Legislature approves transportation deal

A sweeping effort to raise almost $1 billion for transportation needs across Georgia passed both the House and Senate just before midnight Tuesday, sending the measure to Gov. Nathan Deal with just a day left in the legislative session.

The final version of House Bill 170 could represent a solution to lawmakers' most pressing issue this legislative session: how to find enough cash for an ailing network of roads and bridges. The bill in effect represents a tax increase for a conservative General Assembly — no easy feat and the reason why GOP leaders at the Capitol reached out to Democrats to help ensure passage.

The bill includes:

  • Eliminating the state's existing 4 percent sales tax on gasoline and its 7.5-cents-per-gallon excise tax on motor fuel. In their place would be a 26-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a 29-cents-per-gallon levy on diesel.
  • Creating a new $5-per-night hotel/motel tax applied statewide. The new tax was a surprise as neither plan originally approved in the House or Senate included it. It is estimated to raise $200 million a year.
  • Eliminating tax breaks for Delta Air Lines and other commercial air carriers.
  • Ending the popular $5,000 state income tax credit for the purchase of an electric vehicle and creating a new $200-per-year registration fee for drivers of electric cars. Owners of electric vehicles used for commercial purposes would pay $300 per year.
  • Charging a $50 to $100 fee on heavy trucks and big rigs, depending on the vehicle's weight. This provision is also new.

The bill would also make it easier for some metro Atlanta counties to decide for themselves whether to raise local sales taxes to pay for transportation projects. Among changes from the state’s 10-year, 1 percent regional transportation sales tax currently used in some areas, the bill would let local governments initiate the process of setting up a vote on the tax. And it could cost a fraction of a penny, rather than the whole coin as now constructed.

Many of Georgia’s 159 counties could decide for themselves on a county-by-county basis to pursue a local sales tax only after January 2017. But earlier votes would be allowed for any metro Atlanta county currently served by the area’s MARTA transit system or the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

The new transportation plan is expected to generate about $900 million a year in new revenue — below the $1 billion threshold initially sought by Deal. But House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, said the agreement “moves transportation forward as a state and makes it sustainable for the future.”

After the vote, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, noted that the conference committee report got 129 votes in the House, more than the original version of HB 170 that passed with the support of 123 House members.

“Tonight was a tough vote for a lot of members,” Ralston said. “I acknowledge that and commend them. This General Assembly was tasked with doing what past General Assemblies have kicked down the road.”

The agreement came after leaders on both sides huddled privately in small groups in offices up and down the Capitol. The talks happened in fits and starts. Negotiators for the past 48 hours would near a deal only to have another interested party — be it a lawmaker, lobbyist or aide to the governor — make an offer or a threat that opened a new rift and delayed it again.

Finally, shortly after 9:30 p.m., the signed conference report was laid on lawmakers’ desks and the clock began to tick. Senate rules require conference reports to be on members’ desks for two hours before facing a vote; the House usually requires an hour, although members waived that rule Tuesday.

Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, one of the negotiators, said Deal got pretty involved this week after seeing the wide disparity between the Senate and House plans. “He engaged a couple days ago and kept us at the table talking,” Gooch said. “That was instrumental.”

He said Deal still refrained from presenting a specific plan, instead acting as a facilitator.

Both chambers had passed greatly different versions of the bill, although both agreed generally to eliminate state sales taxes on motor fuel and create one per-gallon excise tax, halt tax breaks for Delta and the purchase of electric cars, and add a new user fee for electric car owners.

The House, however, had initially set its motor fuel tax at 29.2 cents per gallon for gasoline and 33 cents per gallon for diesel while the Senate adopted a flat 24-cents-per-gallon rate for both gas and diesel, along with a $5-a-day fee on rental cars.

Much of the discussion about a potential compromise centered on getting the Senate to agree to a higher excise tax and eliminate the rental car fee, which would have cost state government — a regular renter of cars — an estimated $2.5 million a year.

There was also the issue of both chambers’ GOP leaders wooing Democrats. House leaders included a Democrat — state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus — on their negotiating committee. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, quietly played a key role in final negotiations and worked with Deal’s office on measures aimed at winning their support.

That work paid off immediately after Democrats supported HB 170, as Republicans supported a separate bill that was amended to allow counties that collect a 1 percent sales tax for MARTA to raise that rate to 1.5 percent.

The transit provider is projected to receive about $400 million in the coming fiscal year from the existing 1 percent sales tax in MARTA’s jurisdictions — so passage of an additional half percent could bring in an additional $200 million more a year in sales tax receipts.

That’s far more than MARTA stands to gain from a one-time allocation of $75 million worth of bonding that was included in the coming year’s budget, for which 128 transit providers across the state will have to compete.

House Bill 213 now heads to the House for review Thursday, the final day of the session.