Transportation Funding Act is Amended, and Barely Passes Senate

Jon Richards

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

The Georgia State Senate passed House Bill 170, the Transportation Funding act by the smallest margin possible in the chamber by a vote of 29-25. All Democrats voted against the bill, along with Republicans John Albers of Roswell, Mike Crane of Newnan, Marty Harbin of Tyrone, Bill Heath of Bremen, William Ligon of Brunswick, Josh McKoon of Columbus, and Bruce Thompson of White. In addition, Republicans Bill Jackson of Appling and Jesse Stone of Waynesboro were excused, and did not vote.

The vote came after nine proposed amendments and one amendment to an amendment were considered. Amendment 1, which was approved, removes the annual fee charged on cars and commercial vehicles proposed in the Senate version of the bill. According to a fiscal note developed for the Senate version of the bill, removal of the fee will reduce the revenue raised by the bill by $201.3 million in FY 2016, increasing to $210.4 million in FY 2020. The amendment was sponsored by eleven senators, including Transportation Committee Chair Tommie Williams of Lyons, Transportation Study Committee Co-Chair Steve Gooch of Dahlonega, and President Pro Tem David Shafer of Duluth. 

As originally proposed, Amendment 2 would also have eliminated the annual tag fee, and reduced the amount of the fee charged to electric vehicles from $200 to $95 for non-commercial vehicles, and from $300 to $195 for commercial vehicles. In addition, the excise tax rate on gasoline would have been made 20 cents per gallon, down from the proposed Senate rate of 24 cents, and the proposed House rate of 29.2 cents. The amendment was sponsored by Albers, Crane, Harbin and Hunter Hill of Atlanta. An amendment to that amendment, offered by Majority Leader Bill Cowsert of Athens and David Shafer replaced the original language of the amendment with a requirement for GDOT to document efficiencies within the department’s operations. Cowsert and Shafer’s amendment to Amendment 2 was adopted, and then was passed as Amendment 2.

Also adopted was Amendment 4, sponsored by Senators Wiliams, Cowsert, Gooch, Shafer, Jeff Mullis of Chickamauga and Greg Kirk of Americus, It calls for the creation of a Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure with members from the House and Senate. The committee would be charged with introducing one or more tax reform bills that would be subject to mandatory up or down votes during the 2016 legislative session. 

Amendments introduced by Democratic Senators all failed. Amendment 3 would have mandated a disparity study to be conducted every three years to determine the number of disadvantage business enterprises. Amendment 5 would have eliminated the provision that $250 million from the general fund be appropriated annually to pay down GDOT bond debt. Amendment 6 would have established tax credits for low emission vehicles, and amendment 7 would have permitted funds raised by the act to be used for purposes other than the maintenance of highway infrastructure. The last Democratic amendment, #8, would have required GDOT to hire a minority compliance officer charged with improving minority owned business participation in DOT projects.

Two other amendments, each proposed by Senator Albers, failed for technical reasons. After Sen. Cowsert introduced his substitute amendment 2, Albers attempted to nullify the substitute with Amendment 2A1. However parliamentary rules prohibit amending an amendment to an amendment, and that effort failed. Albers also sponsored Amendment 9, which varied from the original Amendment 2 bu a single word — who changed to whom. While Albers had hoped this small change was enough to differentiate the two amendments, they were ruled the same, and the amendment was also declared out of order.

With all the parliamentary maneuvering over, and the bill passing the Senate, it now goes to a House-Senate conference committee, which will attempt to come up with a final version the two chambers can agree on. With seven days remaining in the session, there is likely time to work out a reasonable compromise.

Following the vote, Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO issued this statement:

Funding Georgia’s transportation infrastructure is one of the most important steps we can take as a state to ensure the safety and economic prosperity of all Georgians. We appreciate the incredible amount of time and effort that our elected leaders have spent on this critical issue this year and look forward to continuing to support their efforts in the days ahead. 

As the legislative process moves forward, we remain hopeful that a bill will be agreed upon that provides the minimum $1 billion to $1.5 billion in dedicated funding needed to address both Georgia’s short term priorities and long term plans in a way that is both predictable and sustainable.

We commend the leadership of both the Senate and the House for their commitment to our state’s future.

For their part, Senate Democrats were disappointed that the final version did not contain funding for transit, and did not provide for increased minority participation in DOT projects. In a statement, Minority Leader Steve Henson said, 

Senate Democrats believe that transportation must be a priority in order to move our economy forward and address gridlock. But we believe that to prioritize transportation over education without a vision and long range goals that include transit and multi-modal transporation is the wrong direction.