Georgia leaders brace local officials for hard choices on transportation funding

Georgia leaders brace local officials for hard choices on transportation funding

By Walter Jones – 

ATLANTA — Local officials from across the state were gritting their teeth Monday morning as one state leader after another warned them of difficult choices ahead on transportation funding.
Those attending the annual Mayors’ Day breakfast are particularly anxious because some of the proposals being mentioned would limit their ability to fund cities, counties and schools with existing local sales taxes on gasoline purchases. That would leave them with the politically difficult task of raising other taxes to make up the difference.

“It would hurt us tremendously,” said Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson, vice president of the Georgia Municipal Association which hosted the breakfast. “Had we been able to get the T-SPLOST passed, it would brought money into our area as well that we could use for roads.”

The region centered on Savannah was among the majority of regions defeating the T-SPLOST, or transportation special-purpose, local-option, sales tax when it came up in 2013. But three regions, such as the one anchored by Augusta, passed it, and politicians from there aren’t pleased about their citizens being given an added tax burden.

The state officials, at the prodding of business groups, are searching for additional funding for roads, highways and bridges. The chairmen of the House and Senate transportation committees are reportedly drafting a legislative proposal, but neither the governor, lieutenant governor nor the speaker claim to know what it includes.

Still, they braced the local representatives for bad news.

“Now, we’re going to have disagreements,” said Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “…I tell people we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and recognize that there is a greater good, and that is the future of Georgia than our own narrow view of things and protecting our own turf and just saying no. Naysaying is not an acceptable answer.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle offered a similar message, acknowledging that the association’s lobbyist had already explained the position of the cities.

“I’m convinced we will be able to come to an amenable solution that all of us can be pleased with. I didn’t say, ‘all of us are going to be happy with,’ but we will be pleased with,” he said. “…Sometimes that’s tough.”

Deal even joked that a meeting he had with the association’s lobbyist and current president, Newnan Mayor Keith Brady, was “exciting.”

The sales tax issue is a thorny one for local government, the governor acknowledged. Many have issued 30-year bonds that are being repaid with their sales tax on gasoline, so their long-term finances could be jeopardized by losing it.

“It is not a simple issue to unravel and put back together again,” Deal said.

According to Municipal Association estimates, cities collectively spend more on transportation than the state does, giving them a valid argument against proposals that could change their funding stream.

Follow Walter Jones on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com.