State GOP lawmakers prepared to consider an increase in gas tax

The problem with security, any Social Darwinist will tell you, is that it often breeds lethargy. A good crisis is what’s needed to stir the blood and change the tableau, whether political or economic.

On Tuesday, voters handed Republicans in the state Capitol a thick, downy security blanket. They gained no seats in the House or Senate, but the margins of victory were definitive. The GOP hold on power in both chambers may be unassailable well beyond 2020.

The question is what Republicans will do when confronted with the luxury of unshakable authority. The temptation is to say that the past 12 years have been prelude — management at the margins of crises, punctuated by loud feuds over social issues.

But Gov. Nathan Deal, handed a second term on Tuesday, has targeted the state funding formula for Georgia’s 180 school systems — an explosive and core issue, to say the least.

And now leaders in both the House and Senate have dropped broad hints that they’re willing to consider what many Republicans viewed as unthinkable only a few years ago: an increase in the state’s gasoline tax to produce the billions of dollars needed to address Georgia’s woefully underfunded system of roads and bridges.

The increase would come by an act of the Legislature. There would be no repeat of the messy multiregion referendums that were attempted with the transportation sales tax vote in 2013 — which failed in all but a few areas of the state.

Supporters of the venture were encouraged by Tuesday’s vote — with a 53 percent margin — to renew a special option local sales tax in Cobb County, a heavily Republican enclave. And by the overwhelming, 63 percent approval of a $200 million transportation bond referendum in Forsyth County, which is arguably the most Republican county in all of Georgia.

The call for an increase in the gasoline tax would come in December or early January through a legislative/civic animal called the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding, which has been holding meetings across the state since July. Call it the Plan B Committee.

In a debate shortly before last week’s election, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was asked what he expected from the body. “This committee is going to come back with significant recommendations,” Cagle said. “And it does need to be big, and it needs to be bold.”

We’re told that Cagle repeated those words this week at a Georgia Chamber of Commerce meeting.

On Friday, in answer to our inquiry, House Speaker David Ralston sent the following message via email: “We’ve got to deal with our transportation inadequacies and that means funding. Whatever form that takes, we have to reach a consensus and have the resolve to see it through.”

The green lights have been flashed. So what qualifies as big and bold when it comes to transportation in Georgia?

Already under consideration is legislation to allow two, three or more counties to band together and levy sales taxes for road and transit purposes. But that’s small stuff.

The state now levies a 4 percent tax on gasoline, but one of those pennies goes into the general fund. Recapturing it would put an additional $180 million or so into transportation. Again, that’s small change.

State-funded commuter rail and other forms of public transit would fall into the category of “too big.” This is despite last week’s 73 percent approval by Clayton County voters to invite MARTA into their midst. For too many Republicans, public transit is simply another form of public assistance.

Which brings us to the gasoline tax — or as Republicans are likely to reframe it, the gasoline user fee. The problem is that, as cars and trucks become more energy-efficient, they use less gasoline but the same amount of roadway.

”When I got a new SUV two years ago, I doubled my gas mileage. My motor fuel tax went down. It didn’t mean I didn’t wear and tear the road any less. I tell people that their taxes have typically been going down,” said state Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, a member of the Plan B Committee. “If a person buys all their gasoline in Georgia, and they drive 12,000 miles a year and they get 24 miles to the gallon, they pay about $85 for the entire year for the entire road-and-bridge network. Most people pay $100 a month for the cellphone.”

Then there’s the growing number of electric cars on the road. The state offers tax breaks to encourage their purchase. “They then turn around and pay zero tax for the roads that they utilize,” Hamilton said.

The size of a gasoline tax increase would have to be significant to matter, and indexed to inflation so that as prices rise, tax revenue would increase, too.

“I’m not saying this is the number, but there’s a lot of people saying the DOT could easily justify needing, for their road structure, anywhere from $700 million to $1.5 billion a year to fix the problem that we have now,” Hamilton said. “Are we going to be able to get that big a bite at the apple? I’m not sure, but I’m going to do everything in my power as a legislator to make sure that we don’t kick this can down the road, that we don’t play a shell game of just moving money around.”

Hamilton wants something on the governor’s desk by the time lawmakers leave Atlanta next spring.

Edward Lindsey, a former state House member who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress this year, is also a member of the Plan B Committee. Lethargy, he said, will not do.

“We’re now through two election cycles in which we have bullet-proof majorities in the House and Senate. We are safe in our majorities for a few years down the road. Now we just have to govern,” Lindsey said. “Transportation is a critical aspect of our needs, and we’re going to be blamed for it. We own it, and if we don’t fix it, we’re in trouble in the long run. We can’t point the blame at (President Barack) Obama or anybody else anymore. This is all ours now.”

One green light that has not yet flashed is located in the governor’s office. Lindsey is confident of gaining his eventual support. “From what I’ve observed about Deal – Deal likes to fix things,” Lindsey said. “He’s willing to take the point on fixing things.”