GEORGIA MOTOR TRUCKING ASSOCIATION et al.
GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF REVENUE et al.
appeal, we consider the meaning of the phrase "motor
fuel taxes" as it is used in a provision of the Georgia
Constitution providing that "[a]n amount equal to all
money derived from motor fuel taxes received by the state . .
. is hereby appropriated . . . for all activities incident to
providing and maintaining an adequate system of public roads
and bridges in this state[.]" See Ga. Const. of 1983,
Art. III, Sec. IX. Par. VI (b) (the "Motor Fuel
Provision"). Here, a trucking industry association and
three individual motor carriers challenge local sales and use
taxes on motor fuels, the revenues of which are not used
solely for public roads and bridges. They argue that these
taxes fall within the meaning of "motor fuel taxes"
under the Motor Fuel Provision and, therefore, the revenues
from these taxes (or an amount equal to that revenue) must be
allocated to the maintenance and construction of public roads
and bridges. We affirm the dismissal of the plaintiffs'
complaint because the history and context of the Motor Fuel
Provision reveals that "motor fuel taxes" are
limited to per-gallon taxes on distributors of motor fuel,
and do not include sales and use taxes imposed on retail
sales of motor fuels.
its 2015 Session, the Georgia General Assembly enacted the
Transportation Funding Act of 2015, which amended a variety
of provisions related to the funding of transportation
infrastructure (including taxes that relate to motor fuel in
various ways). See Ga. L. 2015, pp. 236, 241-264,
§§ 5-8 ("HB 170").
the passage of HB 170, the Georgia Motor Trucking
Association, J&M Tank Lines, Inc., F&W
Transportation, and Prolan Logistics, LLC,
("Plaintiffs") filed suit against the Georgia
Department of Revenue, Lynnette T. Riley in her official
capacity as the State Revenue Commissioner, and Steve McCoy
in his official capacity as the State Treasurer (collectively
"Defendants"). Plaintiffs alleged that HB 170
impermissibly allowed the revenue from local sales and use
taxes on the retail sale of motor fuel to be used for
purposes other than for building and maintaining public
roads. Plaintiffs sought mandamus relief to compel Defendants
to use the revenue from these sales and use taxes exclusively
for the maintenance and construction of roads and bridge
projects (or establish a mechanism to ensure that an amount
equal to such funds is so used). Plaintiffs also sought (1)
mandamus and extraordinary interlocutory relief to compel
Defendants to deposit these revenues into an escrow account
pending the litigation, (2) a declaration that HB 170 is
unconstitutional, and (3) attorneys' fees.
trial court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss,
concluding that Plaintiffs' mandamus claims failed
because Plaintiffs had an adequate legal remedy to challenge
illegally or unconstitutionally assessed and collected taxes
under a refund statute, and neither the Commissioner nor the
Treasurer had a clear legal duty to monitor or control local
spending for roads and bridges or could appropriate state
funds to offset local spending of local motor fuel tax
revenues. The trial court ruled that mandamus was unavailable
because the court would have to oversee and control
Defendants' general course of conduct if it granted
relief (which is not available in mandamus). The court
concluded that the remaining claims were barred by sovereign
immunity. The court also concluded in the alternative that,
if Plaintiffs' claims were not barred, they nevertheless
failed on the merits because HB 170 did not violate the
constitutional provision at issue; the challenged sales taxes
were not "motor fuel taxes" within the meaning of
the Constitution. Plaintiffs then filed this appeal.
parties raise a number of issues about jurisdiction,
procedure, and the merits, but one issue disposes of the
whole case. Plaintiffs' mandamus claims are not barred by
sovereign immunity. And those claims - like all of
Plaintiffs' other claims - fail if local sales and use
taxes imposed on the retail sale of motor fuel are not
"motor fuel taxes" as that term is used in the
Motor Fuel Provision. We conclude that they are not, and thus
the trial court properly dismissed Plaintiffs' complaint
in its entirety.
general rule in Georgia is that "the appropriation for
each department, officer, bureau, board, commission, agency,
or institution for which appropriation is made shall be for a
specific sum of money; and no appropriation shall allocate to
any object the proceeds of any particular tax or fund or a
part or percentage thereof." Ga. Const. Art. III, Sec.
IX, Par. VI (a). But there are exceptions to this general
prohibition against earmarking particular revenues for
specific purposes, and each exception is laid out in the same
paragraph of the Constitution. See Ga. Const. Art. III, Sec.
IX, Par. VI (b)-(o). The first of these exceptions is at
issue here, and reads in relevant part:
An amount equal to all money derived from motor fuel taxes
received by the state in each of the immediately preceding
fiscal years . . . is hereby appropriated for the fiscal year
beginning July 1, of each year following, for all activities
incident to providing and maintaining an adequate system of
public roads and bridges in this state . . . .
Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. III, Sec. IX, Par. VI (b). The
question we must answer today is whether certain local sales
and use taxes on the retail sale of motor fuel are included
within the "motor fuel taxes" that this Motor Fuel
Provision automatically appropriates for roads and bridges.
generally apply the ordinary signification to words in
construing a constitutional provision. See Blum v.
Schrader, 281 Ga. 238, 239 (1) (637 S.E.2d 396) (2006).
This means we afford the constitutional text its plain and
ordinary meaning, view the text in the context in which it
appears, and read the text "in its most natural and
reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English
language would." Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170,
172-173 (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013) (citation omitted).
"[W]here a word has a technical as well as a popular
meaning, the courts will generally accord to it its popular
signification, unless the nature of the subject indicates or
context suggests that [the word] is used in a technical
sense." Clarke v. Johnson, 199 Ga. 163, 164 (33
S.E.2d 425) (1945); see also Antonin Scalia & Bryan A.
Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 69-77
(2012) (words are to be understood in their ordinary,
everyday meanings unless the context shows that they have a
understanding a constitutional provision, we must be mindful
that "constitutions are the result of popular will, and
their words are to be understood ordinarily in the sense they
convey to the popular mind." Clarke, 199 Ga. At
164. Accordingly, we must construe a constitutional provision
consistent with the meaning of its text at the time it was
adopted Collins v Mills, 198 Ga 18, 22 (1) (30
S.E.2d 866) (1944); see also Smith v Baptiste, 287
Ga 23, 32 (2) (694 S.E.2d 83) (2010) (Nahmias, J, concurring)
("Our task in interpreting the Constitution is to
determine the meaning of the language used in that document
to the people who adopted it as the controlling law of our
A constitutional provision must be presumed to have been
framed and adopted in the light and understanding of prior
and existing laws and with reference to them. Constitutions,
like statutes, are properly to be expounded in the light of
conditions existing at the time of their adoption.
Clarke, 199 Ga. at 164. In other words, the
constitutional provision at issue here means now what it
meant at the time it was enacted. Collins, 198 Ga.
at 22 (1). To discern the meaning of "motor fuel
taxes" at the time the term entered the Constitution, we
must consider the history of taxes on motor fuels and the
context that history provided at the time the relevant
constitutional provision was adopted.
Statutory and constitutional history of taxes on motor
Taxes on distributors of motor fuels
1927, the Georgia General Assembly passed an act authorizing
state taxes on motor fuels. See Ga. L. 1927, pp. 104,
105-106, §§ 1 and 2. The 1927 Act provided that:
each distributor of fuels who engages in such business in
this State shall pay an occupation tax of four cents per
gallon, for each and every gallon of such fuels (1) imported
and sold within this State, or (2) imported and withdrawn for
use within this State, or (3) manufactured, refined,
produced, or compounded within this State and sold for use or
consumption within this State, or used and consumed within
this State by the manufacturer, refiner, producer, or
compounder. . . . That the proceeds derived from said tax
shall be distributed as follows: Two and one half (2½)
cents per gallon to the State-aid fund for use in
construction on the State-aid system of roads, and one (1)
cent per gallon to the several counties of this State, as ...