Georgia: Transportation tax bills on collision course

Georgia: Transportation tax bills on collision course

April 3rd, 2009 by Jake Armstrong in Georgia

ATLANTA - Clouds of doubt gathered Thursday over plans for a 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects as House and Senate negotiators locked horns in a testy attempt to strike a compromise.

With one day remaining in the legislative session, House lawmakers refused to budge from their stance on funding a list of projects with a statewide sales tax increase approved by voters.

And senators said they would not consider any plan other than one allowing voters to enact the tax on a county-by-county or regional basis.

But the leaders plan to meet again at 9 a.m. today to try again to reach a compromise.

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"The Senate will not pass a statewide plan. I've told you, I've told everybody from day one," said Chickamauga Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

"We will not pass a statewide plan in the Senate," Sen. Mullis told his House counterparts. "We either need to work from that angle, or go home."

He said the House would have to abandon the statewide approach or risk leaving the state's congested highways, and diminishing economic potential, unaddressed for another year.

But Rep. Vance Smith, Sen. Mullis' counterpart in the House, faulted the Senate for refusing to compromise.

"If you are really serious about compromising, show me something," said Rep. Smith, R-Pine Mountain.

The House tried to ramp up some compromise Wednesday, narrowly adopting a Senate plan that overhauls how the DOT board is formed and giving the governor and lawmakers more control over how transportation dollars are spent.

The plan is still far from final as the chambers have yet to hash out an agreement on how the overhaul would work.

House leaders tried to build momentum behind a "compromise" on Thursday, pitching a plan to allow counties to band together to levy the sales tax if a referendum on a statewide tax fails.

"It's time for us as a state to have a state transportation plan, and show the nation that Georgia is ready and willing and able to adopt the plan," Rep. Smith said.

House members likened the county-by-county approach to a Band-Aid for Georgia's road woes, and said critical freight corridors and ports may not receive much needed improvements if the tax is approved by counties in patchwork fashion.

Senators said there is no evidence voters will get behind a statewide tax, but that local option sales taxes have proven successful in Georgia counties.

Atlanta Democrat Sen. Kasim Reed, one of the Senate's negotiators, said a statewide plan not centered on specific areas could fall out of favor with metro voters who already pay an additional 1 percent sales tax for public transportation. About half the voters needed to approve the statewide tax live in metro Atlanta.

Sen. Mullis noted: "If you are serious about coming to a conclusion for funding transportation, you're going to have to understand that we will not pass a statewide [tax]."

Negotiators left both the morning and an evening meeting with no clear compromise in sight.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at 404-826-3587.