In a little more than a month, on Jan. 14, the Georgia General Assembly will go back into session for 40 days of work.
While a slew of issues will be discussed and some, e.g. ethics, will get more attention than others, look for three main issues to dominate the session.
As is almost always the case, balancing the state’s budget will be the primary issue that controls the session.
Health care, including implementation/denial of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and extension/elimination of the hospital bed fee will be a second major issue.
The third and final major topic will be transportation. After a summer that saw TSPLOST defeated in nine of the 12 regions of our state, picking up the pieces and addressing the future transportation needs of Georgia will be crucial during this session.
TSPLOST, which was authorized in 2010, was the result of years of study and negotiation within the legislature over how to address the continuing decrease in federal and state funds for transportation projects in Georgia. Its dismal showing, while not surprising to many, now leaves the General Assembly with limited and tough decisions.
One option, although not gaining much momentum at this point, is to have another TSPLOST referendum in two more years as the original legislation allows.
In order for this to happen, two things have to occur first: 1) A majority of the counties in the special district have to adopt a resolution calling for the vote to occur again; and 2) the General Assembly must approve another election to be held in the district. Barring a drastic change in voter opinion, it is unlikely that either of these things happen.
One thing that is certainly going to be brought up by some legislators is the so called penalty to those regions that did not pass TSPLOST of providing a 30 percent match to receive any Local Maintenance Improvement Grants (LMIG) from the state. Of course, those Georgians in the three regions that passed TSPLOST will look at having to provide only a 10 percent match as being a reward for passing TSLOST.
For some legislators, this brings up a true dilemma. One of the most consistent criticisms of TSLOST that was heard during the campaign was the distrust of GDOT and government in general. It would certainly seem that going back and changing the rules after the vote is final would only add to the distrust of government, especially for those who live in the regions where TSLOST passed.
Besides, GDOT officials are quick to point out that two years ago the Local Assistance Road (LARP) and State Aid funding programs were consolidated into the LMIG program and these new grants require less local funding than the previous two programs.
In the past, although a local match was not required for LARP grants which were used to resurface local streets and roads, local governments were required to ready the roads for resurfacing which often involved a great deal of preparatory work and costs such as patching deteriorated roadways.
Also in the past, local governments were responsible for engineering costs and right-of-way purchases and the local government always provided at least half of the project’s construction funding.
With LMIG, there will be approximately $110 million of local assistance in fiscal 2013 that will be distributed on a formula basis to each and every local jurisdiction in Georgia — nearly 700 cities and counties. This is tens of millions more than in previous years and local governments will get their total grants in up-front single payments, instead of as work is completed. According to GDOT officials, this should offset any increase in local matches in most of those counties where TSLOST failed.
Regardless of what happens with the match, transportation funding still has to be addressed in our state.
Gov. Nathan Deal has said that we will concentrate on the “need-to-do” projects and fix highways where we can but rail projects would be put on the backburner.
Other groups, such as the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, have offered solutions that include a combination of mass transit, toll roads and more bypasses around Atlanta.
While TSPLOST may have been a failure, transportation remains vital for our state’s economic development. And for a program that never had a Plan B, a plan B must now be found.
Sen. Buddy Carter can be reached at 404-656-5109.