The Georgia Chamber of Commerce took no position on the original version of House Bill 170. But the state's largest business advocacy organization has endorsed subsequent versions, and Georgia Chamber CEO Chris Clark said Monday that annual spending for highway improvements in the state needs to be increased by $1 billion.
"Our position has been, let's do something substantial, one time, so then we can go out and get the work done," Clark told the Statesboro Herald. "So we really feel strongly that we need to be at a billion-plus, both from existing funds, from bond funds, from the new excise fee.
"I think if you do that, then you make a difference," he said. "If you don't, you're making the problem worse, I think."
Clark, previously a ranking executive in two departments of the state government, is a graduate of Georgia Southern University and serves on its foundation board. As Rural-Urban Day speaker at the Statesboro Rotary Club, he made only general remarks about transportation, but was interviewed afterward about the bill that could become the Transportation Funding Act of 2015.
House Bill 170 takes Georgia's current mix of per-gallon excise tax and per-dollar sales tax on motor fuels and replaces these with a higher per-gallon tax. This tax would be adjusted periodically based on national fuel efficiency and highway construction cost indexes.
The starting point would be 29.2 cents per gallon on gasoline and 33 cents on diesel. Currently, the gasoline excise tax is 7.5 cents per gallon, the state sales tax is 4 percent of the price, and most places there are also local sales taxes of 3 or 4 percent.
In its original version, the bill would also have abolished the local portion of sales taxes on motor fuel, at least where these had to be approved by voters in future referendums. County commissions, city councils and school boards could have replaced these with excise taxes of 3 cents per gallon plus, with approval from local voters, an additional 3 cents.
However, after many city and county officials objected, the House Transportation Committee replaced that version of the bill with a substitute Feb. 19. The Georgia Chamber, which has 27,000 members ranging from individuals through corporations, including direct members and the members of every local Chamber of Commerce in the state, supported that first substitute version.
"The last thing you want to do is hurt the cities and counties or your school boards, and we've been a big advocate of saying, find the right model for them while making sure that we've still got the dollars we need for transportation," Clark said.
He expected a second substitute bill to be voted out by the House Transportation Committee later Monday afternoon.
"We did support the last substitute and we voted to scorecard it, and so we'll review the bill again this afternoon, and my hope is that we'll continue that scorecard position to support the bill," Clark said.
The first substitute would have restored the ability of local governments to collect sales tax on gasoline while requiring that this portion of sales tax revenue be devoted to transportation purposes. For school systems, school bus transportation, including the ability to spend fuel-derived sales tax to pay drivers, would be included. Cities and counties could also spend the money on transit systems, instead of just on roads and bridges.
These and other new provisions, Clark said, are aimed at giving local governments more flexibility on the transportation spending while trying to make sure they have enough money for their other projects.
Whether this will be the way the bill emerges from the House remains to be seen.
"That's our hope is that it comes out (of committee) today with those changes, then it goes to the floor of the House sometime this week," Clark said.
Alternative fuels tax
The versions of the bill that the Georgia Chamber supports would also eliminate a state income tax credit for owning electric vehicles and impose a registration fee on these.
"If you've got the tax credit and you don't ever go buy gas but you're driving on the roads everyday, it's still the same wear and tear on bridges and roads, but you're not paying anything to maintain those roads, and so there's a fairness issue there," Clark said.
He added that he does not know what this fee would be but thinks that electric car owners should pay something.
The Georgia Department of Transportation, in a Feb. 5 report to the House Committee, stated that $1 billion more annually is needed just to replace and maintain Georgia's existing roads and bridges. The department's current budget is about $1.5 billion a year.
Adding even several hundred million dollars annually would only "kick the can" down the road, Clark said, explaining his "billion-plus" comment. However, new construction projects such as interstate connectors would cost billions more than the even current proposal would net.
"But let's make a down payment on just what we need right now, not what we want," Clark said.
In his comments to the Rotary Club, he had noted that Georgia ranks 48th among the states in per-capita transportation funding. Meanwhile, Georgia has the 10th largest highway system, according to the Feb. 5 report, which can be found at www.dot.ga.gov.
Clark received his bachelor's degree in political science from Georgia Southern and his Master of Public Administration from Georgia College and State University. He served as the state's Department of Natural Resources commissioner, 2008-2010, and as a deputy Department of Economic Development commissioner, 2003-07.
Farmers and agribusiness people attended the meeting as Rural-Urban Day guests. Clark observed that urban and rural Georgians sometimes have different perceptions of the same issues. When Atlanta area residents think of transportation needs, they think of relieving traffic congestion, but in rural Georgia, the need is getting farm products to the ports, he said.
The Georgia Chamber is now in its centennial year. Clark noted that meeting minutes from 1915 reflect that road paving was one of the chamber's original concerns and that its first publication, in 1916, touted the state's agricultural resources.
"I have to translate, sometimes, between rural and urban and explain the benefits of both to folks, but that's something that the Georgia Chamber has been doing now for a hundred years," he said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.