The overall disrepair of Georgia’s roads and bridges has reached the point where the state’s political and business leaders agree “something must be done.”
Anyone who’s been caught in the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that choke most of the major highways would probably agree with that, so it’s not really a controversial issue.
You’re hearing a lot these days about the seriousness of this problem. What you aren’t hearing are any proposals on how to pay for it.
There are credible estimates that Georgia needs to spend an extra $1 billion to $1.5 billion each year to maintain existing roadways and build new ones. Some experts have put the amount at closer to $2 billion.
There’s only one realistic way to generate that kind of revenue: Taxes, in some form or fashion, will have to be increased.
The prospect of raising taxes in a conservative, Republican-leaning state like ours has obviously terrified the folks in the Governor’s Mansion and the General Assembly. They aren’t touching that issue with a 10-foot pole.
Lawmakers created a joint study committee that held several hearings around the state to gather ideas on how to increase transportation funding. The legislation creating that committee gave it a Nov. 30 deadline to issue its recommendations.
Nov. 30 came and went with no recommendations. That shifted attention to the week of Dec. 8, when the University of Georgia held its Biennial Institute for newly elected legislators. Several business organizations also scheduled a “transportation summit” that was held in Athens at the same time.
Surely, it was thought, some kind of announcement would come out of those meetings on how the state would handle the upgrading of its transportation infrastructure.
Nothing happened at either event.
The chairmen of the study committee on transportation funding — Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, and Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega — released no funding proposals. Gov. Nathan Deal completed the circle by saying he would wait for the legislators to do something before he would say anything.
“We are waiting for the report from the joint transportation study committee,” Deal said. “I would not get in front of them, or anticipate what their report is going to say. I’m going to let them surprise us all at the appropriate time.”
Deal’s reluctance to take a leadership position on what he and others agree is the most important issue facing this state is somewhat puzzling.
He will begin his last term in elected office in January. He said several times in this year’s campaign that this was the last time he would run for anything, so he doesn’t have to worry about what some disgruntled voters might think.
Fixing the state’s transportation mess is the kind of thing that governors who want to leave behind a legacy would normally jump at the chance to do. What, exactly, does Deal have to lose by taking the lead on this?
Thanks to his re-election victory, Deal has some political capital he can spend on the transportation issue, but it won’t be there long. He has about a year or so to wield some influence before people start their 2018 campaigns for governor and effectively make him a lame duck.
So why is he sitting back and waiting for lawmakers to take the initiative?
One reason may be that Deal painted himself into a corner during his re-election campaign when he bragged about all the great things he had done in his first term to bring jobs to Georgia.
On the day before the election, for example, Deal held an elaborately staged news conference to boast that his administration had helped create 2,700 new jobs in the prior two weeks alone.
After talking for months about Georgia being the “No. 1 state for business” in the country, it would be difficult for Deal to suddenly turn around and claim the state is in such bad shape that taxes must be raised to build roads.
Anyone who was paying attention to Deal’s campaign would think, “But governor, you said everything was just peachy keen. Why do you have to raise my taxes?”
It’s a story we’ve heard many times. Things are so bad they need to be fixed. But how do you convince people to pay for fixing them?
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.