2018 Victories: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

By Kyle Wingfield

As 2018 dashes away like Donner and Blitzen, many Georgians will remember it as a year of major political transition. But 2018 also brought some substantial improvements to Georgians’ lives through better policy, much of it championed by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

The year began with a bit of a hangover from 2017: The tax reform that Congress passed late last year, though beneficial for your federal tax bill, threatened to raise your state taxes if unaddressed. Thankfully, legislators didn’t drop the ball. They set in motion a series of changes that will shield more of Georgians’ income from the state income tax and, for the first time in our state’s history, lower the top marginal tax rate.

The Foundation believes the stage is now set for further moves to boost Georgia’s competitiveness vis-à-vis our no-income-tax neighbors (Florida, Tennessee) and low-income-tax (Alabama, North Carolina) neighbors. The Tax Foundation indicated Georgia can expect a significant rise in its State Business Tax Climate rankings once the changes take effect.

Of course, taxes are only one side of the fiscal equation. Spending is the other, and recent spikes in taxpayer payments into Georgia’s Teacher Retirement System (TRS) – which have doubled to almost $2 billion a year since 2012 – have brought some much-needed attention to the issue of pension reform. Sound reform, which could well cost more in the short term, would save taxpayers money in the long term while securing the finances of current and retired teachers.

Discussion of pension reform is now serious at the legislative level, and the Foundation hopes to see legislators take some initial steps in 2019 toward fixing what ails the TRS.

Not all good changes took place in Georgia, although our state inspired one notable improvement at the federal level. The criminal justice reforms the Foundation helped launch nearly a decade ago led Congressman Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) to sponsor the FIRST STEP Act for federal criminal justice reforms. As the name suggests, this bill should be only an opening round of federal reform.

That wasn’t the only one that was a long time coming. Back in Georgia, the gap between funding for traditional public school and charter public schools is shrinking after a years-long disparity, and legislators finally increased the cap for tuition tax credit scholarships to $100 million.

Here again, there is more work to be done. One of the Foundation’s Senior Fellows, Ben Scafidi, has presented an education blueprint, “Georgia 2020: Educational Opportunity for All K-12 students,” which would allow full parental education choice and the money to truly follow the student.

None of these changes, however, were in the works as long as the one I’ve saved for last.

This year, we were excited to see one of the Foundation’s proposals continue to become reality. Reversible express toll lanes opened on I-75 and I-575 on Atlanta’s north side in the summer, and an extension of the Gwinnett I-85 toll lanes opened in the fall.

How long have we been advocating for these changes? The idea was in our “Guide to the Issues” – back in 2002! We wrote then that Georgia should:

“Rethink how we pay for roads. … In choosing a future revenue source, it would be preferable to convert to a fee system that is more closely tied to use of the roadway capacity rather than the use of fuel.”

And: “Rethink how we price roads. … The value of a road is much greater during heavy congestion than during low congestion; however, the motor fuel tax (how we currently pay for most roads) does not recognize this change in value. … Georgia should implement congestion pricing on highly congested roads.”

Here’s to many more great ideas coming to life in 2019, no matter how long they’ve been growing.

Kyle Wingfield is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 21, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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