Transportation funding proposal clears a roadblock, still faces bumps

A bill to allow regions in Georgia to vote for transportation funding has cleared a major roadblock, as state House and Senate negotiators met publicly Tuesday and said they had struck a deal with Gov. Sonny Perdue to resolve one of their biggest disagreements.

But there are still “sticking points” like MARTA funding, said Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a member of the conference committee doing the negotiations. The members plan to keep at it and meet again Wednesday.

A big question remains the rank-and-file legislators. “I would suggest to you if you see that legislation signed in this committee, the votes are there,” Mullis said. Until then, all bets are off, and anything could change.

According to the committee members, the bill (HB 277, formerly HB 1218) would still divide the state into 12 predefined regions, allowing each region to submit a referendum to voters for a 1 percent sales tax to fund a list of projects within the region. However, there’s a change allowing a modicum of local choice.

Under the bill that Perdue first proposed, the entire state would have been included in the 2012 referendum, with every county and every region required to hold a vote. Perdue and his team said that was a must-have, but some representatives of counties and towns were concerned that outside the Atlanta region, small counties that had little in common with other counties would be outvoted.

In the new version discussed Tuesday, Senate and House negotiators said counties still would not be able to opt out of a region or its tax. But they said that Perdue had conceded that the group of local elected officials forming the "roundtable" of a region could opt out of holding a referendum, but those who held the referendum would see extra state benefits. A lobbyist for Georgia cities seemed queasy at whether it would give enough local control, but couldn't say yet whether his cities and towns would oppose it.

The bill as it stands now would offer a couple of carrots to regions that do vote on a list. First, it would increase the state subsidy they currently get for a category of small paving and local projects. Also, in most of the state, if a region voted for a tax, 25 percent of the region’s new tax proceeds would stay in the local governments where the money came from. In the Atlanta region, that would be 15 percent.

Details are still in flux, and no copy of the bill has been circulated publicly yet, leaving stakeholders not completely sure whether to voice certain support or opposition.  At this point, Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said, "The governor’s very, very comfortable with where we're headed."

The bill would become a statute, not a constitutional amendment, meaning only a simple majority is required.

As of Tuesday afternoon, MARTA would get a couple of minor items in the bill, like three years of flexibility on how it uses its money, and a restructured board. Nothing the lawmakers discussed would fill the entire operations funding gap at MARTA in time to stave off cuts this year of up to 30 percent of its service. Money from the proposal would probably start flowing in 2013.

But even if the Atlanta region wanted to, it mostly wouldn't be allowed to use its new tax to fund operations of MARTA, effectively sinking the possibility that the tax could be used to expand MARTA. Estimates show the tax might raise $750 million to $790 million per year in metro Atlanta.

Atlanta Regional Commission director Chick Krautler was flummoxed that the proposal singles out MARTA for that restriction, among the 100-plus locally funded transit agencies in the state. "Where is the fairness and equity in that kind of policy making?" asked Krautler.

Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) asked if a small portion of the Atlanta region's new money could go to MARTA operations, and the question was left for discussion.

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