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Bill to fund Georgia transportation has a rough ride so far
Plan to replace fuel sales tax has many opponents, including some lawmakers
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Follow the bill: HB 170, Transportation Funding Act of 2015

The transportation funding bill in the Georgia legislature has had a bumpy ride so far, and the grumbling isn’t just coming from people outside the Gold Dome.

“I think we’ll see some amendments that will make it more palatable and less costly to municipalities, which is something we’ve got to do,” state Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville.

Immediately after it was introduced in late January, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 drew huge protests from local government officials statewide, as it proposed cutting off a huge revenue source by replacing the sales tax on gas with an excise tax.

Objections have grown since from others, including lobbyists and even environmentalists, who want more money for transit in the bill.

But even lawmakers have started turning against the bill, including state Rep. David Stover, R-Palmetto, an early supporter.

“The present state of the bill, there’s no way I would support it,” Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville.

He cited a provision in the bill that calls for a 29.2-cent per gallon excise tax that would be adjusted annually after July 1, 2016, based on the percentage increase or decrease in fuel efficiency from the previous year.

“That gives you the possibility that (the tax) will go down, but it will never go down,” Rogers said.

State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said he believes the bill needs a fresh start by letting “everybody in the House put their two cents in and try to start with a bill that make sense.”

He has said he supports consumption taxes in favor of income taxes to pay for needed infrastructure and transportation projects.

“They never gave me any opportunity to fix the bill the way we could fix it,” Dunahoo said.

Hawkins, Rogers and Dunahoo were discussing the bill as it stood Wednesday, even as more changes were on the way.

The bill was sent back to the House Transportation Committee early last week to address other possible changes, and the bill could reach the House floor this week.

“It’s pretty hard to know where you stand when you don’t know what you’re standing on,” Hawkins said.

If the bill crosses over, it would go through the same process as in the House, beginning in the Senate Transportation Committee and moving, if approved in committee, to the Senate floor.

The Senate would have less time to debate the bill, but Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he wasn’t concerned.

“Both chambers have been working on transportation legislation for weeks and months,” he said, referring to the legislative Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding.

That group held public meetings last year and released a 23-page report Dec. 30 suggesting funding options for lawmakers to consider this session.

Even though he doesn’t have a say on it yet, Miller has been watching the bill’s progress — and distress — in the House.

“The fact that the local (government officials) were fighting back so hard on it was part of the problem,” he said.

Miller personally believes that “if a tax dollar is collected related to transportation, it should be spent on transportation. If it’s a motor fuel tax, it should be going for transportation, period.

“For decades, they’ve been taking that motor fuel tax and spending it in other areas, and that’s just patently wrong. This is a chance to correct that.”

Out of the 7 percent sales tax now generally levied on gas in Georgia, 4 percent goes to the state and 3 percent to local governments. From the 4 percent, 3 percent goes to the Georgia Department of Transportation, with the fourth percent — or what has been dubbed “the fourth penny” — going to the state’s general fund.

State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, has been a proponent of restoring the fourth penny for transportation, an estimated annual boost of $200 million.

But that would fall way short of the $1 billion estimated by the study committee to keep up with Georgia’s transportation needs.

The bill, pushed by state Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, is expected to generate some $1 billion in annual transportation funding. Roberts and Gooch served as co-chairmen of the study committee.

Gooch said he believes the Senate will be able to push through a bill, which could wind up in a conference committee, where members from both chambers make final changes.

“Sometimes, it comes down to the last hour and last few minutes (of the session), but we really feel this is such an important issue that we have to deal with it this year,” he said.

“If we don’t, we lose another year and time is not on our side.”

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