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Transportation lacks political will, not money

Posted: June 6, 2012 - 12:00am

The question of imposing a 1-percent sales tax for transportation projects has become an issue that does not break down along familiar lines of Republican versus Democrat, or liberal versus conservative.

There are several Tea Party organizations, which are very conservative, that are opposing the T-SPLOST referendums scheduled for Georgia’s July 31 ballot. They have been joined by the Sierra Club of Georgia, whose members have political leanings to the left of the Tea Party on most issues.

On the other side, the T-SPLOST vote is being strongly backed by such business-oriented organizations as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Agribusiness Council. There is also a coalition of neighborhood groups and mass transit advocates, Fast Track Forward, working to turn out supporters of the transportation tax.

Clearly, this is an issue that can’t be defined as either left or right.

Nobody knows which regions, if any, will vote to approve the tax, but I do want to mention one argument that has been used often by T-SPLOST supporters like Gov. Nathan Deal.

They make this point: “This is the last realistic opportunity you will have to raise tax revenues to pay for badly needed improvements to our transportation infrastructure. There is no Plan B. If you don’t pass the T-SPLOST, you’ll miss your last chance to do something about our traffic congestion.”

Actually, there is a Plan B. It is called the motor fuel excise tax that the state charges on gasoline sold at the pump. This gas tax is 7.5 cents per gallon, which makes it one of the lowest in the country (only Florida undercuts us in this tax category).

It was established in 1971 and has not been changed in the intervening 41 years. If you purchased 10 gallons of gas at your local service station in 1971, you paid a total of 75 cents in motor fuel excise tax. If you buy 10 gallons today, you will pay the same 75 cents in motor fuel tax.

The gasoline excise tax is one of the fairest taxes ever seen. The tax is paid by the same people who wear down our roads and highways by driving cars, trucks and SUVs on them. The resulting revenues pay for the repair of those highways.

If you drive on our roads, you pay a tax for the privilege of using them. If you don’t drive a car, you don’t pay the tax.

If the General Assembly adopted an increase of 5 cents per gallon in the motor fuel excise tax, it would still be one of the lowest such taxes in the nation (only five states would charge less). This increase would raise roughly $600 million in new revenues each year for road-building purposes without having to add another penny to the sales tax on non-gasoline products.

The key words here are General Assembly. Passage of an increase in the motor fuel tax would require majority votes in the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as a governor who would agree not to veto the legislation.

That is an unlikely sequence of events. As jammed as our highways are, most of our elected officials simply will not vote for a tax increase to fix them. The most they will do is punt on the issue by telling the voters they can approve a new tax if they want to.

A former lawmaker explained it to me this way: “No elected officeholder is going to give such an easy issue to an opponent on a silver platter, not in this era of single-issue, sound-bite demonization of political opponents. How do you defend yourself against that one – by some high-minded discussion of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government? Kiss your political career good-bye.”

The political will is not there to tax the people who use our roads the most. That is why we have a rather awkwardly designed set of regional sales tax referendums coming up on July 31.

Regardless of what you might hear in the next few weeks, there is a Plan B for improving Georgia’s transportation infrastructure available to those with the courage to use it: the gasoline excise tax.

If you’re looking for a fair solution to our transportation problems, it’s already there.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)

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