ATLANTA — Now that House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts has introduced his funding bill, the question is what will ultimately get passed and how will it affect drivers and their wallets.

Some conclusion might be drawn from the frequency with which House leaders assert what it isn’t.

House Speaker David Ralston stood at the cameras and microphones to stress one thing before Roberts laid it out.

“It does not result in an increase of state taxes on Georgians,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. The emphasis was on “state.”

Politically, the plan may be a good one for legislators. They argue that drivers won’t feel a tax increase because of action by the state. That’s done by gradually shifting $500 million in taxes already collected by local governments into state coffers, so the state is still increasing its tax at the pump even if the net effect on consumers is negligible.

The plan also converts half the existing state tax from a percentage of the price — a sales tax — to a set amount per gallon, an excise tax.

“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.

Well, the net effect isn’t exactly zero either. First, the conversion will add about 8 cents to the current price of gas because it’s meant to reflect the four-year price average. Since today’s pump price is lower than the average, the adjustment from a percentage sales tax to a per-gallon excise tax will result in a rise. But when gas prices rise, the tax share will actually decline.

Another slight blemish on that no-tax-increase claim is the House proposal’s indexing of the excise tax — two ways. Either inflation or changes in vehicle efficiency, or both, will trigger bumps in the tax. And the governor’s authority to stop an upward recalibration would be removed except during a declared state of emergency.

(One wag wondered if sagging poll numbers would constitute an emergency. Govs. Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal have each pre-empted adjustments of the existing indexing.)

“We don’t feel like that is a tax increase,” said Roberts, R-Ocilla.

Cities and counties could still raise their own gas tax to make up for the money the state is taking from their coffers, but the political pain will fall on local politicians rather than legislators.

There is, however, $7.5 million in new fees on alternative-fuel vehicles, which the leadership does not consider a tax. Their argument is that since these motorists don’t buy gasoline, they don’t contribute to the upkeep of the roads even though their driving adds to the wear and tear. Owners of electric cars are already squealing “tax hike.”

Converting from a sales tax to an excise tax also squeezes $60 million per year out of interstate truckers who enjoy a federal exemption from a sales tax but not an excise. Does that constitute a tax increase? Trucking companies might say that it does.
Another provision of the plan is to devote revenue from “the fourth penny” of the existing sales tax solely to transportation. When lawmakers raised the state’s sales tax from 3 percent to 4 in the 1990s, they decided not to dedicate the addition to roads and bridges as the first portion was and still is.

That means that the roughly $175 million that that 1 percent generates will no longer go to education, healthcare, public safety and other non-transportation aspects of the general budget.

Roberts vowed that instead of raising taxes to replace funding for those expenditures, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, would simply cut that much from the budget. Interestingly, England quickly fled from the press conference when the topic came up so he wouldn’t have to say where the ax would fall.

If he can’t find the cuts or the legislature doesn’t maintain the discipline to sustain them, then there will be demands for new revenue which could result in a tax increase. Even before anyone knew what was going to be in the plan, calls came to not strain the general budget by removing the fourth penny from groups like the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
The Roberts plan includes $100 million in bond-borrowing. The annual payments can comfortably come from current revenues, so that doesn’t require raising taxes. That money will go to helping the state’s 128 transit systems buy buses, lay track and build stations — longstanding priorities of Democrats.

More than one Capitol insider has noted that Ralston and Roberts had to throw a bone to Democrats to get enough votes for passage since Republicans elected on a no-tax-increase pledge are likely to reject the bill. Evidently, the cost of getting sufficient Democratic support now has a number on it.

Overall, it’s a complicated funding scheme, and no one around the Capitol was willing to comment on it before they left for a weekend of analysis. Even Senate Transportation Chairman Tommie Williams and his immediate predecessor Sen. Steve Gooch announced they were still weighing other options.

To illustrate the confusion, consider the reaction of the Savannah City Council when it met with its local legislative delegation the day after Roberts outlined the bill. One alderman praised the bill for adding funds for mass transit while another condemned it for eliminating a $40 million revenue stream from gasoline sales, leaving a hole in the city’s budget where half of the money goes to public safety.

“When we hear about transportation, we keep hearing, ‘We need money.’ Don’t look to us, please,” said Alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague.

Some tea party activists have complained that the House concept does amount to a tax increase, which they oppose.
Debbie Dooley, a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, sent an email to her followers last week that included a fact sheet House leaders had distributed to Republicans. It estimates the net change in current gas taxes would amount to 7.7 cents per gallon when all the various provisions are accounted for.

“It is not what it seems…. Leadership is trying to deceive Georgians into thinking their gas prices won’t rise,” she wrote.
When all is said and done, legislators may still buck up and support the plan, or at least most of it. Business groups say it’s needed to keep the wheels of commerce rolling, and those jobs and economic activity are the main reason the politicians are even going down the road of increased spending.

After all, groups have long claimed that education, healthcare and social services needed added funds, but none of the current leaders ever proposed spending $1 billion more on them.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering the Capitol since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at


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