Gov. Nathan Deal has signed the bill that dominated most of the discussion and media coverage in this year’s legislative session: HB 170, the transportation funding bill.
In moving the bill to passage and signing it into law, the governor, the legislative leadership and rank-and-file Republicans went against one of their own party’s bedrock principles: Taxes are bad and should never be raised.
Make no mistake about it, this was a huge tax increase the General Assembly passed. From the start, it will generate more than $900 million a year for highway and bridge projects, but it is also indexed to rise with the inflation rate and increases in gasoline mileage standards. This means it won’t be long before the tax collections cross into billion-dollar territory.
The boosters of HB 170 may have slightly underestimated what the bill will do for transportation infrastructure. They say $1 billion a year gives the state a bare minimum of what is needed to maintain and repave existing roads, but some experts acknowledged that the growing pot of money could pay for some new construction as well.
“We may be able to do other projects outside of maintenance,” Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry conceded in a post-session interview.
HB 170 increases the gasoline excise tax by roughly 6 cents a gallon. It imposes new taxes on hotel stays, on the owners of electric vehicles and on heavy trucks. It also terminates lucrative tax breaks that have been enjoyed by Delta Air Lines and purchasers of electric vehicles.
It was not a perfect bill — far from it — and the critics of HB 170 made some valid arguments against the measure.
It is true HB 170 was rammed through to passage in the session’s closing days when exhausted legislators were ordered to vote on a complex bill without having enough time to read or analyze what they were voting on.
Critics of the bill derided it as a taxpayers’ gravy train for highway contractors, and there is no question construction firms are going to reap a bonanza from all the paving projects DOT will start rolling out.
It’s also true that for all the lip service given to the need for more rapid transit, very little money was actually set aside for transit purposes in the General Assembly session.
But there is also the fact Georgia has long ranked near the bottom in public spending on transportation infrastructure, which left the state weighed down by crumbling highways and structurally unsound bridges.
Deal made a strong point here: “It would be a great tragedy if we had an accident with a school bus on a deteriorating bridge.” He was right; you only have to think back to the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007, which killed 13 people and injured 145, to understand what the consequences could have been for Georgia.
In all the commentary about the adoption of HB 170, something that hasn’t been noted much is this: The bill marks a real turning point in the ongoing debate about how much people should pay for the services they expect from their government.
For the past decade or more, the fundamental argument of GOP legislators has been that taxes should never be raised and government spending must always be cut. Dozens of lawmakers signed a pledge with Washington anti-tax activist Grover Norquist that they would never vote for a tax hike.
The argument was extended even further by libertarians who contended government isn’t even necessary, because private enterprise and the free market will always come up with the right solution to every problem.
In the real world, of course, the free market won’t magically find a way to fix everything. There will be times when governments have to do it, which means raising taxes to pay for addressing these problems. There are even times when businesses will have to be told they can’t have a tax break. That’s how politics works.
The adoption of HB 170 was a sign those realities are hitting home with many of those who serve at the Gold Dome. It was refreshing to see them finally acknowledge it and get on with the process of addressing the issue.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.