Final negotiations set on transportation bill in Georgia

Final talks on how to raise $1 billion for transportation improvements statewide are beginning in earnest at the Georgia Legislature, after the House and Senate each picked three members Wednesday to craft a compromise by next week’s end-of-session deadline.

The House’s picks: Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla; state Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming; and state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. The Senate’s picks: Transportation Committee Chairman Tommie Williams, R-Lyons; President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth; and state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega.

Each chamber has passed markedly different versions of House Bill 170 to help the state’s ailing transportation network. The House proposed an excise gas tax of 29.2 cents per gallon. The Senate said that tax should be 24 cents per gallon — but it also wants to charge rental car customers a $5 fee for each rental.

Other proposals include ending the state’s $5,000 state tax credit for the purchase or lease of an electric car; as well as ending an aviation fuel tax credit worth about $25 million annually to air carriers, including hometown giant Delta Air Lines.

That last point caused an unusual and awkward debate Wednesday in the Senate, as Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, forced colleagues to vote on a mandate to include ending the aviation credit as part of any deal. It failed. Both Republicans and Democrats chastised Heath for trying to tie negotiators’ hands despite voting against HB 170 last week.

Both sides have until April 2 to make a deal. The session ends that day at midnight, although Senate rules require an agreement to be completed by 10 p.m. for members’ review.

Worth noting is the inclusion of Smyre, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly. He acted as a liaison between House Democrats and Republican leadership when HB 170 first passed that chamber. As a result, only three of 60 Democrats voted against the bill — and their support will likely be needed to pass a final compromise.

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Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.