January 28, 2015

Voters Want Transportation Improvements, but Don't Want to Pay for Them

Capitol Impact

Georgia’s top leaders agree the most pressing issue right now is the state’s transportation system and how to fix it. In recent weeks, Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston have all made the same point:  Georgia must spend more money on repairing its roads and building new highways.

I think the leadership is largely correct. Depending on what kind of mood the Tennessee legislature is in, this state usually ranks 49th or 50th in money spent on transportation. Other states of comparable size spend a lot more money on this than Georgia does, which means they are in a better position to attract the new business and industry that might otherwise relocate here.

With all of their calls for more spending, however, Deal, Cagle, and Ralston have yet to say just how the state should raise the $1 billion or so a year needed to meet transportation needs. Should we raise the motor fuel excise tax? Should there be a state sales tax increase? Should we have a mileage tax for people who drive electric vehicles and don’t have to pay a motor fuel tax?  

Our leaders go silent when they reach that important question. A couple of recent statewide polls suggest the reason why. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution commissioned a survey in early January that showed nearly 60 percent of Georgians agree that improving transportation infrastructure is important. Nearly 70 percent would support new transit facilities. Only 36 percent, however, said they would be willing to pay higher taxes for any kind of transportation project.

A more recent poll for WSB turned up similar results. Those respondents opposed an increase in the motor fuel tax by more than a two-to-one margin. By a margin of 52-32 percent, they opposed increasing the state sales tax for the purpose of fixing roads and bridges.

The polls illustrate a fundamental problem of modern politics. Citizens expect their governments, whether at the state or federal level, to provide them all sorts of stuff like good roads. But they don’t believe they should actually have to pay for these services by being taxed.

It’s easy to see how Georgians would have developed this attitude. Politicians have been telling them for years that taxes should never be increased for any reason. The same politicians have told them we can find all the money we need simply by getting rid of the “fraud, waste and abuse” in government. The governor has been boasting for months that Georgia already “is ranked as the number one state to do business.” When you’ve had those messages drummed into you time and again, you naturally would conclude there’s no reason to raise any taxes. That is why you see polls where a majority of the citizens support spending money on transportation needs, but oppose any tax increases to pay for that.

Sam Wellborn, a retired Columbus banker who has served on the State Transportation Board for more than 20 years, got to the heart of the matter when he spoke to a legislative study committee on transportation funding last summer. “It’s very political,” Wellborn told the lawmakers. “People just don’t want to be associated with raising taxes. But they’ve [legislators] got to be bold about it, and they have to sell the idea of the good that it produces, instead of worrying about reelection.” 

Wellborn’s words explain why I am reasonably certain the General Assembly will go through this session without voting to raise funds for the state’s transportation needs, no matter how urgent those needs may be. Politicians want to be reelected. They know the chances of being reelected will decrease by roughly the same amount as any increase they approve in the state’s taxes.