If asked to identify the most forbidden topic in the state Capitol, the taboo of all taboos, a stranger would naturally run a finger down the list of standard human frailties.
Very likely, he would think, one ought not to blab about the fellow who is smooching someone whom he ought not to smooch. Or perhaps we should kill the chatter about the lobbyist with the large and accommodating wallet.
Both choices would be well off point. These days, the one thing you must never, ever mention publicly in the Capitol is the possibility that, in this scourge of an economy, with classrooms crying out for teachers and roads crumbling, the state of Georgia might be required to pony up $600 million to lower the bottom of the Savannah River.
For more than two years, public officials from Georgia have sought federal assistance for a 6-foot dredging of the Port of Savannah. The effort has produced a remarkable, bipartisan alliance between Democratic Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Gov. Nathan Deal and other Republicans.
Another miracle showed itself just two months ago: Only weeks after the desperate August debate over raising the debt ceiling, two of the state’s most unbending tea partyers in Congress — Republicans Tom Graves and Paul Broun — stepped down from their battlements for a brief moment.
They joined 11 other members of the Georgia congressional delegation to sign a letter “respectfully” requesting President Barack Obama to consider cash for the Port of Savannah in his 2013 budget.
At issue is 2014, the year that larger cargo ships will begin plying between the Eastern Seaboard and China through an expanded Panama Canal. If they can’t fit into the Savannah harbor, the ships and a whole mess of jobs will go elsewhere.
The messaging from Georgia has been fiercely disciplined: 1) The Port of Savannah is a fundamental element of the state economy, including metro Atlanta; and 2) because the Savannah River is a national waterway, the federal government is obliged to help.
Two years ago, a pair of state lawmakers declared that the Port of Savannah was so important to the state that, if the feds wouldn’t cooperate, then — by God — Georgia should go it alone.
They were told to hush. And hush they did.
But as the extent of the gridlock in Washington has become clear, tongues have begun to loosen. This spring, Deal acknowledged that federal funding might not be forthcoming — and yet the dredging would still have to happen.
Shortly afterward, the governor trimmed the state’s annual bond package — the amount we use to finance school and college construction projects — down from nearly $1 billion under Sonny Perdue to $630 million. Some think Deal did so to prepare for things to come.
Last week, it was U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Savannah, who described prospects of help from a bare federal cupboard as “dim.”
“I don’t think anyone wants to talk about it too much because it tends to take pressure off the feds — to not step up and assume what is essentially and inherently a federal responsibility,” Barrow said. “I don’t want to reward ignorance or indolence.”
Eighteen percent of all imported goods bought or sold east of the Mississippi River first flow through Savannah.
Other ports also need federal funding, Barrow conceded. “Ours just happens to be the fastest-growing on the Eastern Seaboard. It just happens to be far and away the most efficient — which is why so many shippers are willing to take the time and trouble to snake 12 miles up the Savannah River to berth at our port. Because once they get there, those containers are gone lickety-split.”
But again, there is an indisputable bottom line. “We ought to be deepening the port even if we have to have a bake sale to do it,” Barrow said.
As if the world had that many cupcakes.
Should Georgia go it alone, the dredging would be the largest single economic development project ever undertaken by state government. It would carry a terrific price. “It would eat up almost every dollar of the bond package,” said state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Individual lawmakers pride themselves on the local projects funded with that borrowed money. They would be loath to give them up for one year — much less two or three.
“The majority of them will see this as a Savannah project. But this is just something that happens to be in Savannah,” Harbin said. “If our back were against the wall and the governor became engaged and the [House] speaker became engaged, yes, I think we could do it.
“It would take a lot of arm-twisting,” Harbin said. “But it could also not happen.”
One worry would immediately crop up: A dysfunctional Senate still split by a leadership fight between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. After nearly a year of turmoil, no one is exactly sure who is in charge of forcing difficult votes.
So, as was proved in the August special session, sometimes those votes don’t happen.
Another worry: The failure of next year’s statewide referendums on a transportation sales tax would only increase the Legislature’s reluctance to funnel most of the state’s venture capital into a single project.
In other words, Georgia needs to start applying for quite a few more miracles.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider