Democrats don’t have a lot of influence in the General Assembly these days. They hold roughly one-third of the seats in both the House and Senate, which means the Republican majority can safely ignore them 99 percent of the time.
Last week, however, presented one of those rare situations where the GOP leadership needed the Democratic minority to move one of the most important pieces of legislation this session: the transportation tax bill (House Bill 170) that would revise the gasoline excise tax and raise nearly $1 billion annually to maintain the state’s highways.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats provided the votes that enabled Speaker David Ralston and his cohorts to push HB 170 to final passage after the bill had been stalling for more than a month.
Gov. Nathan Deal supports the adoption of HB 170, but the real impetus for the bill comes from business groups, highway contractors and construction firms that suffered during the long economic slowdown as the state cut back its spending on capital projects.
The transportation tax bill caused a significant split in the GOP caucus between the establishment Republicans who support big business and the tea party lawmakers who opposed the tax increases contained within HB 170.
That schism was the primary reason why the bill’s author, Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, had to keep taking the measure back to committee to tinker with it.
When HB 170 finally came to the House floor last week, Majority Leader Larry O’Neal and Majority Whip Matt Ramsey drafted an amendment to try to placate the tea partyers and anti-taxers in their caucus: It would have reduced the proposed gasoline excise tax from 29.2 cents per gallon to 24 cents.
The amendment would have made the bill’s tax provisions “net neutral,” in Ramsey’s words, but also would have cut the amount of revenue raised for road building to less than $500 million a year, essentially defeating the bill’s original purpose.
The House voted 94-77 to defeat the amendment. All 77 votes for the amendment came from Republicans, which means nearly two-thirds of the GOP members wanted to gut their own leadership’s bill.
Not a single Democrat voted for that amendment — they joined with the establishment Republicans to outvote the anti-tax faction and keep the excise tax at 29.2 cents.
Two black Democrats also gave speeches during the floor debate urging their colleagues to vote for the transportation tax bill: Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the senior member of the House, and Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway.
The final vote for passage of HB 170 was 123-46. Of those 46 no votes, 43 were cast by Republicans and only three came from Democrats: Patty Bentley, Scott Holcomb and Pam Stephenson.
If Ralston had tried to rely entirely on Republican support to pass HB 170, he would have been about 15 votes short of a constitutional majority. The Democrats stepped up and bailed him out.
There were rewards from the Republican leadership for the votes of their Democratic colleagues.
The state budget approved by the House, which is still pending in the Senate, includes $100 million in the bond package for transit projects, which is a big step forward for Democratic lawmakers who’ve been trying for years to secure more state support for mass transit.
After HB 170 passed and was making its way to the Senate, the House adopted a bill Democrats have been trying to get for years: It removes the state-imposed requirement for the MARTA transit system to split its sales tax revenues between operational and capital costs.
That operational funding flexibility for MARTA was a significant victory for Democrats.
Ralston had been in a similar situation to another speaker of another House: U.S. Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. Boehner presides over the U.S. House of Representatives, where there is also a gaping divide between establishment Republicans and the tea party faction, just as in the Georgia House.
On issues like keeping the Department of Homeland Security in operation, Boehner has had to rely on Democrats to provide him with enough votes to get a working majority — just as Ralston had to do with the highway tax bill.
If nothing else, the events of last week show that sometimes the two parties can still work together.
Tom Crawford is the editor of the Georgia Report.