Georgia ReportNews

Believe It or Not, Republicans and Democrats Compromised on Transportation

Democrats don’t have a lot of influence in the General Assembly these days. They hold roughly one-third of the seats in both the House and Senate, which means the Republican majority can safely ignore them 99 percent of the time.

Last week, however, presented one of those situations where the GOP leadership needed the Democratic minority to help pass an important piece of legislation: the transportation tax bill (HB 170) that would revise the gasoline excise tax and raise more than $800 million a year to maintain the state’s highways. Democrats provided the necessary votes that enabled House Speaker David Ralston and his cohorts to push through HB 170 after the bill had been stalling for more than a month.

The transportation tax bill caused a significant split in the GOP caucus between the establishment Republicans who support big business and the tea party lawmakers who opposed the tax increases contained within HB 170. That schism was the primary reason why the bill’s author, Rep. Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla), had to keep taking the measure back to committee to tinker with it.

When HB 170 finally came to the House floor last week, Majority Leader Larry O’Neal and Majority Whip Matt Ramsey drafted an amendment to try to placate the tea partiers and anti-taxers in their caucus: It would have reduced the proposed excise tax from 29.2 cents per gallon to 24 cents. The amendment would have made the bill’s tax provisions “net neutral,” but also would have cut the amount of revenue raised for road building to less than $500 million a year, defeating the bill’s original purpose.

The House voted 94-77 to defeat the amendment. All 77 votes for the amendment came from Republicans, which means that nearly two-thirds of the GOP members wanted to gut their own leadership’s bill. Not a single Democrat voted for that amendment, however—they joined with the establishment Republicans to outvote the anti-tax faction and keep the excise tax at 29.2 cents.

Two black Democrats also gave speeches during the floor debate urging their colleagues to vote for the transportation tax bill: Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), the senior member of the House, and Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway).

The final vote for passage of HB 170 was 123-46. Of those 46 no votes, 43 were cast by Republicans and only three came from Democrats: Patty Bentley, Scott Holcomb and Pam Stephenson. If Ralston had relied entirely on Republican support to pass HB 170, he would have been about 15 votes short of a majority. The Democrats stepped up and bailed him out.

There were rewards from the Republican leadership for the votes of their Democratic colleagues.

The state budget approved by the House—which is still pending in the Senate—includes $100 million in the bond package for transit projects, which is a big step forward for Democratic lawmakers who’ve been trying for years to secure state support for mass transit.

After HB 170 passed and was making its way to the Senate, the House adopted a bill Democrats have been trying to get for years: It removes the state-imposed requirement for the MARTA transit system to split its sales tax revenues between operational and capital costs. That operational funding flexibility for MARTA was a significant victory for Democrats.

It was one of those classic tradeoffs of politics, where each side gets something important by cutting a deal with the opposition. If nothing else, the events of last week show that sometimes the two parties can still work out that kind of deal.