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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