Hopes for New Approach to Revenues Dampened by New Income Tax Plan

Taifa for blogAre state lawmakers ready to have “the talk” about new revenue? After hearing state lawmakers dismiss anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s comments and efforts to influence Georgia’s legislative process earlier this week, I thought so. For more on the Norquist flap, check out the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Political Insider blog.

This public breaking with Norquist stems from recognition by state leaders that Georgia needs to generate revenue to address its long-neglected transportation system. Dare we hope these state leaders will keep looking around and notice Georgia also needs money to address other problems holding back our communities?

Sure, getting our arms around Georgia’s transportation maintenance needs is of paramount concern this legislative session. Lawmakers gathered expert testimony in hearings around the state last year to determine Georgia needs at least $1 billion more a year just for routine maintenance. It costs as much as $4 billion annually to develop some of the major transportation projects we’ve postponed for lack of money. Those include fixes to crumbling bridges and updates to some of the state’s most dangerous highway interchanges. Georgians who drive these roads should urge our lawmakers to make these things a priority as a matter of public safety.

Monday marked the legislative session’s halfway mark.  The house transportation bill, House Bill 170, was set to go to the floor of the House floor this week, now returns to committee for additional changes. It proposes a series of changes to the gas tax and other measures that would raise revenue to maintain the transportation status quo. (GBPI analyzed the plan.)  Georgia needs more revenues included in the package to really make a dent in plans sitting on shelves at the state Department of Transportation.

Some lawmakers suggest other viable ways to increase revenues. One idea is to raise the state’s tobacco tax to $1.60 a pack from 37 cents to bring it closer to the national average.  Recent official state estimates say that raises nearly $600 million annually.  That could generate a lot of money for the state’s general fund to address transportation and other critical needs. And the public health benefits of increasing taxes on tobacco are well-documented.

This isn’t to say HB 170 and higher tobacco taxes are Georgia’s best, or only options to raise new revenues. GBPI has documented many options for the state to consider.

These options all should be on the table for Georgia to fix its transportation network and start investing adequately in other neglected areas, including its education and health care systems. Despite increased state spending budgeted for public schools the past two years, an austerity cut of more than $450 million remains. The proposed 2016 budget is $60 million short of supporting Georgia’s health care safety net.

I thought our leaders were ready to think beyond the next election and consider what happens to Georgia’s economy and our children’s future if we continue to avoid doing what’s needed. The cynic says policymakers aren’t able to see beyond their next election and won’t do anything to jeopardize their seats, or draw even more fire from Grover Norquist.

I hoped my optimistic view was right and the cynics were wrong. Because if nothing happens this year to fix transportation, then we can rest assured that next year, an election year, lawmakers will have no appetite to really solve Georgia’s revenue problems as they campaign for re-election.

Well now in light of the new income tax shift proposal released this week that appears to raise taxes on the middle class and shrink the most reliable source of revenue the state collects, I’m trying to remain hopeful that the glimmer I saw this week wasn’t a mirage.

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