DOT Boss Fired, Transport Bill Raises Constitutionality Questions|
Georgia Online News Service
Transportation in Georgia hit a few potholes on Thursday. The state Transportation Board fired Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans. Meanwhile, constitutional questions were raised about Gov. Sonny Perdue's planned retooling of state transportation agencies.
Evans' ouster was seen as a slap at Perdue, whose massive reorganization would dramatically undermine the Transportation Board's power. Evans also angered many road builders by slowing funding, and she questioned the board's accounting procedures. Her personal relationships – she dated board Chairman Mike Evans, who resigned and then married her – also created considerable controversy.
Gerald Ross, the Department of Transportation's chief engineer, was appointed interim commissioner.
Meanwhile, the first legislative debate over Perdue's transportation overhaul raised questions about constitutionality and the lowest bid on contracts.
"I'm concerned that in two hours, we're changing $2 billion and messing with the constitution . … My vote would be no," Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Marietta) told his colleagues on the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday during the first and only hearing for Senate Bill 200.
The 101 pages of that bill would gut most of the Georgia Department of Transportation's planning and funding powers and transfer them to a new State Transportation Authority. And its board would be appointed by the governor and his closest allies: five seats for the governor's appointees, three for the lieutenant governor, and three for the House speaker.
But Article IV of the state constitution says that the board of the agency that runs transportation has to be chosen as it is now -- one member from each of Georgia's 13 Congressional districts, elected by the Georgia General Assembly members from that district. That ensures representation from throughout the state and input from both parties.
A change to the Georgia Constitution requires approval from the voters as well as the General Assembly.
"I think the proper way to do this would have been through a constitutional amendment. Let the voters decide," said SB 200 opponent Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna).
But there's a resolution out there that does a similar thing without that particular constitutional issue, argues its author, Sen. Chip Pearson (R-Dawsonville).
His Senate Resolution 110 would call for a constitutional amendment to give the General Assembly direct oversight of the funds collected from the state gas tax. That $544 million for FY 2009 is about a quarter of GDOT's budget, and it doesn't come with strings from Washington like the more substantial federal funds, though his idea may risk politicizing transport decisions.
But for Pearson, killing the GDOT isn't a bright idea in any case.
"The whole concept of acknowledging that the department is dysfunctional, and then saying we're going to take from that department its funds and maybe its best and brightest people and move them to another department but leave that department to a lesser role, but still have some state money and still have some role, to what degree we don't know from this bill, concerns me," said Pearson.
Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), the bill's author, "just doesn't know" if the GDOT can be fixed.
"The problem is in the planning and funding. … When they work with someone who knows how to get it done like a CID [Community Improvement District], they get it done. But when it boils in the bowels of planning and preconstruction … it never seems to be on a path to an end. I don't know that that can be turned around," said Williams.
GDOT will finish the year about $456 million in the red, according to the agency's own calculations.
For Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), a major objection to SB 200 is language that says the Authority is not obligated to pick the lowest bidder for contracts.
"Why would you want to move from a standard that I think works and has prevented a substantial amount of fraud … and has a substantial amount of greater risk?" he asked.
Williams said his model, which would allow the Authority to make choices on something other than price, is better for the taxpayer.
"There's a way to save money and time on these jobs," he says, by allowing contractors to offer a package of design and construction.
Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga), one of the sponsors, called the bill a "work in process and suggested that there is time to "fine-tune" the bill as it works its way through the House.
That earned a sneer from one of his Committee colleagues.
"I think that we're really rushing it along," said Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale). "I don't think one hour yesterday and one hour today as being enough time to fully vet the bill and make it a good bill that does not talk about a 'work in process,' but as responsible elected officials do a bill that we know can pass."
Seay made a motion to table the bill, which failed a voice vote. She, Reed and Stoner, however, raised their hands to vote for the measure.
The whole bill passed the committee by voice vote, with the same three expressing objections. There's no date yet for the full Senate vote.
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]