Dave Williams - Transportation funding puts Republicans in tight spot

When it comes to raising taxes for transportation improvements, legislative Republicans find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And in an election year, that's where Democrats like them.

GOP lawmakers are being forced to choose between sticking with their traditional anti-tax philosophy or siding with their historical allies, the state's powerful business interests.

Metro Atlanta has struggled with traffic congestion for years. But only recently have the region's business leaders begun to complain that potential corporate tenants are being scared off by gridlock on the highways.

Spurred by the newly formed Get Georgia Moving, a coalition of businesses, local governments and environmental groups, House and Senate Republican leaders are pushing competing proposals to raise funds for a backlog of needed highway and transit projects.

The Senate has already passed its plan, a regional approach that would let one or more counties ask voters to add a penny to the sales tax for transportation improvements.

A proposed 1-cent statewide sales tax increase cleared the House Transportation Committee late last month but hasn't reached the floor.

In either case, the General Assembly wouldn't have the final say. Both measures are constitutional amendments subject to ratification by Georgia voters.

That gives Republicans in each legislative chamber convenient cover to vote for the proposal before them and say they're not raising taxes.

"If this is voted down, is it a tax increase?" asked House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, chief sponsor of the statewide sales tax measure. "If (voters) don't want to impose a tax on themselves, that's totally up to them."

Smith's resolution passed his committee but without the support of several conservative Republicans who didn't buy his argument that they could pass responsibility for raising taxes to Georgia voters.

"We are being asked ... to essentially put a legislative stamp of approval on a tax increase," said Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross.

"How many of us promised we were going to go to Atlanta and toe the line against tax increases? ... Do what you promised your voters back home."

Democrats say they've found a way to let Republicans support stepping up funding for badly needed transportation projects without violating no-tax pledges.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, has introduced a constitutional amendment requiring that the portion of the state's gasoline tax not already dedicated to transportation be used for highway and transit projects.

Under current law, only 75 percent of the money raised from the tax on motor fuels is dedicated to transportation. The other 25 percent goes into the state's general-fund budget.

"What we've tried to do is look for ways to address the needs of the people of Georgia without a tax increase," said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon.

The Democrats' plan likely would appeal to conservative Republicans looking for a way out of voting to raise taxes.

And it could help Democrats anxious to stem the loss of legislative seats the former majority party has suffered by letting them label the GOP as the party of taxation.

The down side is that the Democratic proposal would raise only about $200 million a year, while Smith's statewide sales tax hike would generate about $1.5 billion.

Supporters of the sales-tax measures say Georgia - dead last among the 50 states in per-capita spending on transportation - needs the major funding commitment that Smith's proposal offers.

Terry Chastain of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said the problem is too big to fix simply by overhauling the bureaucratic state Department of Transportation, a step Gov. Sonny Perdue advocates as necessary before spending any more money.

"You cannot reform your way out of this problem," Chastain said. "The people of Georgia will have to be asked whether they want to fund the projects that we need."

If it's going to take a nod from Georgia voters to make a major investment in transportation, the Senate legislation probably is the best bet.

The success at the polls that Special Purpose Local Option Sale Tax measures have enjoyed shows that local voters are more likely to tax themselves for local projects than to support a statewide tax that may not benefit them directly.

The same can be said about the regional approach the Senate measure takes.

Supporters expect most county or regional sales tax proposals would land on ballots in metro Atlanta, where traffic is at its worst and voters are most hungry for a solution.