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New roads sales tax may emerge

Bill would create smaller districts than in 2012 vote

POSTED: January 26, 2014 12:54 a.m.

The transportation sales tax so thoroughly rejected by area voters in July 2012 is rearing its head again, this time in a scaled-back way.

But whether it gains traction in an election year, with lawmakers hoping for a shorter 2014 General Assembly, remains to be seen.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Commission, referred to House Bill 195 as a “mini” version of what was commonly called T-SPLOST, or transportation special purpose local option sales tax.

“Although there’s some merit to cities and counties working together to improve infrastructure, I’m not sure there’s an appetite for an additional tax among taxpayers,” Miller said. “I, for one, feel like we’re paying enough tax.

“I don’t anticipate the bill to have a lot of activity.”

The July 2012 T-SPLOST referendum was the product of the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. The law called for counties in 12 regional commissions throughout the state to devise a plan for road improvements in their region over a 10-year span and set it before voters.

Hall County would have received about $300 million for its nine projects in the 13-county Georgia Mountains region.

Approval would have increased the sales tax by a penny on the dollar — 8 cents instead of 7 cents in Hall.
But opposition throughout Georgia was huge, largely fueled by government mistrust and bad timing, with America experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In the end, only three of the state’s 12 regions approved the tax. Nearly 75 percent of residents in the Georgia Mountains region rejected it.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, has introduced HB 195 to amend state law, taking out special districts “that correspond with the boundaries of existing regional commissions.”

“A new special district may be formed by two or more geographically contiguous counties,” the bill states.
In other words, a county could pair up with any of its surrounding counties for a special tax district.

“The General Assembly finds that the design and construction of transportation projects is a critical local government service for which adequate funding is not presently available,” the bill states. “Many transportation projects cross multiple jurisdictional boundaries and must be coordinated in their design and construction.”

Like the previous T-SPLOST, voter approval would be needed for a special district to be created.

Setzler’s bill first surfaced last February. It re-emerged in this legislature, which got underway Jan. 13, with the bill withdrawn from the House Ways and Means Committee and “recommitted” to the House Transportation Committee.

“If it gets out of the House, it still has a long way to go to get to the Senate,” Miller said.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said that if such a bill eventually passes, it might be something Hall could consider with Forsyth and maybe Habersham and Dawson counties, which “would make a nice network.”

“The problem is the Transportation Investment Act is in place ... and so (the bill) might be unfair to the regions that passed it,” Rogers said.

“As far as any chance of this bill passing, I can’t answer that. But just based on what I know, probably not.”
Setzler couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said he expects, regardless, that the issue behind the bill — how to better fund transportation — will be a lingering issue.

“In the near future, maybe over the summer, if not before, we will start talking about some alternative funding methods for transportation,” said Gooch, Senate Transportation Committee chairman and a former State Transportation Board member.

“We still have big needs for a more predictable flow of revenues — not necessarily increasing revenues, but to create a more stable flow.”

Gooch said he does believe Setzler’s bill “does make more sense than the original T-SPLOST.”

Widespread regions “is one of the reasons it failed so poorly,” he said. “Having it so one or more counties can get together and specify a small number of projects makes sense in theory, so we’ll just need to look at details of the bill once it gets vetted properly.”

Officials statewide are concerned about the federal transportation spending law expiring Sept. 30. Congress now is looking to reauthorize it.

Keith Golden, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, has cautioned lawmakers this session that should a solution not be found by Congress, Georgia’s transportation funds could essentially dry up between June and September.

Seth Millican, director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said that “because some of Georgia’s projects receive up to 80 percent of their funding from federal dollars, this is obviously a huge problem.”

Gooch is somewhat optimistic on that front.

With Congress approving a federal budget, “maybe things (in Washington) are beginning to work a little better than they have the last four or five years,” he said.


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