Lawmakers face host of needs vying for attention

ATLANTA - Conventional wisdom holds that it's political suicide to raise taxes in an election year.

But during the General Assembly session that begins on Monday, Georgia lawmakers will be asked to find more money somewhere to meet a host of pressing needs that have converged at the same time.

Like it or not, they face a record-setting drought, ever-worsening traffic congestion in metro Atlanta and a financially struggling Grady Memorial Hospital looking to the state to help bail out Georgia's largest public hospital.

"Lawmakers can't control the agenda," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "These are things that are being forced upon them."

While Gov. Sonny Perdue and the legislature agree on the need to act on water, transportation and health care, there likely will be protracted debates over how to address those priority issues and how to pay for solutions.

And the session could get bogged down over tax policy, with the governor continuing to push for the tax cut for higher-income senior citizens that he introduced last year and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, championing his plan to eliminate most school property taxes and replace that revenue with an expanded sales tax.

Much of what the legislature does in those areas could end up before Georgia voters this fall, including a potential referendum on raising sales taxes to pay for needed transportation improvements.

Last year, lawmakers considered but didn't act on competing proposals to increase the sales tax statewide by 1 percent and dedicate the money to road and transit projects, or allow counties to band together on a regional sales tax for transportation.

A legislative study committee that met across Georgia this summer and fall is expected to issue recommendations this week that could include some form of tax hike.

Efficiency first

But Perdue said last week that the state Department of Transportation is in no condition to move ahead with the new projects a tax increase would fund.

He said he's disappointed with the backlog that has piled up since he launched his Fast Forward transportation improvements program several years ago.

The governor said the DOT must improve on its project delivery before taking on new work, something he predicted will happen under Gena Abraham, the agency commissioner who took office last fall.

"We have to get our house in order so we can handle the resources," Perdue said. "(But) I believe we've got the leadership now to get project delivery so we can get value for our money."

Water has the potential to be the most divisive issue lawmakers will face this year.

Perdue insists that Georgia's first statewide water management plan, which the legislature will take up this winter, is not a veiled attempt by the state to grab water from Georgia's less populous communities and send it to slake the ever-increasing thirst of a rapidly growing metro region.

But critics say that because the proposed plan by law cannot alter the borders of the already existing metro water planning district, those 16 counties could use their control over upstream portions of several river basins, including the Chattahoochee and Flint, to hoard water from downstream users.

"They've created a water plan for two different Georgias when the intent was to have one," said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

The water plan, too, has a funding component, a three-year price tag of $36 million to produce the data needed for a firm fix on Georgia's water assets and what will be needed in the future to accommodate growth.

Trauma care

Unlike with the water issue, there is widespread consensus for funding a statewide trauma care network.

Lawmakers took the first step in that direction last year by creating a commission to develop such a system, but they didn't give it any money.

Statistics show that Georgians are more likely to die from serious automobile accidents than motorists in most other states. Today, there is no Level 1 trauma care center along Interstate 75 south of Macon.

Grady Memorial, which has a Level 1 center, would be among the prime beneficiaries of a statewide network. That could end up being the chief form of state aid to help prop up Grady's bottom line, although other proposals likely will be considered.

"We've got to fix Grady," Porter said. "It has too big an impact on every county in the metro area. And what happens there affects the rest of the state."

Hanging over all of those demands for more spending will be a debate over the other side of the equation: taxes.

School district officials and education lobbyists lined up last week to testify against Richardson's tax reform plan during hearings held by a House committee.

They were joined by representatives of local governments, who are afraid that the property taxes they collect would be next on the speaker's hit list if the legislature passes his proposal to get rid of school property taxes.

Richardson's plan also would do away with Georgia's car tax.

It would expand the sales tax, which now applies to goods but not services, to such consumer services as haircuts and auto repairs. The legislation also would restore the sales tax on groceries.

Unstable tax

Local government and school officials argue that sales taxes are less reliable as a funding source than property taxes because sales tend to fall off during economic downturns. Also, they don't like the idea of losing control over their tax revenue and having to depend on the state to collect sales taxes and allocate the revenue.

There's also the traditional argument that sales taxes are overly regressive.

"As you move from taxing property to taxing services, you shift the tax burden from high income to moderate income," Alan Essig, executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, told the House panel last week.

As with any transportation tax increase, Richardson's plan involves a constitutional amendment and, thus, requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

That means he must rely on support from Democrats to get the plan through, a dubious proposition.

Even some Republicans, notably the governor, have been cool to the idea.

"I also have some concerns about the growth of local government," Perdue said last week. "(But) I don't hear a hue and cry from our citizens. Georgia is a very balanced tax state."

Some of the plan's critics have questioned whether lawmakers should even be talking about overhauling Georgia's tax system while so many vital needs are vying for attention and the economy is looking shaky.

They're not buying into assertions that the speaker's proposal would be revenue neutral.

"Voters always want to hear about cutting taxes," Bullock said. "As long as state revenues were growing rapidly, that didn't cause a pinch. ... But it may be harder now to deliver on."

SideBar: At a glance

· TAXES - House Speaker Glenn Richardson is pushing a plan to eliminate most school property taxes and replace that revenue with an expanded sales tax. The proposal also would abolish Georgia's car tax. Gov. Sonny Perdue is behind a bill to cut taxes for upper-income retirees.

· WATER - The legislature will consider a statewide water management plan recommended by a council of lawmakers and state agency heads. Also expect a separate measure calling for a series of regional reservoirs.

· TRANSPORTATION - A legislative study committee is expected to release recommendations this week on how to pay for needed road and transit projects. Its report could include asking voters to approve raising sales taxes and dedicating the revenue to transportation.

· HEALTH CARE - Lawmakers are expected to approve funding for a statewide trauma care network. The money could come from a proposed $10 vehicle registration fee and from increased fines on "super-speeders."

· EDUCATION - Since an education financing task force created three years ago has yet to determine what it should cost to provide each student with a quality education, action on this issue is likely to be limited. However, lawmakers will take up a bill aimed at boosting Georgia's career and technical education program.