Ga. transportation sales tax deal may be near

High-level negotiators may have staked out the basics of a compromise deal on a new transportation sales tax that would give road construction the boost Georgia leaders say it needs.

Leadership in the state House of Representatives and the Senate have jostled back and forth on the issue for the last couple of years, prompting serious consternation among business leaders who say new funding is key to continued economic growth. This is particularly true in Atlanta, where traffic often gridlocks.

But now a compromise may be emerging that would basically merge the competing House and Senate plans. Under the plan, the Legislature would ask Georgia voters to approve a new half-penny sales tax to fund projects statewide, a method the House has generally preferred. But it would also ask voters to let individual counties, or several counties together, charge another half-penny for regional projects, provided that voters in those areas sign off on that tax in a separate vote.

“I think we can get (this plan) out of the General Assembly,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who has been involved in negotiations. “This is middle ground, and I think we can get there.”

Comment from the House leadership was either less optimistic or less revealing.

“Conversations between the House and the Senate are ongoing to find a transportation funding solution that will address the state’s needs” was all that Marshall Guest, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson and the House leadership in general, would say.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, has been handling negotiations for the House, but attempts to reach him directly were not successful.

Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed this concept during the last legislative session, according to his office. Since then, however, the transportation planning process has been reformed, giving the governor and the House Transportation Committee more power by creating a planning director who sets construction priorities. The governor’s choice for director, Todd Long, was recently confirmed by the House Transportation Committee, and he’s working on an overarching transportation plan for the state.

It’s due by the end of this year, Perdue communications director Bert Brantley said, just before a new legislative session commences in January.

“So, while discussions are certainly continuing on transportation funding, our focus right now is on completing the transportation plan, which will lay the foundation for Georgians to clearly understand what value we could receive from any additional resources,” Brantley said.

State Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, a GOP gubernatorial hopeful who visited Macon on Monday, said the pressure to OK new transportation funding will be intense when the Legislature goes back into session in January. That’s particularly true for the Republican majority that controls both the House and Senate, he said.

“This isn’t a done deal,” he said. “(But) I’m convinced the Republican majority cannot go another session” without passing new transportation funding.”

Doing so is “a top priority for Georgia business leaders,” George Israel, Georgia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said in a statement.

“We’re competing daily for jobs with other states and nations that have the infrastructure they need to get their people and products where they need to go,” said Israel, a former mayor of Macon. “Our hope is that the House and Senate can agree on legislation in 2010 that provides adequate funding for Georgia’s current and future needs.”