ATHENS, Ga. — Finding a source of $1 billion in transportation funding is topping the agenda for the General Assembly, and Monday, state leaders were hinting at a tax increase.

“We’re not looking for a two-year or three-year plan. We are looking for a long-term plan to bring that much money in every year,” said House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla.

He and his Senate counterpart conducted eight field hearings over the summer and fall across the state to get funding options. People eager to see the report from those hearings were disappointed because the deadline was extended another month, but Roberts suggested some type of boost in the gas tax will be among the recommendations.

“I know that it’s one that is going to give some people heartburn,” he said.

Lawmakers meeting at the University of Georgia in a pre-session conference heard Roberts and Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden lay out the need. Cars with better mileage use less gas, resulting in years of flat gas-tax collections on the state and federal level.

Indeed, the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke with Golden predicting the state will get 20 percent less money this year for construction.

“Many of your constituents are getting letters saying we’re having to defer or delay their projects because we don’t have the money,” he told the legislators.

The Athens conference is giving the lawmakers their first opportunity to discuss the matter since the last session and their campaigns. While no one seemed eager to raise taxes, even the most conservative lawmakers are saying privately that they are keeping an open mind.

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Gooch, R- Dahlonega, told his colleagues their support would be needed.
“Folks, we have a really tough challenge before us,” he said. “This is probably the No. 1 issue you will face this term.”
Some from the areas of the state that passed a regional sales-tax increase for local transportation improvements are among the most hesitant because their citizens bit the bullet when most other regions refused.

Gov. Nathan Deal is scheduled to address the legislators at lunch today and then speak to a transportation conference across Athens minutes later organized by business groups. It would be an opportune time for him to lay out his recommendations.
An increase in the gas tax would require a constitutional amendment, needing support from two-thirds of the General Assembly and approval from voters. Seasoned political observers predict it would be doomed without the governor’s leadership.
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