The House speaker and governor talk, and the transportation debate changes

State Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), before the House Transportation Committee. Photo credit: Kimberly Smith/AJC

State Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), before the House Transportation Committee. Photo credit: Kimberly Smith/AJC

Negotiations between Gov. Sonny Perdue and House Speaker Glenn Richardson on Friday produced a compromise that would give the governor unprecedented control over transportation policy in Georgia, but would also hand the Legislature new authority over more than $2 billion in spending.

Up to $400 million of that cash, or 20 percent, could be earmarked for special transportation projects selected by lawmakers. That amounts to $1.7 million for each of the state Capitol’s 236 lawmakers.

The new proposal, which was approved by the House Transportation Committee, could also encourage a House-Senate compromise over a sales tax to finance more road construction in Georgia.

But with only a week before the session’s end, the Senate would have to agree to what one lawmaker described as a near-revolution in the way road dollars are spent.

“This General Assembly will appropriate the budget of the Department of Transportation in a way that it never has before. But in a way that’s just like every agency in state government,” state Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), official sponsor of the bill, told his colleagues. “The people of Georgia are much more in charge, through you.”

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the governor, called the proposal “a step in the right direction. We’re very pleased to see movement forward.”

Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), expressed some concerns, but said he liked the idea of the Legislature winning a say in all road spending.

The tussle over control of the state transportation bureaucracy erupted early this year, growing out of a demand by Georgia business interests for more spending to combat out-of-control traffic congestion, particularly in metro Atlanta.

This winter, the governor interrupted a legislative debate over a sales tax for transportation with a demand for consolidation of the state’s many transit agencies. Perdue called for a gutting of the constitutionally mandated DOT board, which the governor condemned as dysfunctional, and the creation of a new super agency.

The governor’s plan breezed through the Senate, but became mired in the House, whose members were hesitant to give up the Legislature’s power to appoint members of the DOT board.

Under the new proposal, the Legislature and the governor would split two responsibilities now controlled by the DOT board. Cash generated by taxes on motor fuel, along with federal money, are now funneled through the DOT board, which is also in charge of picking which projects receive funding. The bill also would reduce the DOT board’s authority over the DOT staff, beyond the appointment of a commissioner.

As approved Friday, a “director of planning” appointed by the governor would be inserted into the DOT — but would not answer either to the DOT commissioner or its board.

The director of planning would assemble the DOT’s budget and lists of road and rail projects, and hand them to the governor for approval. The governor then would submit the spending to the Legislature, to be handled in the same manner as the rest of the state’s $18.9 billion budget.

No less than 10 percent, and no more than 20 percent, of transportation funding would be placed in the hands of lawmakers. Such money would replace grant programs that now guarantee road construction in rural Georgia.

During the committee hearing and afterwards, Ralston said that portion of legislative spending would be immune from the governor’s line-item veto. The lawmaker later said he misspoke. The governor could still remove projects by line item veto, but could not redirect the cash to other projects of his own choice.

DOT board member Dana Lemon, who sat through the committee meeting, said she thought the board could adapt to the funding shift. “I think we’re going to be able to work within the purview of the General Assembly,” Lemon said.

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4 comments Add your comment

Montana

March 28th, 2009
12:40 pm

It doesn’t sound as awful as some of the other scenarios — like the legislature getting to decide nearly every single project.

JC

March 28th, 2009
1:13 pm

It does sound pretty good. The only thing is who will Sonny pick for the director of planning? My guess would be his girl Gena.

Capitol Hack

March 30th, 2009
9:09 am

Please! Talk about a dysfunctional model! This is a recipe for transportation disaster. Many years ago the General Assembly largely removed politics (ie, the Governor)from roadbuilding, and Georgia developed a professional DOT that has been the envy of other states. Our highway system has been better than most other states. But we’re about to screw it up with this model. What CEO would want to preside over this organizational mess? You’ll have legislators deciding road projects based on whim and politics, instead of professional engineers and traffic managers making informed decisions. You’ll have a “planner” within DOT spending money for the Governor and not answerable to the commissioner. Who is supposed to set transportation strategy in this new wreck of a model? Who’s actually in charge? Where is the accountability?

Georgia’s current transportation problems are largely the result of our rapid growth outstripping the ability to pay for the improvements we need, plus a funding model that dictates roads over other transportation alternatives. Giving politicians the power to spend money on their favorite road projects is only going to make the problems worse. What a bass-akwards approach!

cc

March 30th, 2009
1:01 pm

“Captitol Hack” hit it right on the nose!

It’s incredible that anyone would buy all the politician’s bull about how this new “governence bill” will fix problems they say are caused by GDOT. As correctly stated in Jay Bookman’s editiorial in today’s paper, our state leaders want you to believe the solution to GDOT’s problems is “taking a system crippled by political meddling & “fixing it” by making it even more vulnerable to such meddling. That’s why the GDOT Board was crated long ago in the 1st place; to remove or further separate politics from road building! Our Governor looks like a clown when crying that giving him more control, like hasn’t had control in the past (Sonny’s Fast Forward program caused most of GDOTs funding & accounting issues), will result in a more efficient transportation system. And no doubt he would bring back his “girl puppet” Gina to be the Director. What a disaster & slap in the face that would be to those good employees.

I fail to understand why more citizens do not recognize this. An outcry should go out to our legislators telling them to see to it that GDOT is properly & adequately funded; then let them alone & let them do their jobs.

Meanwhile let’s call it what it is…………..nothing more than a “Power Grab” by Governor Clown!