House vote breaks tax taboo

Even by the standards of those who championed it, the transportation funding bill approved Thursday by the House of Representatives is inadequate to meet even Georgia’s minimal needs.

According to a state-sponsored study committee, transportation has been so underfunded in Georgia that an immediate injection of $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year is needed just to maintain current infrastructure. To finance just those expansions that are most critical to deal with decades of past growth, we would need $2.1 to $2.9 billion annually.

HB 170, the bill approved by the House this week, would raise an additional $700 million next year, well short of even the $1 billion minimum. Despite the study committee report stressing “a separate, permanent funding stream” for transit, the bill also does absolutely nothing to address that issue, and instead puts hundreds of millions of dollars off-limits to potential transit investment.

Those are critical shortcomings, especially given the fact that if a funding measure passes this year, there will be no political appetite for additional revenue hikes for five or 10 years at a minimum. (For example, it’s been decades since the last major increase, which is why we’re in this mess in the first place.)

Leadership has one bite at the revenue apple for transportation, they had better make the most of it.

All that criticism aside, however, Thursday’s passage of HB 170 was a critically important step, and House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts and his allies ought to be congratulated. During floor debate, speaker after speaker talked about legislative courage, about facing up to the reality that we can’t remain 49th or 50th in per capita spending on transportation and expect our transportation-dependent economy to prosper. Taxes must be raised.

As one Republican put it, “Nobody was elected here to be a pansy… you were chosen to be a leader.”

That courage was put to a particularly stern test when a group of influential Republicans attempted to undercut the bill, proposing to reduce the already-inadequate $700 million revenue increase to less than $500 million. Color me surprised, but when the vote on that amendment came, a significant House majority refused to succumb to the temptation.

The legislation now goes to the Senate, which has hinted that it may take an entirely different approach to raising the necessary revenue. That’s its prerogative — each chamber always likes to leave its mark on important legislation. However, it raises the danger that House and Senate leadership won’t be able to meld their competing approaches before the session ends, a failure that has doomed claimed similar efforts in the past.

What the House vote of 123-46 tells us is that a consensus exists that this problem must finally be addressed. A significant majority of representatives have now “touched the third rail” of voting for a much-needed, long-delayed tax increase, and they are still standing. It’s now a question of ensuring that it’s enough to make a real difference.

As Gov. Nathan Deal notes, “If we go through this entire exercise and we come out of it with less money than we already know we need just to maintain what we have, I’m not sure the exercise is worth it.”