Sunday, May 31, 2015

Oconee County Senator Told Small Gathering Of Republicans Why He Voted For A Tax Increase

Other Issues Discussed

Sen. Bill Cowsert told a small group of Oconee County Republicans earlier this month that he voted in favor of the tax increases for transportation in March because the bill gave legislators more control over the Georgia Department of Transportation and “capped” the fuel tax–something the tax bill does only in part.

Cowsert also defended the $5 per night fee added to hotel and other lodging bills as part of the transportation act on the grounds that most of those paying the fee will be from out of state.

Cowsert was joined by Rep. Chuck Williams, both of whom represent Oconee County in the General Assembly, in a legislative wrap-up session hosted on May 21 by the Oconee County Republican Party at the Watkinsville Community Center. About 15 people attended.

Williams listed a number of bills that had taken his time during the session, including one that eliminates penalties for nonpayment of taxes if someone voluntarily deregisters a motor vehicle.

At the end of the session, Williams announced that he plans to run for re-election to the General Assembly in next year’s elections.

Hard Decision

Much of Cowsert’s presentation was devoted to passage on March 31–the second last day of the session–of HB 170, the transportation bill. Williams added his own comments as Cowsert spoke.

Cowsert said his vote in favor of the bill “was the hardest vote I had to make this session because I pride myself that I had never voted to increase taxes of any type.”

“I voted for a short-term tax increase but a long-term tax cut,” Cowsert said, and he brought along a chart to help justify his interpretation of his vote.

Cowsert acknowledged he was not very good at math and that he had simplified his presentation, focusing on gross comparisons.

New And Old Tax

He said if gasoline were retailing at $3 per gallon, the new tax, which goes into effect on July 1, would include 53.4 cents of tax, including the federal excise tax, the new state excise tax, and local sales taxes.

That is a 6.5 cents increase over what a user would pay with the taxes in place today, he said.

When gas goes to $4 per gallon, Cowsert said, users will pay a half penny less than they would pay under the current tax.

And when gas goes to $5 per gallon, according to Cowsert’s calculations, users would pay 7.5 cents less. His chart didn’t actually show the calculations for $5-per-gallon gas.

Basis For Calcuations

The reason for the savings, Cowsert argues, is that local taxes on fuels will be calculated on no more than $3 dollars per gallon. In other words, if gas goes to $4 per gallon, the user will pay as if the gas were $3 per gallon.

The law is clear in putting this “cap” on local sales taxes, including those for education, something that Cowsert said most local government officials had not figured out.

But Cowsert also said the state’s excise tax of 26 cents on the gallon was capped (in the video below), and the law is explicit in saying that it is not.

Oconee GOP Cowsert Capped from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Section 5-13 (a)(1.1(A) states that, “Beginning on July 1, 2016, and annually thereafter, the amount of this excise tax per gallon on distributors shall be automatically adjusted on an annual basis in accordance with this paragraph.”

Adjustments To Excise Tax

The first adjustment is based on “the average miles per gallon of all new vehicles registered in this state pursuant to Code Section 48-5C-1 using the average of combined miles per gallon published in the United States Department of Energy Fuel Economy Guide.”

If fuel efficiency goes up, the excise tax does as well.

The second adjustment is for inflation, using the federal consumer Price Index.

If inflation goes up, so does the excise tax, though this adjustment will not be made after July 1, 2018.

Other Details Missing

Cowsert’s table did not include calculations for the 29 cent excise tax on diesel fuel.

He also didn’t explain that the taxes on the retail price of gas are imposed on the distributor, not on the user directly, though they are passed along to the user.

The system at present minimizes the impact of both increases and decreases in the retail price of gas by setting a benchmark every six months, based on an estimate of the average price of each motor fuel type during the upcoming period.

At present, the state tax is based on $2.599 per gallon of gasoline and $3.163 per gallon of diesel.

Local taxes are calculated at present at a higher retail estimate because Gov. Nathan Deal froze the state rate in December of 2014 at the 2014 rate.

The new law eliminates that fluctuation for the state tax but leaves it in place for the local tax, until gas gets to $3 per gallon, when the tax really is capped, based on a retail price of $3 per gallon.

GDOT A “Nightmare”

Cowsert called the Georgia Department of Transportation a “nightmare agency” that is set up “to keep our fingers out of it.” By “our” he meant the fingers of the legislators.

He said the GDOT Board members, elected by the legislators for five-year terms, “are not very responsive” to the legislators who elect them.

“We are very lucky right now,” he added. “Jamie Boswell is our 10th Congressional District’s commissioner, lives in Athens, knows us all personally and socially and is extraordinarily responsive and good, but that’s been an anomaly in my opinion.”

“So we have this underlying frustration,” Cowsert said, because he feels the legislature should have “its fingers” in the distribution of fuel tax revenue.

Strategic Plan

The new law requests GDOT to prepare each year a 10-year strategic plan “that outlines the use of department resources for the upcoming fiscal year.”

The House and Senate Transportation Committees will have to approve the plan and will make recommendations to the House and Senate Appropriation Committees “for their consideration in developing the budget.”

The GDOT strategic plan will have to show percentage of resources to be spent for five categories, including for new highway projects and maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure.

“We now have oversight on how the money is spent,” Cowsert said in the video below.

OCO: Cowsert On Oversight from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Hotel Tax

Cowsert defended the imposition of a $5 per night fee on hotel and other accommodations, added to the bill at the last minute.

He said this was a way of getting conventioneers and others visiting the state to pay for their use of roads in the state. They also pay for fuel, but Cowsert didn’t mention that.

The Senate version of the bill had proposed a tax on car rental, but that was removed in conference committee.

Cowsert said he personally preferred a tax on containers coming into the state’s ports, but that didn’t garner much support.

Democrats in Athens

Williams said that he and Cowsert had “taken some shots, particularly from some of our Democrat friends in Athens” over another provision of the law. Williams voted in favor of he law and tax increase.

The bill removes a tax credit for “alternative fueled vehicles” and imposes an annual registration fee of $200 to $300 and an annual highway impact fee of $50 to $100.

Williams said he agreed with the “Democrat friends” that it was important to encourage use of these vehicles, but he said they “put the same wear and tear on the roads as other vehicles.

“We took the tax credit away from them and said you will pay an annual fee as your fair share,” Williams said in the video below.

OCO: Williams On Fare Share from Lee Becker on Vimeo

Majority Leader

Cowsert, who served as majority leader of the Senate this last term, got in a dig at Regina Quick, the third member of the Oconee County delegation, who did not attend because she was attending a legal conference out of town.

Cowsert, Quick and Williams are all Republicans.

“I wish Regina was here and we could give her a hard time about wasting time on African pigmy hedgehogs or whatever they were called,” he said.

Quick had introduced a bill, which did not pass the House, to exempt the African pygmy hedgehog from wild animal license and permit requirements. Williams was a co-sponsor.

Quick has not always played along with House leadership, and Cowsert was a member of the conference committee that cut state funding for the Bogart Library, which is in Quick’s district. Quick voted against the transportation bill.

Plastic Bags

The comment about Quick and the hedgehogs came in response to a question from former Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton, who criticized the General Assembly for considering a bill to prohibit local governments from banning plastic bags in groceries.

Horton said this was interference in the work of local government and the General Assembly should focus on more important issues.

Cowsert said he couldn’t even remember if Senate has passed the bill. It did, and he voted in favor of the bill.

Williams said he agreed with Horton that this was a local concern, but he voted in favor of the bill in the House, where it failed. Quick voted against the bill.

Cowsert said he also agreed with Horton that such an issue should be decided locally, but then he said he he thought it was a mistake for the state to allow local governments to decide Sunday sales. He said the issue should have been decided at the state level.

Crosswalks And Motorcycles

Williams and Cowsert took different stands on another local issue, this one introduced by Spencer Frye, a Democrat representing the only House district wholly inside the boundaries of Athens-Clarke County. Quick and Williams have the remainder of that county in their districts.

Frye introduced legislation to make it a violation to go through a flashing yellow light at a crosswalk, and Williams said he wanted to support Frye.

“It is just tough, quite honestly speaking among friends here, for a young Democrat like Spencer to move legislation,” Williams said.

The bill stalled in the House and was added to another bill introduced in the Senate to allow bicyclists and motorcyclists to go through red lights if the vehicles did not trigger a change in the light.

Governor Veto

The bill passed the House and the Senate, but it was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Williams voted against the bill, saying he had concerns about the safety of going through a red light.

Cowsert had no such misgivings.

He said he voted for the “run the red light bill” because it was introduced in the Senate by 82-year-old Sen. Bill Jackson from Columbia County, who rides a Harley-Davidson.

“I couldn’t vote against Bill Jackson’s bill,” Cowsert said. “I don’t care if motorcycles can run red lights or not.”

Video Below

I was not able to attend the session on May 21, but Sarah Bell did and made a video, which is below.

The presentations by Cowsert and Williams were part of a regular business meeting of the Oconee County Republican Party.

I edited the video to remove the business activities that preceded and followed the comments of the two legislators.

The clips above were taken from this longer video.

OCO: Cowsert and Williams from Lee Becker on Vimeo


Beanne said...

Senator Cowsert would care when the motorcycle runs into his car going through a green light. Shouldn't we be concerned when our senator does not know math when he votes on anything related to taxes and budgeting?

Anonymous said...

Hey Bill and Chuck, please explain why y'all and every other state rep. and senator votes for State Transportation Board members via secret ballot? And what is the nominating process? Who nominated Boswell? How can I sign-up...I can do a better job, as I don't have a plethora of conflicts of interest as does Mr. Boswell.

Sorry, fellas, if you think Boswell's doing a good job, you're in the minority on that one.

Anonymous said...

Spencer Frye (D), Athens nominated Jamie Boswell.