In a statewide AJC poll earlier this month, 84 percent of Georgians said they thought it was at least somewhat important to improve the state’s transportation system; 57 percent took it a step further, saying it was very important to upgrade our transportation system. A surprising 69 percent supported expanding mass transit.
Yet only 36 percent said they would support a higher gasoline tax to pay for those transportation improvements. Fifty-nine percent oppose it. Only 4 percent identified transportation as the most important issue facing Georgia. So if you’re a state legislator looking for an excuse to duck a tough vote on transportation taxes — particularly if you’re Republican — there you have it, simple and obvious:
The public does not support it.
And to be honest, the public does NOT support it. The decisive rejection of higher taxes in the AJC poll has been echoed in other polls on the subject, and such findings come less than three years after a proposed sales tax increase for transportation was rejected by voters in most regions of the state.
But let’s take that honesty a step farther: That lack of public support did not just happen on its own.
In opposing all new taxes regardless of necessity and regardless of impact, Georgia voters are merely regurgitating the rhetoric and attitudes that leaders of this state have been preaching to them for decades. They’ve been told, time and again, that no tax increase is ever justified, that no tax ever needs to be updated, that government is a cesspool of waste from which nothing good ever comes. The entire power structure under the Gold Dome owes its position to that inflexible, absolutist mindset, and it is trapped by that rhetoric.
It knows what it needs to do. It knows that transportation funding has not kept pace with three decades of population growth, inflation or technological change. By now it also knows the long-term economic consequences of such a policy, thanks in part to a business community that was once content to whisper but has now taken to shouting. But if state leadership wants to counter decades of absolutist political messaging, it has to be willing to share that knowledge with voters, publicly, loudly and repeatedly. It has to sell reality, and so far it hasn’t summoned the necessary courage.
We’re not talking a rejection of the conservative approach to governance. All that’s required is an acknowledgment that any political philosophy, taken to its logical extremes, will lead to serious problems. When that point comes, you either challenge that mindset or you become the victim of it, and the data say that point has come.
According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Georgians today pay less of their income in state taxes than we have at any point in the last three decades. We are 49th or 50th per capita in spending on transportation, and as Gov. Nathan Deal bragged in his re-election campaign, the conservative Tax Foundation ranks Georgia 50th in the country in state revenue per capita.
We've taken that road about as far it will take us. I mean, there are only 50 states in the union -- we can’t get any lower in those categories than we already are, and looking around, I'm not sure what the payoff has been anyway.
And as the famous conservative economist Milton Friedman used to tell us, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Or a free highway or transit system.