Nathan Deal on transportation: 'We should be looking at everything'

The ideas range from lower-hanging fruit such as shifting the fourth penny of a motor fuel sales tax back to transportation projects to the more difficult prospect of increasing that tax or imposing new fees on car owners.

The business community hasn't been shy about advocating for the need for new funds, and Gov. Nathan Deal will hash out some of his ideas tomorrow when he addresses a transportation summit. A high-powered panel is finalizing its recommendations now, and they'll provide a starting point for lawmakers.

"It's not an easy subject to deal with. And it's going to be tough and going to be something hard," said state Rep. Jay Roberts, an Ocilla Republican who chairs the House's transportation committee. "I know it's going to give some people heartburn, but we need to address it if we're going to move forward."

Our colleague Nicholas Fouriezos caught up with the governor at the statehouse today, and he provided a preview of where he's leaning in the debate. Deal said he's willing to consider just about anything, though he wouldn't get ahead of the committee's recommendations.

Said Deal:

"The comment I've heard that is most appropriate is that everything should be on the table. We should be looking at everything. I think there is a common coming-together of an understanding now that we do need additional revenue to complete and begin some of the transportation projects that are going to keep our state competitive."

At an Athens panel that touched on the debate, Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden lamented the pricey projects on the drawing board that can't be funded with current taxing schemes, including a more than $3 billion overhaul of I-285. He said he viewed the need to raise new revenue as a states' rights issue.

Roberts, the transportation chair, also played to his crowd: Wary Republicans, many who campaigned against raising taxes, who will scrutinize whatever proposal comes out of the recommendations. He pitched it to them as an economic development imperative.

"Georgia still has some of the best roads. But what you're seeing in these other states is an investment in transportation," said Roberts. "And we've got to continue to do that if we want to be a leader."

Democrats, meanwhile, quietly talked about uniting their fractious caucus behind a common proposal. They expect a faction of conservative Republicans to revolt against whatever the committee proposes, and they want to be ready with the votes - and a list of demands - if that happens.

Deal's role in the debate remains unclear. He rarely spoke of transportation issues on the campaign trail, and he has vowed to remake the state's education funding formula and push more changes to the criminal justice system.

Yet he may be forced to add transportation to his agenda. On Monday, he hinted at a frustration of Georgia's gas tax, questioning why fuel prices in Georgia are a tad higher than neighboring states. The AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge today shows the state's average $2.59 price per gallon rate a few cents higher than South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, but cheaper than North Carolina and Florida.

"We ought to ask the question: Why is it that gas prices in the state of Georgia seem to be higher than the gas prices in our surrounding states? Sometimes there is a very distinct difference between at-the-pump prices in Georgia and the at-the-pump prices in surrounding states."

Most lawmakers don't expect a revival of the regional voter referendums for a sales tax to fund infrastructure projects that dominated the 2012 debate. And some are putting on a brave face and predicting that a consensus will be reached.

Standing up at the end of a panel discussion on the transportation debate, Sen. Bill Jackson urged his fellow legislators to come into the debate with an open mind.

"Success without a positive attitude is either a miracle or an accident," said Jackson, R-Appling. "I believe that good men and women and leadership of this state, including our good governor, will come up with a plan or several plans for us to deliberate. And I believe Georgia is going to rise to that occasion."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.