reform proposal in time for the 2016 session.
For years, Georgia Republicans have been trying to build the momentum and political courage needed to pass major tax reform along the lines of that enacted by Kansas. Their ideology requires them to believe that by eliminating or greatly reducing the state income tax, and by offsetting that revenue loss with a significant increase in the state sales tax, including a new sales tax on food, they can somehow turn Georgia into an economic dynamo. (The so-called “More Take Home Pay Act”, introduced earlier this year by the House Republican Caucus, shows you what such a plan would look like.)
Inevitably, that “tax reform” would shift billions of dollars in taxes away from wealthier Georgians, while raising taxes significantly on Georgia’s middle class and working people. There’s no legitimate dispute about that fact. And based on the experience of Kansas, it also won’t create the promised economic growth. Quite the contrary. The growth and additional tax revenue promised by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has never materialized, forcing the state to slash spending on education, transportation and other basic needs and leading both Standard and Poor’s and Moody to cut the state’s credit rating.
Until now, Georgia Republicans have lacked a mechanism that would allow them to ignore and overcome such objections to their plan. But HB 170 has real potential to change that.
Under the bill, tax-reform legislation drafted by the special tax reform committee would be put directly to a vote in the House and Senate next year. The legislative package could not be referred to or reviewed by any standing committee. It could not be amended in either chamber. Legislators would be required to vote yes or no on the entire proposal. In short, the process is designed to serve as a legislative freight train that will barrel through any and all opposition.
So we’ve also got that to look forward to.