Sales tax measure to pay for transportation moving in House

ATLANTA - Voters could decide by region whether to levy a 1 percent sales tax to pay for needed highway and transit projects, under the latest transportation funding plan before Georgia lawmakers.

In a compromise offer to the Senate, the House Transportation Committee approved a constitutional amendment this week setting a statewide referendum on the concept of regional transportation sales taxes.

If voters pass the measure, local elected officials then would decide whether to put the 1 percent tax on the ballot in their regions. They also would be required to publish a list of projects that would be funded with the money.

Transportation funding has been on the short list of priorities for the General Assembly throughout this year's session.

A coalition of business groups, local government officials, road builders and transit advocates is making a major push for a new source of dedicated revenue to address the traffic gridlock they say is chasing business prospects away from metro Atlanta.

The original version of the House measure called for going to the voters with a statewide 1 percent sales tax increase for transportation.

But that drew strong opposition from lawmakers worried about the political consequences of raising taxes in an election year.

As a result, House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith changed the legislation to incorporate a regional approach, in keeping with a competing measure the Senate passed last month.

But that failed to satisfy some members of his committee.

"How do you answer critics on this being a tax increase?" Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, asked Smith, R-Pine Mountain.

Smith answered that lawmakers are simply being asked to put the question before Georgia voters, so they can decide whether to tax themselves.

He compared his proposal to the special purpose local option sales tax measures that voters have ratified across the state in recent years by wide margins.

"I consider this a larger regional type of SPLOST," Smith said. "It's just an opportunity to let the people vote."

Unlike the Senate bill, all of the money raised under Smith's legislation would stay within each region. The Senate measure calls for distributing 20 percent of the revenue from regional sales taxes statewide.

Another potential sticking point as the legislation heads to the House floor is whether to allow individual counties to choose not to participate in a tax referendum in their region.

An opt-out amendment failed in the committee.

Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams@ gwinnettdailypost.com.