ATLANTA — Republican legislative leaders have been reluctant to back tax increases to help Georgia fill a $2.6 billion deficit, but both chambers of the state legislature have now adopted separate plans to allow voters to decide whether to adopt a 1 percent sales tax increase for transportation improvements.
The House plan passed overwhelmingly on Tuesday, setting up a showdown with the Senate over how the tax would be levied. It also revives a long-running debate in the legislature over what kind of tax increase is needed to relieve Atlanta’s traffic-choked streets, repair crumbling infrastructure and improve the roads crisscrossing the state.
"You’re going to get the chance to decide whether you’re going to move forward or backward," said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, the chamber’s top Democrat. "We can’t afford to stand still. Let’s give Georgia the chance to move forward."
The House plan favors a statewide sales tax that would raise $25 billion for state transportation projects over the next decade. The Senate plan would allow counties to band together to impose the tax, allowing some regions to opt out of the tax.
State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said he supported the bill because it will serve all of Georgia.
"The main thing we’re looking at is a statewide approach," Collins said. "For the district up in Gainesville to think we’re not connected with the coast, or Atlanta or South Georgia is being blind to the issue of transportation."
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he supported the bill in committee.
"It gives people the right to do something about transportation by voting it up, if not they can vote it down," Rogers said. "I like the statewide approach because it will reach all of the state and it’s more defined."
Georgia’s business lobbies have aggressively pushed for the increases, saying Atlanta’s traffic woes are hurting their ability to recruit and keep companies. The city’s commute routinely ranks among the nation’s worst, and state officials say Georgia ranks near the bottom when it comes to per capita spending on transportation.
Under both plans, Georgia voters would have to approve the tax increase in 2010 as a constitutional amendment. The Senate measure requires local officials to craft a list of potential projects that local residents would consider, while the House proposal includes a lengthy list of specific projects across the state.
To sweeten the bill, the proposal comes loaded with transportation projects to coax lawmakers who were reluctant to support past tax-raising efforts and may be even more wary this year amid the economic slump.
It promises some juicy dollops for congested metro Atlanta, including funding for a streetcar route in the heart of the city, a passenger rail line to Athens, a suburban light rail system with stations dotting the metro area and money for the Beltline project, which would create a ring of parks and light rail around Atlanta.
To win rural votes, though, the plan would also fund dozens of projects to widen roads and revamp truck routes crisscrossing the state. It includes $500 million to pave hundreds of miles of rural dirt roads, $1 billion to repair or replace bridges and $400 million to upgrade airports.
It also promises to dole out money to the 30 biggest cities outside metro Atlanta, from Augusta to Valdosta.
To earn support from the chamber’s Democrats, GOP leaders adopted two amendments: one giving the minority party two seats on an oversight committee, and another devoting about $180 million in state sales taxes raised from the sale of motor vehicle fuel to transportation improvements. That money is now funneled to the general fund.
The House proposal — broken up into a bill and a resolution — didn’t draw more than 20 "nay" votes.
"Let’s send this bill to the Senate so we can start working on economic development and creating jobs," said the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Calvin Smyre.