The Georgia General Assembly is deep in discussions about adding transportation revenue through new taxes. Even Republicans seem to agree something must be done to raise more than $1.5 billion annually to pay for the upkeep of our aging infrastructure. But the idea of new taxes still rankles some fiscal conservatives, such as today’s lead columnist. And while we’re on the topic of new taxes for projects to move people, a Cobb County tax watchdog takes on the taxpayer-funded pedestrian bridge proposed for the new Braves stadium.
No new taxes for roads
By Adam Webb
One thing was certain if Democrat Jason Carter was elected governor last fall: There was zero chance he would ever get a Republican-dominated General Assembly to approve a tax increase. This was a comforting thought to fiscal conservatives when Carter was polling well in 2014.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s re-election was also no reason for concern, because any proposal to raise taxes would be dead on arrival. After all, Gov. Deal, like most Republican leaders, had taken the “no new taxes” pledge of Americans for Tax Reform. Georgia citizens were finally due a tax cut — state revenues were up, and the last tax cut was under Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes 16 years ago — and they certainly didn’t need to fear a tax increase.
Or so we thought.
Since the Republican sweep in November, one trial balloon after another has been floated by Republican leaders suggesting Georgia’s “transportation crisis” is so dire, raising new revenues cannot be avoided. These Republicans point to the recent study committee report as justification for their flip-flop on new taxes — but nothing in the report justifies new taxes.
Georgia’s transportation issues do not amount to a crisis, and they certainly aren’t new. Metro Atlanta has had traffic jams for decades. So does every large city. The notion money can cure the “problem” of bad traffic is absurd. As long as most schools and businesses keep standard hours, rush hours will exist. Building more or wider roads does little to decrease traffic jams. They simply fill up with traffic again.
Public transportation also isn’t a miracle cure. A bus with three or four people in it (like most that I see) actually harms traffic flow. We all know the pain of being caught behind a bus that stops, causing a mini traffic jam each time. Trains are so limited in their route system that they are only useful for a small percentage of citizens, and then only for some of their trips. In my experience, the worst traffic in America is in and around New York City, the American city with the most extensive public transportation system.
Atlanta traffic also hasn’t gotten markedly worse in recent years. Spaghetti Junction, Ga. 400, I-75 in Cobb and Henry counties, and many other corridors have all been horrible since the 1990s. The new “transportation crisis” is a fiction. Our transport system is fully on par with other states.
Even so, if our legislators are bound and determined to spend more money on transportation, fiscal conservatives have no opposition, as long as such funding is taken from other spending.
There’s plenty of fat in the Georgia budget that can be spent on transportation. For example, the governor proposes to spend $9.5 million on a new center for the Future Farmers of America and $6.7 million for a new GBI morgue. As long as such boondoggles are being proposed, new revenue isn’t needed.
To be clear, fiscal conservatives do not oppose tax reform. Lowering taxes or shifting revenue streams is warranted. The priority should be reducing Georgia’s income tax. Georgia simply cannot compete with Tennessee and Florida, which have no income tax. Why would a small business locate in Georgia when the owner and employees will have to work 6 percent harder to make the same amount? The income tax should be reduced from 6 percent to 5 percent, and all income below $50,000 should be exempt.
Some of the lost revenue can be recouped through a combination of higher gas and cigarette taxes and closing special-interest loopholes. But most of the drop in revenue should be covered by simply limiting the rate of spending increases. Fiscal conservatives know spending increases should be tied not to increases in tax receipts, but to the rate of inflation and population growth. Thirty states have adopted such limits on spending, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia, too, should adopt this wise practice.
If Georgia Republicans cannot be trusted when they have total control of the purse strings, perhaps divided government is the only solution. Spending has been relatively constrained during periods of divided government in Washington, such as the Clinton years when Newt Gingrich was House speaker. On the other hand, from 2003 to 2007, when George W. Bush was in the White House and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, they spent like drunken sailors. Of course, in 2006 they suffered a dramatic defeat at the polls, and both houses were retaken by the Democrats.
Georgia’s Republicans will suffer the same fate if they raise taxes. New taxes would never have been possible under a Carter governorship, and Republicans should not make the voters who supported them regret their vote. Gov. Deal has not said he supports tax increases. Disturbingly, however, he has not slammed the door on the notion. I hope on May 1 fiscal conservatives aren’t dreaming of what might have been under a Carter governorship.
Adam Webb is an attorney who lives in Atlanta.
Public funds for Braves bridge?
By Lance Lamberton
As a keen observer of the foibles of human conduct, Sir Walter Scott would no doubt have applied his famous quote to the machinations of the Braves and Cobb County government when he wrote: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The latest installment in their long and sorry record of web-weaving is their brazen attempt to foist the cost of a pedestrian bridge onto the backs of the taxpayer.
As reported recently in the AJC, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to allocate $750,000 for engineering and design work for a pedestrian bridge over I-285 to connect the new Braves stadium with parking facilities at the Galleria and Cumberland Mall. This should be seen as a down payment on a project that may cost as much as $25 million, but that is being low-balled by the county to cost between $6 million and $9 million to deceive taxpayers of its true cost.
Regardless of cost, why should taxpayers pay for the bridge at all? Its purpose is to benefit a for-profit, multi-billion-dollar corporation, Liberty Media, so that more people can park and, therefore, attend games at the new stadium. After already soaking the taxpayer with $397 million to build the stadium, adding this cost is an outrage.
It is also an example of what a poor job the county did negotiating the Braves deal. In the county’s haste to ram this deal down the throats of local taxpayers, officials failed to include a provision that any expenses above the $397 million should be borne by the entity that will benefit most directly by it — Liberty Media.
Moreover, in their rush to conclude a deal, county officials failed to plan for sufficient parking. They are now hoping the owners and tenants of the Galleria and Cumberland Mall will have no problem turning over their parking spaces to swarms of baseball fans – and tailgating parties — on game days.
Another elephant in the room of unplanned-for expenses will be the need to provide tram service to cover the vast parking areas at the mall and Galleria.
To soften the blow to taxpayers, county leaders are touting the prospect that a portion of the cost might — and I emphasize the word, “might” — be assumed by the state and/or federal government.
Assuming that happens, that does not make it right. We don’t need to bolster the bottom line of the mis-named Liberty Media by adding to a federal budget deficit of $18 trillion. Besides, there is a good chance the criteria for receiving federal or state funds for this bridge will not be met. Thus, the county and the Braves are operating on a hope and a prayer that the $750,000 payment for design work won’t be a waste.
Unless, of course, the tab can be sent to Liberty Media officials. Indeed, if they want it badly enough — and I’m not arguing there isn’t a need — they should pay for it.
Going forward, taxpayers should insist any additional costs related to building a new stadium should be assumed by Liberty Media. That is not too much to ask.
Lance Lamberton is chairman of the Cobb Taxpayers Association.