Senate Agrees to New Transport Agency, Barely|
Georgia Online News Service
In a nearly a party-line vote of 30-25, the Georgia Senate has approved a bill that would create a new state transportation agency, and in the view of its sponsor, give more power to rural districts.
Senate Bill 200, the brainchild of Gov. Sonny Perdue and his allies, would gut the Georgia Department of Transportation and transfer most of its budgeting and planning powers to a new State Transportation Authority.
One of the most controversial items would let the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker appoint 11 members of the board that would oversee the new agency. Now, the board that oversees the Georgia Department of Transportation is elected by a caucus of state legislators from each of Georgia's 13 Congressional districts.
Rep. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) attacked that change: "The problem I have with this piece of legislation is that in three hours – three hours of hearings on this legislation – we're going to make the largest change in government since 1963?"
In 1963, the General Assembly reformed transportation governance to put power in more hands than fewer to cut down on corruption. Putting new state transportation agency appointments in just a few hands is a recipe for more corruption, says Stoner.
"People don't change," he added.
As far as GDOT's annual budget, which bill sponsor Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) supposed at $2.5 billion annually, supporters note that rural districts are in for more money.
The bill allows the General Assembly to earmark 10 percent of the total annual transportation budget, which comes from fuel taxes, federal funds and a few other sources.
Another quarter of the budget would be sent to local governments.
The General Assembly would appropriate the rest as it sees fit: for new construction, maintenance or more local grants, according to Williams.
"You'll be able to fund locals like never before," Williams told his Senate colleagues, trying to win their votes with just those funds.
It's those same funds that earn the bill the name of "pork" by critics like the Georgia Municipal Association, a group of over 502 municipalities statewide.
But the Republicans and Democrats agree on one thing: The GDOT is dysfunctional.
"I would suggest that medicine is needed for DOT, but I don't know if this is the right medicine," said Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta).
"I can't understand the malaise and the mess over there," commented Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody). He said in his experience, GDOT service ranks far below any other state agencies.
"The process is broken. SB200 helps improve the process," says Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga). The Senator added that that he hears complaints about unfunded GDOT projects more than anything else.
He also alleges that GDOT board members don't keep in touch with the legislators, saying he hasn't heard anything from any board member during this debate.
Steve Thompson (D-Marietta) hates the bill because it allows some contracts to be awarded on a basis besides the lowest bid.
"You know two days on an issue like this doesn't pass the smell test," said Thompson.
"I'm sure all of you have paid your taxes but somebody's going to have a lot more revenue," he concluded adding that he's not impugning any legislator.
An amendment by David Shafer (R-Duluth) clarifies that all contracts must be given out to the lowest-price reliable bidder except in the case of public-private partnerships.
Thompson opined that those kinds of deals are most liable to corruption.
Only Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) had a good word to say for it, because there's a female GDOT board member, and she's not sure a female is in line for the new board.
Thompson and Sen. Steve Henson (D-Clarkston) also argued that GDOT politics aren't the real transport problem.
"We need to be progressive and look at other forms of transport," Henson told the Senate.
"We really need to address the problem of funding," he added.
"We're not addressing the problem," Thompson said, noting that Georgia's gas taxes are among the lowest in the nation. "We're trying to change the politics without addressing the problem."
There's no timeframe for House action on the companion bill; Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) is sponsoring the bill rather than House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram).
Maggie Lee specializes in quality of life topics, Atlanta's international communities and general reporting. She covers Georgia economic development and the Chinese community as a stringer for China Daily and chronicles life in Georgia's most diverse county for the DeKalb Champion. [full bio]