Georgia’s gasoline tax needs to be higher, state DOT board member Sam Wellborn told a state legislative committee today.
Wellborn, the longest-serving member of the Department of Transportation board of directors, was speaking to the State Legislative Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure, which convened in Columbus today. The committee studies critical transportation needs around the state and recommends solutions to the General Assembly.
Wellborn told the committee that Georgia has “the finest highway system in the country, but doesn’t have enough money to maintain it.” He said he doesn’t like taxes, but sometimes they are necessary.
“I am a Republican, and I’m a conservative politician, if you want to call it that, and I know what I’m about to tell you is touchy,” Wellborn said. “Every time I mention this to people in your position, I’m always given the excuse, ‘Man, I’ve got to get reelected.’
“But my No. 1 thought to impart to you, and you can take it for what it’s worth, is that you need to raise the gas tax.”
Wellborn said of the DOT’s approximately $2 billion annual budget, only about $800 million is available for highway maintenance, and that’s not enough. He said Georgians pay one of the lowest fuel excise taxes in the country at 7.5 cents per gallon, so adding a few pennies would not be onerous, especially considering the levels at which other states levy the tax.
Wellborn said he would also urge the General Assembly to create another Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum for the majority of Georgia that defeated the referendum that Columbus and Augusta and their surrounding areas passed in 2012.
“I think it’s a two-part approach. One, raise the gas tax, and two come up with a new TSPLOST,” he said. “We’ve got to sell it better and use the success of Columbus and Augusta and the other counties that passed it to get the second one passed.”
Several board members responded with comments or questions for Wellborn, some of them supportive, some not so much.
Rep. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming) agreed in principle with Wellborn, saying he believes that the DOT needs about another billion (on top of its current $2 billion annual budget). He also said Georgians do not pay as much in taxes as they might think “ “Your average driver in Georgia pays about $85 a year in transportation fuel taxes. They think they pay thousands,” Hamilton said. “My cable bill is $152 a month, and the average Georgian pays about $85 a year in fuel taxes.”
After the meeting, Wellborn said he understands the problem that elected officials face when talking about raising taxes, but it’s a matter of providing leadership.
“It’s very political. People just don’t want to be associated with raising taxes,” Wellborn said. “But they’ve got to be bold about it, and they have to sell the idea of the good that it produces, instead of worrying about reelection.”