ATLANTA -- With elections in the rear-view mirror, there’s a better chance that the Georgia Legislature will make the kinds of decisions this session that often prove too difficult for even-numbered years, such as writing up new taxes.
Leaders from across the midstate say there’s broad agreement that revenue has to be raised to pay for big road, rail and bridge projects. That’s even though some lawmakers in the GOP-dominated General Assembly ran on no-tax-increase pledges.
It may also be the year for action on long-discussed changes related to taxation and how schools get their state money.
And the lawmakers who want to tweak local government rules, such as school board size, have to run all of that by the Legislature once it opens for the year Monday.
The state financial picture is improving as lawmakers head back to Atlanta, with higher revenues in the last quarter of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013.
But even a budget growing toward $20 billion doesn’t have the room to bankroll the new $1 billion to $1.5 billion in annual spending that Georgia needs on transportation infrastructure, according to a report from a House-Senate study committee.
Most big transportation projects are funded by gas taxes collected by both the state and federal governments. Some Georgia counties collect gas taxes, too.
But the tax is, in part, based on the volume of fuel. So when people buy less gas, there’s less money for road projects.
“The statistic that is scariest out there is that cars in ‘16, that are manufactured from ‘16 on, the federal mandate is they get at least 40 miles per gallon. We used to get 15 to 20 miles per gallon,” House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, said.
“The first order of business is to replace that,” he said. “There is the possibility of substituting another tax that is more reliable, that’s more modern, that deals with alternative powered vehicles and usage of infrastructure more so than just fuel,” O’Neal said.
In the midstate, he wants to see the Interstate 16/Interstate 75 interchange modernized, as well as an eastern access road built to Robins Air Force Base. He called that a “survival item,” as the base needs to make itself more and more attractive as a distribution hub to budget writers in Washington, D.C.
Lining up tax-shy Republicans behind new revenue will be something of a challenge for O’Neal as majority leader. But some of them are already convinced.
“We’ve got to do something,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. “You’ve got to fund capital spending from somewhere.”
It’s getting hard for the state Department of Transportation to bid out contracts because of the diminishing gas-tax revenue from not only the state, but the federal government, too, said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch.
That’s part of why Georgia needs to get going on road funding, he said: “I think we’re going to have to make the commitment, have the courage and dedication to take this forward.”
It may be the year for other big money moves that have long been on some lawmakers’ agendas, but never at the top.
Besides transportation funding, Peake said he would not be surprised to see Republican Gov. Nathan Deal look at education funding and tax reform as well.
The state divvies up money to school districts under the Quality Basic Education Act formula. It’s complex and decades old, and it hasn’t been fully funded in years.
It’s outdated, Peake said. “Maybe it is time we look at completely blowing it up and starting over. ... I’d support that.”
Then there’s chatter about a move away from state income taxes and toward more sales taxes.
Peake said he does not think Georgia would eliminate state income tax completely, but it could trim income taxes and make it up with taxes on other things such as services, he said.
His opinion could be very important. The chairman of the tax-overseeing Ways and Means Committee just retired, and Peake, the vice chairman, is “actively pursuing” the job. Success there would make him a key gatekeeper on state tax policy. The Committee on Assignments will make its decision when the session starts.
Peake is also hoping to pass a medical marijuana proposal that would allow Georgia possession of a liquid medicine derived from cannabis.
The Bibb County school board will shrink from eight members to either seven or five if a majority of Bibb’s eight lawmakers agree to make the cut.
Due to tie votes, an even-numbered board is sometimes “a limitation on moving,” Epps said. He said he doesn’t want a hasty solution and will want public response to the bill he’s drafting.
“We need the most advantageous organizational structure we can” have, he said.
But Bibb’s legislators are unlikely to amend the law that says the Macon-Bibb County Commission has to reduce its budget by 20 percent compared with old Macon and Bibb spending.
“A promise was made to the voters of Macon and Bibb that this (cost savings) would be an integral part of it,” Epps said.
The commission itself, by a two-thirds vote, can do so in case of public safety needs or extreme economic conditions.
Also, a bill to bring Payne City into the Macon-Bibb government is on the way from state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon.
The next governments to unify may be Baldwin County and Milledgeville. A “unification bill” for the two will appear as early as next week, said its sponsor, state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville.
Baldwin and Milledgeville voters will have the final say, but the state Legislature must first approve a November 2015 referendum.
A nonpartisan committee wrote the latest draft and is still tweaking it. The latest version specifies that no full-time city or county employees would lose their job, and that the unified government’s first budget could not exceed what the state and county spent the year before.
The session runs for 40 nonconsecutive days.