December 17, 2014

Gov. Nathan Deal Hits a Dead End on Transportation

Capitol Impact

The overall disrepair of Georgia’s roads and bridges has reached the point where the state’s political and business leaders agree that “something must be done.” Anyone who’s been caught in the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that choke most of the major highways would probably agree with that, so it’s not really a controversial issue.

You’re hearing a lot these days about the seriousness of this problem. What you aren’t hearing are any proposals on how to pay for it. There are credible estimates that Georgia needs to spend an extra $1 billion to $1.5 billion each year to maintain existing roadways and build new ones. Some experts have put the amount at closer to $2 billion.

There’s only one realistic way to generate that kind of revenue: Taxes, in some form or fashion, will have to be increased. The prospect of raising taxes in a conservative, Republican-leaning state like ours has obviously terrified the folks in the Governor’s Mansion and the General Assembly. They aren’t touching that issue with a 10-foot pole.

Lawmakers created a joint study committee that held several hearings around the state to gather ideas on how to increase transportation funding. The legislation creating that committee gave it a Nov. 30 deadline to issue its recommendations. Nov. 30 came and went with no recommendations. That shifted attention to the week of Dec. 8, when the University of Georgia held its Biennial Institute for newly elected legislators. Several business organizations also scheduled a “transportation summit” that was held in Athens at the same time. 

Surely, it was thought, some kind of announcement would come out of those meetings on how the state would handle the upgrading of its transportation infrastructure. Nothing happened at either event. The chairmen of the study committee on transportation funding—Rep. Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla) and Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega)—released no funding proposals. Gov. Nathan Deal said he would wait for the legislature to do something before he would say anything.

Deal’s reluctance to take a leadership position on the most important issue facing this state is puzzling. He said several times in this year’s campaign that it was the last time he would run for office, so he doesn’t have to worry about what disgruntled voters might think. Fixing the state’s transportation mess is the kind of thing that governors who want to leave behind a legacy would normally jump at the chance to do. What does Deal have to lose by taking the lead on this?

Thanks to his reelection victory, Deal has some political capital he can spend on the transportation issue, but it won’t be there long. He has about a year or so to wield some influence before people start their 2018 campaigns for governor and effectively make him a lame duck. Why is he sitting back and waiting for lawmakers to take the initiative?

One reason may be that Deal painted himself into a corner during his reelection campaign, where he bragged about all the great things he had done to bring jobs to Georgia. On the day before the election, for example, Deal held a press conference to boast that his administration had helped create 2,700 new jobs in the prior two weeks alone. After talking for months about Georgia being the “No. 1 state for business” in the country, it would be difficult for Deal to suddenly turn around and claim that the state is in such bad shape that taxes must be raised to build roads. Anyone who was paying attention to Deal’s campaign would think, “But governor, you said everything was just peachy keen. Why do you have to raise my taxes?”

It’s a story we’ve heard many times. Things are so bad they need to be fixed. But how do you convince people to pay for fixing them?