A Kitty Hawk moment in Georgia’s transportation debate

Late Wednesday, House Speaker David Ralston and I bumped into each other on the way to our gasoline-powered rides home.

Two hours earlier, the Blue Ridge Republican and his team had unveiled the House plan for raising $1 billion new dollars, available every year, for transportation funding – and I congratulated him on the venture.

Somebody had to do something, the speaker shrugged, or the Capitol would have lost control of an important conversation.

Our exchange quickly shifted to what may be, in philosophical terms, the most important aspect of H.B. 170: An endorsement of mass transit – long the racially charged punching bag of Republicans in Georgia.

Ralston conceded that attitudes were shifting. He attributed his own change of heart to his offspring, who often shelter with him in the Atlanta apartment he keeps for the legislative session. His kids don’t drive. They take MARTA, or Uber.

“It’s part of their way of life now, to take transit. It’s not a big deal. They like that,” Ralston would add the next day. “I’m not a millennial. But I live with two, and they like being able to hop on a train or a bus. I kind of think that’s where we’re headed.”

Before House leaders sprang their plan on reporters, House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, who will be carrying the bill in his chamber, gave a brief presentation to his colleagues.

“He said he had changed his mind and come to realize how important transit was,” said House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus. Democrats gave him a round of applause.

Minutes later, before journalists, Roberts testified publicly. “Traveling to other cities, seeing what they’re doing, and looking at what we’re doing in the state of Georgia – I personally have had a change of heart. When we start looking at bringing in businesses and industries, and we’re the hub — we need to consider [transit], and in my opinion, we need to make it one of our priorities.”

Skeptics will correctly argue that the House has put little cash behind this stop on the road to Damascus. Roberts said $100 million in bonds would be offered up for mass transit – a one-time expenditure for which 128 transit systems in Georgia could compete. Including MARTA. The bill is silent on who would decide how to divvy up the cash.

Lawmakers may designate cash from a new $200 per year tax on electric vehicles for a permanent transit cash stream, but that appears tentative at best.

All that said, last week was what might be called a Kitty Hawk moment. When Orville Wright skidded to a stop in December 1903, no one wondered why he hadn’t flown higher than a man could jump. They marveled that he had left the ground at all.

Just as airplanes can’t be unflown, endorsements like those given by Ralston and Roberts last week, written into Republican-backed legislation, can’t be unsaid. They are a kind of Rubicon.

That this shift has surfaced in the House fits well with modern Georgia history. Of the three figures of constant power in the Capitol – the governor, the House speaker; and the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate – it is the speaker who has the most political insulation. As long as a House speaker has the loyalty of his caucus and more than 50 percent of his home district, he’s good to go.

Which is why credit for the growth of MARTA and the establishment of the Georgia World Congress Center in the last century goes to the late great Speaker Tom Murphy, who hailed from far-away Bremen.

The challenge for Ralston, as in the days of Murphy, is that metro Atlanta is a (somewhat) progressive enclave nesting in a state ruled by one of the most conservative legislatures in the nation. Change does not come easily in the General Assembly. Ralston’s attitudinal adjustment aside, it’s not hard to find GOP lawmakers who view interstates as ribbons of individualism and mass transit as a kind of Marxist communalism on wheels.

The Machiavellian manner in which H.B. 170 finds that extra $1 billion in annual funding for transportation is a case in point. By absorbing the taxing territory currently belonging to county governments, cities and school boards, Ralston can assert that “it does not result in an increase in state taxes on Georgians.”

That the legislation would require local officials to raise new taxes to help replace $500 million or so in lost revenue is, in one sense, beside the point. For now.

An important 31 of Ralston’s 119 Republican teammates in the House have signed the anti-tax pledges put in front of them by the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist.

The help of Norquist acolytes, or at least their neutrality, will be necessary to move H.B. 170 through the 180-member House. The Senate will make its changes, and then – if everything goes well – a House-Senate conference committee will begin the negotiations that really matter.

It is at that point that Democrats in the House and Senate, necessary to any final vote, will demand their seats at the table. One of their many concerns will be mass transit.

And that’s when we’ll really know how much money and emphasis Republicans are willing to put behind their new way of thinking.