On transportation: The link between a sales tax and ‘governance’

Ron Hertz (left) and Bill Linginfelter of Get Georgia Moving on Monday. Photo credit: Kimberly Smith/AJC

Ron Hertz (left) and Bill Linginfelter of Get Georgia Moving on Monday. Photo credit: Kimberly Smith/AJC

So here we are in what’s billed as the final week of the 2009 session of the Legislature, and again the issue of transportation has the state Capitol tied in a knot.

The first conference committee on the topic is about to start, on the topic of a sales tax. The vehicle is H.B. 277. The House has appointed Vance Smith, Donna Shelton and Calvin Smyre as conferees. The Senate should match that any minute.

But an impasse could be building on the topic of governance. S.B. 200, a revised bill backed by Sonny Perdue, would put transportation planning and policy under control of the governor.

In return, all transportation funding would pass through the General Assembly, and lawmakers would be able to earmark up to 20 percent of all transportation funding — $400 million of current spending — for their chosen projects. That’s a sweetened spending pot. The original Perdue bill gave lawmakers say-so over only 10 percent.

But after passing the House Transportation Committee on Friday, S.B. 200 failed to make a House supplemental calendar this afternoon, possibly indicating a disappointing whip count. It will come to the House floor on Wednesday at the earliest.

This is critical, because this morning Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) declared that, without a “governance” bill, he couldn’t vote for any bill that would lead to increased funding for transportation.

“I’m very fearful of moving forward with any funding plan, if there’s not a governance plan,” Rogers said at a press conference. “We have tried this over last six years, putting zillions of dollars into transportation, and we have not seen good results.”

When a reporter pointed out that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle had stood at the same microphone a week earlier and declared the two issues separate, Rogers back-pedaled, but only slightly.

“I think what the lieutenant governor was trying to say is, the form of the governance bill is not going to be tied to the form of the finance bill,” Rogers said. “But you need to have governance before you have transportation financing.”

At the same press conference, Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) was less insistent on uniting the two: “I’m not tying [governance] to a funding bill. Whether it gets tied to a funding bill, that’s not what we’re promoting.”

Williams’ basic message was that the House plan for a statewide sales tax wouldn’t sell in his chamber. “The house has to understand we don’t have the votes for a statewide tax,” he said.

Minutes later, the pro-transportation coalition known as Get Georgia Moving held a press conference in the Capitol rotunda to make it known that they were in favor of anything — as long as the Legislature did something.

“We’re here to support all of our legislators and their willingness to compromise,” said Doug Hertz, CEO of United Distributors and co-chair of the coalition.

The group also released a survey (426 surveyed, 5% MOE) conducted by InsiderAdvantage, again showing strong support for a sales tax directed at clearing up traffic congestion.

An analysis of the poll by IA CEO Matt Towery indicated stronger support than a similar survey conducted for Get Georgia Moving earlier this year. “[The] biggest shift has come from Republican respondents who at one time were far less enthusiastic about such legislation, but now support it at nearly a 60 percent level.”

One of the questions that must be answered is whether a voter-approved statewide sales tax, or voter-approved regional sales tax, is the best way to go. The House favors the former, the Senate favors the latter.

Neither Hertz nor Bill Linginfelter, a bank executive and the coalition’s other chairman, would step in between. “We could live with either,” Hertz said. “We’re trying to stay above the fray and let them come to a solution.”

But when it came to “governance” or a sales tax resolution — any resolution — the answer was different.

“Funding without appropriate governance is silly. Having appropriate governance with nothing to govern is also silly. There’s no question that they’re both important. What we’re really here to talk about is timing. Timing over funding is imperative. We’ve got time to work out the governance side. We don’t have time to wait on getting funding passed,” Herz said.

Two Democrats, Smyre and House Minority Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin were the only two lawmakers who attended the press conference of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition. They stood in front with coalition members.

“Governance, quite frankly, we’re not as worried about. What we are worried about is getting a funding bill,” said Porter, a likely candidate for governor in 2010. “That’s got to be done this year, because of what it says to the rest of the world — much less the rest of the country. Does Georgia have the political will to fix its transportation problem? It’s not who controls it, it’s whether we can fix transportation.”

Smyre said something similar: “At this stage of the game, three years running, we can’t come up with a statewide transportation plan. I think that has serious repercussions as it relates to economic development. States contiguous to us are going to have a field day.”

The two Democrats thought they would be able to keep a third transportation issue — state permission for MARTA to use all current sales taxes collected in DeKalb and Fulton counties for operations — from being bogged down in negotiations over governance and the statewide-regional tax debate.

One comment Add your comment

[...] things change. This morning, as reported below, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) declared that, without a “governance” bill, [...]