The speedy but rocky first vote on Gov. Sonny Perdue’s transportation bill

The Senate Transportation Committee late Wednesday passed out Gov. Sonny Perdue’s legislation to reorganize the state’s transportation agencies — which allowed S.B. 200 to keep moving at breakneck speed despite serious questions raised by both Democrats and Republicans.

The final vote was 8-3, with Democrats forming the opposition. But two Republicans expressed reservations and a fourth Democrat left before the vote. So the outcome wasn’t as certain as the final vote indicates.

“I think I’m speaking for many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, some of whom can’t really speak up on this issue and their concerns, that we’re rushing this bill through, very quickly,” said state Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna). “There are a lot of questions, and I think the proper way to do this would be by constitutional amendment.”

Though he won the day, bill sponsor Tommie Williams of Lyons, the Senate president pro tem, found himself on the defensive through much of the hour-long hearing — the second in two days.

Williams argued that the current state transportation system has utterly failed, and the resulting traffic congestion has cost jobs and increased costs. “I can’t explain to anyone that 16 years is necessary to plan a road,” he said.

But other testimony raised several points that could crop up later, complicating the greased track envisioned by S.B. 200’s powerful authors:

— Both the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia pointed out that the measure created an “earmark” system — by permitting the General Assembly to determine the destination of one in every 10 transportation dollars, or about $200 million a year.

Tom Gehl of the Georgia Municipal Association didn’t use the “c” word — that’s “corruption,” for strangers to this page — but he sure hinted at it.

“We’re concerned that this does set up a potential new legislative earmark process similar to the congressional process, that would put into competition a local governments all over the state for trying to woo the favor of members of the General Assembly, rather than some competitive process or merit-based process,” Gehl said.

— Gehl also raised the matter of whether the legislation might require U.S. Justice Department clearance, since it guts the policy-making duties of the current board that governs the state Department of Transportation.

Membership on the DOT board is based on the state’s 13 congressional districts, six of which are controlled by Democrats. Three African-Americans sit on the board.

The governor’s measure would create a State Transportation Authority with an 11-member board appointed by the governor, House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Georgia is subject to the federal Voting Rights Act. Any state-passed statute that tinkers with minority ballot representation must pass muster with the feds. The governor’s office doesn’t think the Voting Rights Act applies, but with an Obama administration in place, someone’s likely to test that theory.

— Democrat Valencia Seay of Riverdale questioned whether the legislation cut the legs out from under state Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans, the first woman to head the department, who was appointed at the end of 2007.

“I personally don’t feel we’ve given the commissioner a chance to show that it can be done,” Seay said.

Replied Williams: “The commissioner has done all she can do at this point….“

— But the most intriguing portions of the transportation committee meeting were a series of exchanges about passages in S.B. 200 that would permit the State Transportation Authority, when it chose, to select someone other than the low-bidder on contracts.

Steve Thompson (D-Powder Springs) was the first to raise the topic.

Thompson: Is there any question that we’re doing away with competitive bidding?

Williams: Currently in the bill, there’s only competitive bidding. But the [authority] can, by rule, create other alternatives for construction.

Thompson: Why would we do that with the people’s money, if this low bid — subject to qualifications, which the way the law is now, they can decide who’s qualified — why would we do that with the public’s money?

Williams: Senator, there are lots of other ways to construction projects other than low bid. And low bid does not always mean the best job, it doesn’t always mean the job’s completed on time. There are other ways to hold managers accountable, to get the job completed….

Thompson: Why would we do this with the people’s money? They can actually, now, turn down the bids and re-bid it. …

Williams said he was open to changes in the bill, reminding the committee that S.B. 200 was not introduced “by one of the governor’s floor leaders.” (Thompson bowed out of the meeting early, declaring he knew how to count votes.)

Among the first to testify against the bill was Neil Herring, a Sierra Club lobbyist who agreed with Thompson’s assessment. “This bill actually authorizes the new agency to set up any rule they like on bidding for projects,” he said.

But Herring pointed out something else. The measure would create not only the State Transportation Authority, but a parallel organization called the State Transportation Agency controlled by the same 11-member board.

The authority would handle policy, the agency would handle the cash. But the agency would be exempted from the Georgia Administrative Procedures Act, Herring said. “I think we’ve got a transparency problem there that needs to be looked at very carefully.”

Just before the final vote, state Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta) — one of several candidates for mayor of Atlanta — again drilled Williams on the issue of competitive bidding.

Reed: Why do you want to move from a standard that I think works and that has prevented a substantial amount of fraud in the contracting process to a space that has greater risk?

Williams: Because I think there are other models out there that are also good for the taxpayer…..I just think the department ought to have the liberty to use some of these other construction techniques.

Specifically, Williams said the state could get better bargains by offering contracts that combine planning, engineering and construction — which would save on time and money.

S.B. 200 passed with only one amendment, offered by John Douglas (R-Social Circle), which demanded that the Senate approve appointments to the STA board by the governor and lieutenant governor.

But after the meeting, Reed declared what he thought to be at work in the governor’s bill — an attempt, by eliminating low-bid requirements, to create road construction packages big enough to attract multi-national companies. At the expense of local road-building companies — who’ve had a rocky relationship with Perdue.

“I’m not going to sit here and be a part of it, something that at the end of the day is going to be bad for Georgia-based companies,” Reed said.

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