ATLANTA — House leaders released the outline Wednesday of a plan they say will boost funding for transportation by $1 billion without raising taxes, although legislators and lobbyists who heard it were scratching their heads.

The complicated proposal includes cutting undisclosed non-transportation expenditures now funded with part of the state’s sales tax on gasoline, converting that sales tax to an excise tax, indexing the new excise tax for inflation and improving mileage, imposing a fee on electric vehicles and borrowing lots of money with bonds.

“It’s really not a sleight of hand,” said House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, a tax lawyer who once chaired the House Ways and Means Committee.

The proposal converts the sales tax on gasoline to a per-gallon excise tax based on the average price of gas over the last four years. Currently, drivers pay 27 cents per gallon in taxes, and the new figure would be 29.2 cents.

That figure includes the sales tax local governments charge on gasoline purchases when their voters approved for special construction projects over limited time periods. Those taxes would continue to be collected until they expire as scheduled, and then cities, counties and school districts could impose new, per-gallon taxes as long those funds are spent only on transportation.
“We don’t feel like that is a tax increase,” said House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla.

He said that by replacing the tax that local governments impose, the legislature isn’t raising taxes. But Clint Mueller, a lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said the cities, counties and schools could claim the same thing.
“If we both ‘replace’ the same amount, somebody is doubling down,” he said.

Motorists in the three regions — like Augusta’s — that passed a transportation sales tax called TSPLOST in 2013 would not face any increase either, according to Roberts. That sales tax doesn’t apply to gasoline purchases.

The House package includes a $200 annual fee on cars powered by alternative fuels which will go toward funding the state’s 128 transit system, possibly even their daily operational costs. A $100 million bond issue will also go toward the bus, train and van systems operated around the state — the first time state funds have ever been spent on municipal mass transit. How it would be divided hasn’t been determined.

Republicans in the House heard the outline shortly before it was presented to the roomful of reporters and lobbyists. Those present said most GOP lawmakers — including those elected on a pledge of no tax increases — reserved judgment, at least until the actual bill is introduced Thursday.

“I don’t want to say anything about it until, (A) I’ve read it, (B) I’ve seen a fiscal note and (C) I’ve done my own research,” said Rep. Regina Quick, R-Athens.

House rules require an estimate from independent economists in a fiscal note before passage of bills affecting the state treasury.
House Speaker David Ralston told reporters he knows the details will be the subject of discussion.

“I expect the bill to be thoroughly vetted in the details of the legislative process. I welcome constructive discussion and debate,” he said. “But the time to begin the process is now.”

Even Gov. Nathan Deal was circumspect in a statement his office released after the House leaders’ press conference.

“The release of a transportation bill is a positive step forward in the process of delivering for Georgians the transportation improvements we desperately need,” said Deal. “There’s still a long way to go as the plan winds through the General Assembly, but we now have a starting point and something to build on.”

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