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Our Views: Road tax detour ahead
Legislators plan to help fund transportation has local leaders antsy: Will politics grab the wheel?
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson

Georgia’s ongoing transportation problems are a long and winding road, often clogged with ice, potholes, orange barrels and the nagging sense that it’s an issue that may never be fully resolved.

Last week, state lawmakers unveiled their plan to raise $1 billion in transportation funds. The proposal would replace Georgia’s fuel sales taxes with an excise tax of 29.2 cents per gallon. Lawmakers also plan to use a bond package to help pay for roads and transit and levy a stiff fee on drivers of hybrid vehicles.

It’s a complex plan, one many are still sorting through to determine its effects. We’ll likely pay more at the pump, and perhaps in other ways, as higher fuel costs could well raise prices for other goods and services.

The plan already has local officials howling that it replaces sales taxes split among all governments with an excise tax that goes to the state. That would drastically cut revenue for county and city governments just now getting back on their feet after years of austerity cuts during the recession.

Current sales taxes collected through special purpose local option sales taxes would be collected until those SPLOSTs end. After that, local governments could impose their own excise taxes on fuel of 3 cents per gallon strictly for transportation spending. But most worry that would still not collect as much in revenue as the current 3 percent sales tax, plus SPLOST pennies, that would be lost from their general funds.

That would leave cities and counties with tough choices: Go back to cutting services, pay and jobs, or raise property taxes to plug the gap.

It’s the usual shell game governments play with each other during hard times. When the federal government tightens its belt, less money goes to states, who then pass that pain down the line to city councils and county commissions. Local leaders are at the bottom of the food chain and have no one else to shuffle the burden along to except taxpayers.

“They’re just passing the buck, and it’s not fair,” Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said, knowing that buck stops with him, his city council and county commissioners who have to play the bad guys and suffer the political blowback.

Many wonder why Georgia leaders couldn’t just raise gasoline taxes and be done with it. Polls show a majority of state residents agree a growing state can’t continue to attract jobs without the means to move people and goods efficiently. Yet the seemingly inconsistent flip side is that most Georgians are unwilling to pay more in taxes for that crucial need. Politicians who sign anti-tax pledges note this, then try to devise plans to make it appear they’re not doing so.

Why do residents want the benefits but don’t want to pay the cost? Simple: Lack of trust. Careless use of public money over the years has left taxpayers wary when politicians hold their hands out for more. Until that trust is re-earned and governments at all levels live within their means, tax increases will be met with suspicious eyes.

Even when we agree roads, schools, public safety and health need more funding, too much money still is spent on needless projects aimed at political backers, boondoggles that build up both costs and cynicism.

Take Georgia’s new excise tax plan. If it passes, how do we know that 29.2 cents per gallon will be spent wisely? What projects will get priority and who will benefit most? No one knows yet.

Rest assured, that flush fund will touch off numerous political battles. Georgia’s 236 legislators all will seek a piece of the pie to curry favor and votes back home. The more influential leaders could steer a bigger chunk into their districts rather than toward the greatest needs. So while metro Atlanta traffic remains at a standstill, roads in far-flung areas of the state will get new coats of pavement, whether they need them or not. That’s precisely why taxpayers don’t trust politicians with a new pile of cash to spend.

But conversely, is it fair for folks statewide to pay for one city’s inability to handle its growth? Atlanta is a teeming metropolis that has long since filled its arteries and transit to overflowing. The slightest interruption, be it a snowstorm or an accident, can bring the metro to a screeching stop. Even expanded highways and toll lanes fill up so quickly, planners can’t keep up. Should residents in South Georgia who never clog those highways be asked to throw money down that endless hole?

That’s why the regional transportation sales tax plan, or T-SPLOST, proposed in 2012 was a better idea. It would have kept that tax money closer to home in each designated region, money collected and spent on specific local transportation projects. Though the usual political wrangling would result, it at least would have been localized, with the politicians spending that money answerable directly to their constituents.

Now the state is asking all Georgians to dump money into a large pot only to have it doled out around the state in a process, and for projects, not yet defined.

The T-SPLOST only passed in three regions of the state, where such tax is already being collected. So those folks could get hit twice at the pumps: Once for local road needs and again with the state tax.

All in all, the jury is out on the tax plan, and until more is learned, we shouldn’t deem it dead on arrival. The hope is that lawmakers will revise it to meet concerns by local officials, ensure the costs are shared equitably and that money is spent aimed at solutions, not politics.

Yet until that happens, Georgians are right to retain a healthy skepticism when elected officials ask for more of their hard-earned dollars.

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