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Transit legislation faces hurdles before crossover day

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

With today marking day 29 of the 2010 Georgia legislative session, two House bills designed to enable a public transportation tax in Clayton County face uphill battles on their way to the Senate floor.

With only a day to spare in the legislative calendar before Friday's scheduled "crossover day" -- the final session day in which bills can pass chambers -- House Bill 1393, introduced last Tuesday by State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), must be cleared by a House subcommittee, two House committees, and the full House prior to the 30th day of the session in order to be considered by the Senate.

House Bill 1218, which would implement the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, also includes language that would allow Clayton County to break through a 7 percent sales tax cap in order to fund transit. According to a spokesperson for Gov. Sonny Perdue, however, the bill faces scrutiny on its way to the Senate, and risks a veto by Perdue, due to a clause that would allow counties and regions to opt out of a state-wide transportation tax.

In a hearing on Tuesday, Abdul-Salaam defended HB 1393 before the Sales Tax Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee as a way to save Clayton's

soon-to-be-terminated C-TRAN bus service, by providing a continuous funding source. She said that, while subcommittee members appeared supportive of the bill, they questioned the costs of operating C-TRAN, as well as the enthusiasm of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) to keep the service.

"I think that most of all, there is general disbelief that we are even at this point," Abdul-Salaam said on Tuesday. "The hardest question to answer from the committee today was why wasn't the Board of Commissioners here, [and] what were they willing to do to help. They asked for the numbers and what it costs to operate C-TRAN. Up to this point, we have gotten estimates between $8 million and $10 million [annually]. We've never gotten an accurate figure. Those are the questions we can't answer, because the commissioners have not talked to us ... they have not, and they will not."

In October of last year, the BOC voted 4-1 ( with BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell opposed) to end C-TRAN service on March 31, due to budgetary constraints. According to county officials, C-TRAN generated $2 million in fare box revenue last year and cost approximately $10 million to operate.

According to State Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood), chairman of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation, as well as a member of the Sales Tax Subcommittee, HB 1393 will have to pass subcommittee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the House Rules Committee prior to making it to the full House for a vote. He said all actions must happen prior to "crossover day," in order for the bill to be considered in the Senate.

"We are at the eleventh hour," Glanton said. "Realistically speaking, it's going to be extremely challenging for any legislation that has not already made it to the House floor to make it through this legislative session, with the exception of local legislation."

HB 1446, local legislation to pose a non-binding referendum to Clayton citizens on whether the county should be a full-paying member of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), has also been introduced in the House, according to Glanton. It's effectiveness, however, is tied to Clayton being able to break through its 7 percent sales tax cap, he said.

Glanton said that on Tuesday, the subcommittee also asked Abdul-Salaam to clear up "conflicting details in regards to the county's finances." He said the committee has heard various reports regarding the county's deficit projections for next year.

The other hope of passing Abdul-Salaam's legislation is HB 1218, which proposes a state-wide Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST). However, Perdue Spokesperson Bert Brantley said the bill would be rejected by the governor in it's current form, which includes a T-SPLOST "opt-out clause" for counties and regions.

"He's been very clear that transportation is a state-wide issue," Brantley said. "If you start having counties and regions that opt out, you have holes in your system. Roads don't stop at the county line. If it passes with the opt-out clause, he will veto it."

Abdul-Salaam is optimistic that at least one of the bills will pass, allowing the county a $49 million transportation funding option, if it institutes a one-cent transportation tax. However, she urged the BOC to rescind its vote to terminate C-TRAN, in order to allow more time for state legislation.

"All this doesn't have to be done if they rescind their vote," she said.

BOC Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, who voted in favor of ending C-TRAN on March 31, said he would need "assurance" the bills would pass, and that they would "result in some transportation funding for C-TRAN."

"The governor has promised to veto his own transportation bill," Ralph said. "Given the stalemate in the legislature, in regards to transportation funding, and given the General Assembly's history in regards to transportation funding, I think the board has the responsibility to wait and see if this bill actually passes."