House OKs transportation funding measure

ATLANTA - Georgians could get a chance to vote by region whether to impose an additional penny sales tax for transportation improvements under legislation passed by the House Thursday.

A solid bipartisan majority approved the measure 136-35 after Speaker Glenn Richardson pleaded with lawmakers to stop talking about crippling traffic congestion and do something about a problem that's hurting the quality of life.

In a rare floor speech, Richardson, R-Hiram, talked about being stuck in traffic recently while trying to get from the Capitol to his son's baseball game in Cobb County.

"I thought to myself, 'How much money is this costing us in lost productivity?'" he said. "'How many people are missing a part of their family's lives?' ... It's time we do something."

With the state facing a projected six-year shortfall of $7.7 billion for needed highway and transit projects, legislative leaders put transportation funding on their priority list for this year's session.

The Senate passed a constitutional amendment last month to allow one or more counties to band together and ask their voters to approve a 1-percent regional sales tax increase for transportation.

A competing proposal for a statewide referendum on a one-cent sales tax hike was introduced in the House but quickly ran into opposition from lawmakers wary of being seen as favoring higher taxes.

The compromise that cleared the House on Thursday, which now heads back to the Senate, calls for a two-step referendum process.

First, voters statewide would decide whether to support the concept of regional sales taxes for transportation.

If approved, elected officials in each of 12 planning regions across the state then would be authorized to draw up a list of projects to be funded in their areas and ask voters in their region to approve the one-cent sales tax.

Counties would have 45 days after receiving the list of projects proposed in their region to decide whether to take part in the process. Those that choose to opt out would not be included in their region's referendum.

"Everything is optional," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain. "There's nothing mandatory in this."

But some anti-tax Republicans didn't buy supporters' arguments that by voting for the legislation, lawmakers were merely giving Georgians a chance to decide whether to tax themselves.

"If you vote for this bill, you are advocating a tax increase," said Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross.

"It's against everything Republican principles stand for," added Rep. Doug Holt, R-Covington.

Hatfield also argued that the state shouldn't be asking voters to sink more money into transportation projects when the Georgia Department of Transportation is in the middle of an overhaul begun by new Commissioner Gena Abraham.

Gov. Sonny Perdue met with a group of rural lawmakers on Wednesday to drive home that same point.

But Smith said the legislation wouldn't take effect until July 2009 at the earliest, to allow time for the two-step referendum votes.

"July 2009 is 16 months off," he said. "There is a time period DOT has to get together and become more efficient and effective."