The Ocilla agriculturalist piloting a $1 billion transportation bill

Back in 2002, when he first campaigned for his south Georgia seat in the Legislature, Jay Roberts was handed the pledge from an anti-tax group called Americans for Tax Reform.

It was a contract promising never, ever – cross your heart and hope to die – to raise taxes. A very tempting commitment in a Republican primary, given the influence of ATR’s leader, Grover Norquist in Washington at the time.

So Roberts read the pledge. And signed it. And then reconsidered. “Before I ever sent it, I got to looking, and I said, ‘First of all, I don’t need somebody up there telling me what I need to do. I don’t need to make a commitment to them,’” Roberts said.

The young farmer also was suspicious of being cornered. “Never say never,” his parents would tell him. “You’re going to end up eating those words.”

Thirteen years later, Roberts, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is the principal author of House Bill 170, a measure to raise at least $1 billion in new state transportation funding by appropriating some of the taxing powers of local government. Counties, cities and school boards would be allowed to raise new taxes to replace most of the borrowed ones.

Last Tuesday, Norquist’s group condemned H.B. 170 as a “massive” tax increase. In past years, that verdict would have quickly brought pitchforks and nooses to the state Capitol.

But two days later, Roberts sat before his House committee, as the chief witness for his own bill, calmly walking his colleagues through the latest changes. No, the passage on aviation fuel wasn’t a secret tax break for Delta. Yes, he insisted that counties be allowed to tap state funds for unpaved roads.

”If you come down to south Georgia and my district, you get big rains – and when those roads wash, it costs locals a lot of money go to in there and repair those roads,” a bespectacled Roberts told his colleagues, hunched over the mic like an ex-linebacker who has discovered a latent talent for bookkeeping.

As for Norquist? “Until he fixes Washington, I don’t want to hear from him. I don’t care what he says,” Roberts said. The House transportation committee chairman added to his dismissal a day later, during a Friday interview in his office.

“I don’t think [Norquist] has near the influence that he thinks he has, nor the influence that he probably once had,” Roberts said.

It is significant that the heavy lifting of a billion-dollar transportation bill, deemed crucial by business leaders to the economic survival of metro Atlanta, has fallen on the shoulders of an agriculturist from Ocilla who talks country, keeps a Styrofoam spit-cup on his desk for his tobacco needs, and has decorated his office with the taxidermied remains of deer he once knew.

And who, when he first came to the Capitol, carried a common sentiment about all things Atlanta. It was an “evil” place that sucked money from rural Georgia: “They get everything, we get nothing.”

Six years as House transportation chairman – he predates House Speaker David Ralston – has persuaded him otherwise. “You start to really understand – so goes Atlanta, so goes the rest of the state,” he said.

Like Ralston, Roberts admits he has also changed his thinking about state funding for mass transit. The topic won’t be fully addressed by H.B. 170, but Roberts said says determining an adequate stream of cash for people-moving is a logical next step.

‘Twas a trip to the city of Denver that changed his mind, Roberts said. The Southern approach to economic development has been to rely on migration for its job pool. “People moved where the jobs were,” the House chairman said. “Denver’s taken the opposite approach. They’re catering to millennials. Now the jobs are coming to where they are. So if we want to continue to be a leader, we need to make sure we cater to that generation, and the generations after them.”

And that means mass transit. But because gas tax money is constitutionally restricted to roads and bridges, some confidence-building steps may have to suffice at first. A bill to give MARTA the freedom to spend its tax revenues as it sees fit will be approved by his committee, Roberts predicted.

The House GOP caucus numbers 119 in a chamber with 180 members. Not all Republicans have experienced Roberts’ change of heart – not on transit. “We’ve got a few members that aren’t happy with it, but I would say that a majority of our members are starting to understand the same thing,” he said.

Still, Roberts said he anticipates being able to move his bill out of the House with a majority of GOP votes, delaying the necessity of reaching out to Democrats. “They understand that something needs to be done. They’re just trying to get comfortable with all the components of it,” he said. “I can tell you this. I never drafted any piece of legislation thinking, ‘What is Grover Norquist going to think about this?’ But I do have to please my caucus.”

A day earlier, at that Thursday hearing, Michael Sullivan, chairman of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, told members of Roberts’ committee that H.B. 170 may in fact be a tax increase – but a necessary one, given decades of neglecting the state’s infrastructure needs.

I asked Roberts if H.B. 170 was a tax increase. “I think it depends on how everybody wants to look at it and evaluate it. Some people will say yes it is, some people will say no, it ain’t,” he said. “That beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in essence.”

But the one label not in dispute, the House chairman would argue, is “necessary.”