House's proposed penny tax would bypass DOT, fund I-16/I-75

ATLANTA – A new penny tax would raise $25 billion over 10 years for transportation projects if voters OK the plan in a statewide referendum, according to legislation filed Monday by the chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

The cash infusion would bypass the Georgia Department of Transportation, relying on another agency to spend the money. The measure would fund several projects in the midstate, including a new interchange at Interstate 16 and Interstate 75.

The legislation has a long way to go to become law, needing to pass the House as well as the Senate, where leaders have been working on a competing piece of legislation. If those hurdles are cleared, the sales tax would go before voters in 2010.

Voters wouldn't just approve the tax, but the projects it would fund — much as they do now for SPLOSTs, local penny taxes that come complete with a planned-out-list of projects.

The Senate's version of this bill doesn't include a ready-made list of projects, but would allow local governments to band together, creating multi-county regions that would charge their own penny tax for local projects.

But both the House and Senate proposals may be overshadowed by legislation expected from the governor's office. Details have been closely held, but after years of complaints over management at the Georgia Department of Transportation Board, which is elected by state legislators, there is a lot of talk at the Capitol about changing the way that board functions.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has said that, before he gets on board with new funding, he wants to be sure it will be put in good hands. But even top legislators, including Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, have said they don't know what form that will take.

"I understand there is a bill. ..." Williams, a Lyons Republican and the No. 2 man in the Senate, said Monday. "I don't know the details of the bill. They have cloistered that information well."

Williams said Monday that Perdue's bill may be ready next week, but that was simply his estimate. The governor's office has declined to confirm details of the potential legislation, except to say Perdue has met on the issue with the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house.

House Transportation Chairman Vance Smith's legislation would send sales tax proceeds through the State Road and Tollway Authority or another entity that may be created by the state, Smith said Monday. That's to allow the legislation to dovetail with whatever the governor may be working on, he said.

It's not an effort to bypass DOT, but a recognition that the department "has a huge amount of work on their plate right now," Smith said. Since this would be new funding — some for projects already on the DOT's books, some for projects that aren't — sending the funding through another agency would "spread it out a little," Smith said.

A legislative oversight committee would also be involved, overseeing the process to "ensure the funds are disbursed as approved by Georgia voters," according to a news release on the legislation. That committee would have 11 members: three appointed by the governor, four by the lieutenant governor and four by the speaker of the house.

The committee would be able to shift projects around and take them out of the 10 year funding plan if they "just cannot be accomplished," Smith said.

After 10 years, the tax would end, and voters would have to approve any continuation to fund new projects.

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