Georgia’s elected leaders agree the most pressing issue right now is the state’s transportation system.
In recent weeks, Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston have all made this point: The state must spend more money on repairing its roads and building new highways.
I think the leadership is largely correct. Depending on what kind of mood the Tennessee legislature is in, Georgia usually ranks 49th or 50th in money spent on transportation.
Other states of comparable size spend a lot more on this than Georgia does, which means they are in a better position to attract new business and industry.
One reason we don’t spend much on transportation is that the main revenue source, the motor fuel excise tax, is one of the lowest in the nation. The state is hampered even more by the fact cars get better gas mileage today, so drivers buy less gasoline and pay less in motor fuel taxes.
As a result, Georgia must depend more heavily on federal money to pay for transportation projects, but that’s an unreliable source of funding as well. The federal highway trust fund is running low on money and seems to be forever in danger of going insolvent.
With all of their calls for more spending, however, Deal, Cagle, and Ralston have yet to say just how the state should raise the $1 billion or so a year needed to meet transportation needs.
Should we raise the motor fuel excise tax? Should there be a state sales tax increase? Should we have a mileage tax for people who drive electric vehicles and don’t have to pay a motor fuel tax?
Our leaders go silent when they reach that important question. A couple of recent statewide polls suggest why.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution commissioned a survey in early January that showed nearly 60 percent of Georgians agree that improving transportation infrastructure is important. Nearly 70 percent would support new transit facilities. Only 36 percent, however, said they would be willing to pay higher taxes for any kind of transportation project.
A more recent poll for WSB turned up similar results. Those respondents opposed an increase in the motor fuel tax by more than a 2-to-1 margin. By a margin of 52-32 percent, they opposed increasing the state sales tax for the purpose of fixing roads and bridges.
The polls illustrate a fundamental problem of modern politics. Citizens expect their governments, whether at the state or federal level, to provide them all sorts of stuff like good roads. But they don’t believe they should actually have to pay for these services by being taxed.
It’s easy to see how Georgians would have developed this attitude. Politicians have been telling them for years that taxes should never be increased for any reason. The same politicians have told them we can find all the money we need simply by getting rid of the “fraud, waste and abuse” in government. The governor has been boasting for months that Georgia already “is ranked as the No. 1 state to do business.”
When you’ve had those messages drummed into you time and again, you naturally would conclude there’s no reason to raise any taxes. That is why you see polls where a majority of the residents support spending money on transportation needs, but oppose any tax increases to pay for that.
Sam Wellborn, a retired Columbus banker who has served on the State Transportation Board for more than 20 years, got to the heart of the matter when he spoke to a legislative study committee on transportation funding last summer.
“It’s very political,” Wellborn told the lawmakers. “People just don’t want to be associated with raising taxes. But they’ve (legislators) got to be bold about it, and they have to sell the idea of the good that it produces, instead of worrying about re-election.”
Wellborn’s words explain why I am reasonably certain the General Assembly will go through this session without voting to raise funds for the state’s transportation needs, no matter how urgent those needs may be.
Politicians want to be re-elected. They know the chances of being re-elected will decrease by roughly the same amount as any increase they approve in the state’s taxes.
Tom Crawford is editor of the Georgia Report.