Revamped transportation bill hits House floor

ATLANTA - The House will take up a new version of transportation funding legislation Thursday aimed at winning enough votes from minority Democrats to ensure its passage.

But a Senate Republican leader warned Tuesday that the proposal's ultimate fate could be tied to whether lawmakers can agree on a tax-cutting plan before gaveling this year's legislative session to a close early next month.

"If we can come up with a tax cut, it would make more sense to allow voters to go to the polls to decide whether to increase taxes (for transportation projects)," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

The transportation bill cleared the House Rules Committee last week, its final stop before reaching the floor.

The legislation would set a statewide referendum authorizing a series of regional votes on whether to levy a 1 percent sales tax to pay for needed highway and transit improvements.

If Georgia voters approve the statewide measure, local elected officials in each region then would decide whether to put the 1 percent tax on their ballots.

The Rules Committee made several changes to the measure, including a provision sought by Democrats.

In addition to any tax revenue raised through regional votes, the new version of the legislation would take a portion of the state gasoline tax that now goes into the general fund and dedicate that money to transportation projects.

Democrats, and not a few Republicans, insisted on having something in the bill that would allow the use of existing tax revenue, a win-win scenario that would allow more funding for transportation without raising taxes.

"That should induce more (lawmakers) to vote for the bill who wouldn't have otherwise," said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, which supports the legislation as part of a diverse coalition of business and environmental groups and local government leaders.

"They can go home and say, 'We're giving you a chance to vote for more money for transportation without a tax increase.'"

Herring said the estimated $160 million a year that portion of the gasoline tax would raise would be more than enough to jump-start languishing plans to build two commuter rail lines linking Atlanta with Athens and Lovejoy.

An earlier version of the transportation funding legislation passed by the Senate called for dedicating 10 percent of the revenue raised from the regional sales taxes to passenger rail projects. But that provision fell by the wayside when the measure got to the House.

While the state Department of Transportation has secured more than $90 million in federal funding to build the Lovejoy line, the project is in limbo because there's no source of money to operate the system.

"That pays their operating costs," Herring said of the new transportation funding bill.

Because the measure is a constitutional amendment, it will need a two-thirds majority - 120 votes - to pass the House.

Johnson said uncertainty over the fate of tax cuts this year could make amassing that much support for transportation funding difficult.

He said lawmakers may be reluctant to ask Georgians to approve raising taxes for road and transit projects if those voters don't get an opportunity to roll back other taxes at the same time.

But Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, said the same uncertainty over tax policy existed when the Senate approved its version of the transportation funding measure last month.

"The Senate overwhelmingly passed their transportation bill, so I don't see that the challenges we're having now deciding which tax cut to go with should impact the transportation bill," she said.