There is less than a month to go before the legislative session adjourns and our lawmakers don’t appear to be any closer than they were last year at this time to resolving the state’s highway congestion issues.
With time running out on the session, the Senate and the House of Representatives are still miles apart on the one factor that matters more than anything else in fixing our transportation mess: how do you raise the billions of dollars needed to build new roads, bridges, and transit facilities?
The Senate has passed a proposal from last year that would allow groups of counties to band together and charge a regional sales tax to pay for new highways. The House likewise has passed a measure that would impose a statewide sales tax to pay for transportation infrastructure fixes. There has been no indication of any significant movement to bridge the gap between those two positions.
Gov. Sonny Perdue thinks he has the solution to this problem: do away with the current structure of the Department of Transportation and set up a new transportation authority controlled by the governor’s office.
The supporters of SB 200, Perdue’s attempt to carry out a major overhaul of the state’s transportation bureaucracy, were exultant late last week over the bill’s passage in the Senate.
“Today, the Senate took a major step in real transportation relief for Georgians,” said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), in a typical response.
A more sober analysis of the bill’s vote suggests that SB 200 could well stall out and die in the House of Representatives.
SB 200 passed by the razor-thin majority of 30-25 in the Senate, which was just one more vote than the minimum of 29 it takes to adopt a bill in that chamber. Even worse for the bill’s prospects, the normally solid Republican majority split over this issue.
Sen. John Bulloch (R-Ocklocknee), Sen. Jeff Chapman (R-Brunswick), Sen. John Crosby (R-Tifton), and Sen. Johnny Grant (R-Milledgeville), who are all Republican lawmakers from outside metro Atlanta, joined the Democratic minority to vote against the bill. Opponents of SB 200 also claim they were close to getting another Republican, Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), to vote no on the measure.
Those votes could portend an ominous future for SB 200 in the House, where it will run up against the same coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans from outside the metro area.
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter hinted at this when Democrats cut the deal with Republicans to support House passage of the statewide sales tax for transportation infrastructure improvements.
“The fight over governance is very different from this bill,” Porter said as he urged House members to vote for the statewide tax. “I oppose the changes in [DOT] governance and so should you.”
The arguments on this issue are familiar. Everyone is frustrated by the DOT’s lack of progress in building new roads, but many legislators aren’t quite ready to give up their power to elect members of the State Transportation Board and hand that power over to a transportation authority that would effectively be controlled by the governor.
It was executive branch corruption that prompted the creation in the 1960s of the current structure of the State Transportation Board, whose members are chosen by legislators. It’s probably not a good idea to tempt any Georgia governor with the opportunity to control billions of dollars in highway funds, a thought that is occurring to many lawmakers.
One of hot rumors making the rounds at the capitol has been that House Speaker Glenn Richardson will eventually cut a deal with the Transportation Board members: he’ll keep the current DOT structure in place if board members will elect Rep. Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain), Richardson’s close ally, as the new DOT commissioner.
That almost happened two years ago, when Smith and Gena Evans were competing for the top DOT job. Evans, the governor’s choice for the job, won by a vote of 7-6 among board members. She has since been fired by the Transportation Board, which could open the way for Smith to get her job.
Whoever ends up running DOT, he’s got to get the state back on course to doing something about its wretched transportation systems. Time is getting short.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.