Due to recent events and continuous speeches from Governor Deal and Speaker Ralston, I believe I need to set the record straight about those who are willing to say “No” to bills in the General Assembly. At a breakfast meeting with WSB Radio in attendance on December 2, 2015, the Speaker spoke for over seven minutes about House Bill 170 – the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, a bill designed to meet the maintenance needs of Georgia’s roads and bridges – HB 170 is the topic of this column. Speaker Ralston’s full speech is at the end of this column. 

The debate has been plentiful over House Bill 170, The Transportation Funding Act, from the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly. It seems that some speak of it more than others while telling those of us that voted against the bill that it is time to stop discussing the bill. They say it is a done deal, it is time for us to move on, and get on with the people’s business. There is no need to discuss further the tax increase. However, at every turn, I see stories and videos of Governor Nathan Deal and Speaker David Ralston, speaking of the merits of this bill. Every speech denounces those of us that did not agree with the bill and the massive tax increase that came with it. A nearly $1+ billion per year tax increase that has no end.

All the while denouncing our absolute right of conscience.

“What does us no good in this process is having those at the table whose only response to every proposed solution is to always say “No”. The rhetoric of “No” makes a great stump speech. It makes a great bumper sticker. It does little to move this great state forward.” – Speaker David Ralston

Every “No” vote in the House is a well thought out and discussed vote. In the General Assembly, it is much easier to say “Yes” so as to stay in the good graces of those in leadership. After all, people at home aren’t really paying attention anyway, correct? For me, however, my conscience will not allow me to vote against the will of my district. House Bill 170 became the major bill of concern for my constituents, especially those on a fixed income, during the 2015 session. How can we possibly afford more taxes, they asked. You know this will make our groceries cost more and everything that a truck transports to the store cost more as well, David?

“What does help are better ideas and practical solutions that help our state to achieve the next level of greatness. We saw that kind of display during last year’s session with the debate over transportation infrastructure funding. There were kind-of two groups that we had there in the general assembly, we had those who responded with constructive feedback and input that added value. And then we had those who simply said ‘No’. And I would ask in meeting after meeting, if you have a problem, then bring me a better idea – I just can’t do this, just say ‘No’.” – Speaker David Ralston

Better ideas and practical solutions… most of you reading this probably do not realize it, but I was one of the original top 5 co-authors of House Bill 170. That was before the bill turned bad, then I had to take my name off the bill.  Mine, was a better idea. A taxpayer-neutral formula that funded transportation, but did not raise taxes on the citizens of Georgia.

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I shopped the formula that I devised to fund transportation throughout the leadership ranks for nearly two weeks. It was simple really, first, convert the 4th penny of sales tax that was being charged on fuel purchases and force that money to be spent on transportation projects, instead of depositing the money into the general fund. The converted 4th penny would raise an estimated $185 million for transportation projects. Next, we tell the counties they would no longer be able to charge a Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST, LOST and E-SLOST) on gasoline purchases once their current SPLOST expired. All current sales tax rates would be converted into an excise tax. A tax, which according to the Georgia Constitution, has to be spent on transportation. The total equated to an estimated $554 million in new funding.  The goal, we were told over and over again, was to raise $1 billion in new transportation funding. I had devised a formula that would raise an estimated $739 million in transportation funding during the first year alone after converting the 4th penny and adding in the previously charged SPLOST taxes.

Chairman Roberts announced to the Republican caucus a week later that he had devised a formula that would fund transportation, luckily it was the same formula I used…and it did not raise taxes.

Now, my plan was not the only plan, and perhaps it was not the best. Remember, Speaker Ralston stated that “I would ask in meeting after meeting, if you have a problem then bring me a better idea – I just can’t do this, just say ‘No’.” 41 Representatives voted against the final bill – a total of 41 said “No” in a House of 180 Representatives. I spoke with virtually every single person that voted against the final passage of the bill during the session. Each one had an idea of how to fund transportation; each had changes they would like to see in the bill. The vast majority of them had scheduled a meeting with the Speaker or had spoken with another member of leadership to voice their concerns and offer solutions. I know of zero members of the Georgia House that simply said “No” to House Bill 170. The caucus in its entirety wanted to find a solution, but 41 Representatives had to stick to their absolute right of conscience and tell Chairman Roberts, Speaker Ralston and Governor Deal that they did not agree with the 2nd largest tax increase in Georgia’s history – HB 170 – again, a $1+ billion per year tax increase that has no end.

We had other solutions, other ways to fund transportation.

One such plan was simply genius. The State of Georgia’s year-over-year tax revenues has grown exponentially over the last few years. If the General Assembly dedicated just .25 cents of every dollar in new revenues to transportation, then the state’s transportation funding would reach the goal of $1 billion in new funding in 5 short years, without raising taxes on Georgians.

One question that was never answered by the Georgia Department of Transportation, The Speaker’s Office, The Governor’s Office nor the Chairman of Transportation, Jay Robert’s Office, is what projects did we need $1 billion per year in new funding for? Remember, this bill was to cover road maintenance needs. Several Representatives reached out to GDOT via phone, email and in person but could not receive an answer. In fact, the lack of response to the request(s) lead to an Open Records request by another State Representative. GDOT stated they would honor her open records request, but only if she paid more than $100,000 in advance. Matthew Cline, general counsel to GDOT stated that her 51-item request would take up to 6 months to complete. No information would be given to her until payment in full had been received.

The Representative eventually paid for a number of the documents including a list of projects that were to be completed in proximity to the new Atlanta Brave’s stadium in Cobb County. The project list surrounding the stadium reached over $700 million. Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts is now the Project Manager at Georgia Department of Transportation.

“But I believe that Georgia has come too far and that we have worked too hard for us now to not be willing to sometimes take on the tough votes and to do the people’s business.” – Speaker David Ralston

Both of the solutions above required taking a tough vote to do the people’s business, but the votes were too tough for many to swallow, so the ideas were eventually eliminated from consideration. You are probably wondering how, if my formula was used to fund transportation, was the formula eliminated from consideration? The lobbyists for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association, made their voices heard in the process as did the Governor. Before I knew it, the bill had taken an ugly turn. No longer would the bill convert the sales tax and SPLOST to an excise tax, but now the bill would convert the sales tax AND keep SPLOST on top of the new excise tax. A massive tax increase by anyone’s measure. A tough vote? Yes, but also one that goes against my absolute right of conscience.

“House Bill 170 may well be one of the most discussed and debated pieces of legislation to move through the General Assembly in recent history.” “Some members of the transportation committee voted against the bill, initially, in some of the initial early hearings. Only to vote for it on the floor once they had had their concerns allayed and the problems that they were saw in the bill pointed out and those had been addressed.  That’s what’s good about the legislative process. It’s a give and take process where people sit down together and reason together and come up with the best of available solutions.” – Speaker David Ralston

HB 170 is amongst the most discussed and debated pieces of legislation to move through the General Assembly in recent years, more so amongst those that voted “No” than any other group in the General Assembly. Unfortunately, there isn’t much give and take in the legislative process and discussing what happened on HB 170 isn’t acceptable unless you voted for the bill. Many have been told that the discussions against the bill should cease. Members of the General Assembly lost committee positions such as Chairmanships and Vice Chairmanships because of their vote on House Bill 170.

The Speaker sets the ultimate in double standards. Every session bills are denied committee hearings through the Speaker’s Office and just recently he publicly rejected the Governor’s Merit Based Teacher’s Pay plan to a group of teachers within his own district. This is before the bill had been filed and before it had been posted for all to read. This was even before the bill had gone through the first committee hearing. Why is he just saying “No” to the Governor’s bill and not providing good, solid feedback and changes publicly? Ralston reportedly said, “I try to support our governor when I can and, when I can’t, I tell him very respectfully that he and I disagree. I told him as recently as yesterday at 2 o’clock that I cannot go with him on this yet.” It is good to me to see the Speaker exercising his absolute right of conscience on this issue. When I voted against HB 170, I respectfully disagreed with the final bill.

The members of the General Assembly who exercise their absolute right of conscience on every bill which comes to the floor should be afforded the right to vote either “Yes”, or “No”, as the district that they represent would have them do. On HB 170, the vast majority, if not all, of the 41 “No” votes received overwhelming feedback from their districts that the citizens were not for raising taxes, no matter what the tax increase would fund.

Many of us exercise our absolute right of conscience on every bill that comes to the floor; we represent our districts and no one else. We listen to our constituents and take feedback on the issues that matter most to them. We read every bill and decide, what would the people of my district think if they read this bill? We do the best we can to determine the bill’s effect on Georgia’s citizens; sometimes that means a vote of “No” is necessary. I agree that the Committee process should exist to weed out the bad bills, but who’s behind the bill matters more, unfortunately, than the contents of the bill in most instances.

In the case of House Bill 170, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce wanted a tax increase so that GDOT would spend more money in the metropolitan Atlanta region on transportation. Remember, their baby, T-SPLOST failed at the ballot box. Sure, other districts outside the Atlanta region are receiving funding from the passage of HB 170, one such district includes the city of Blue Ridge, the Speakers hometown. The Speaker announced that the project would be moving forward during the annual Eggs & Issues Breakfast sponsored by the Fannin County Chamber of Commerce on December 3rd. The project is to begin nearly a year and a half ahead of schedule after attempting to obtain funding for the project for over 25 years. In a statement by Speaker Ralston on his Facebook page, “The first phase will include widening SR 5 to five lanes from Blue Ridge to Epworth. The second phase, which is subject to further planning and public input, may include a proposed bypass around McCaysville to the Tennessee line. This is great news for North Georgia and I look forward to kicking off construction in the near future!”

Ralston stated that the nearly $60 million project was made possible through House Bill 170. A bill whose stated purpose was for maintenance projects only, not expansion projects unless there was money left over. The General Assembly was told there is a backlog of projects and there would be no money for new projects anytime in the near future. 

The Speakers Transportation Funding Act remarks start around the 3:00 mark.

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