Transportation overhaul clears House

ATLANTA — The Georgia House of Representatives on Wednesday narrowly approved a massive makeover of the state’s transportation bureaucracy that would hand the governor and state lawmakers vast new powers over how infrastructure money is spent.

The vote also kept alive competing proposals for 1-cent state sales taxes to fund transportation projects, which House and Senate leaders in Atlanta are likely to negotiate about right up until Friday’s close of the 2009 legislative session.

The House’s 91-84 vote on Senate Bill 200 came after heavy lobbying by Gov. Sonny Perdue and Republican legislative leaders who said granting lawmakers new powers over transportation funding would help transform a dysfunctional bureaucracy into one that is more accountable to voters.

But the overhaul almost failed amid concerns it would politicize the road-building process and hand too much power to the governor. State Rep. Vance Smith, a Pine Mountain Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, voted against the measure, showing just how divided legislators are.

Seeing such a close vote, House Speaker Glenn Richardson froze the vote count for several minutes as he tried to muster enough support. During that time, five legislators switched their votes from “no” to “yes” to ensure the bill’s passage. State Rep. Jim Cole, R-Forsyth, who is Perdue’s floor leader in the House, and other proponents worked the floor in that interim to get the new yes votes. Then Richardson, who does not usually vote, cast the deciding vote.

“There has never been a limit of how long a vote can be held open,” Richardson told Democrats who complained about the tactic. “It’s in the discretion of the chair.”

The bill would create a new transportation planning director named by the governor. That director would have vast new powers over the state’s transportation plan, dictating which highway projects make the state’s build list. That list would head to the Legislature for tinkering, much like the rest of the state budget does now. The DOT board, elected by state legislators, and the DOT commissioner would stay in place, but the board largely would be beholden to the governor, planning director and Legislature.

The Legislature would have direct control over about 20 percent of the projects, proponents said.

“This bill ensures the people of the state will have a role and a voice in that process because the appropriations will now come through this General Assembly where it belongs,” said state rep. David Ralston, the bill’s sponsor.

Others said the bill concentrates too much power in the governor’s office.

“The governor will have the power to put projects on the list. And if you’re not voting in lockstep with the governor, you will not get a project on this list for your district,” said state Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross.

Even legislators who voted for the measure said they have concerns with it.

State Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Warner Robins, said there still are details to be worked out as the House and Senate work together on a bill that can pass both chambers, as well as a compromise on competing transportation sales tax plans.

But O’Neal said overhauling the Georgia Department of Transportation “gives it back to the people of Georgia” instead of keeping “a good ol’ boy system” now in existence.

State Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, called the change “unwarranted” and “unwise.”

“If we would give the Department of Transportation adequate funding, we would not have this problem,” Lucas said.

But House leaders hoped this vote would break a gridlock over expanding transportation funding in Georgia.

Senate leaders had refused to hash out a compromise over dueling plans until the House adopted the transportation makeover. House leaders back a statewide sales tax, while the Senate supports a tax that could be imposed regionally.

The two sides started negotiating that issue Wednesday, with groups of three each meeting to discuss the issue.

The first meeting was cordial, though little was decided beyond an agreement to meet again this morning and through the day.

“In no way will (the House) plan pass in the Senate,” Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis said during the initial negotiations. “And I’m not saying that with any more than sincerity and ... pure fact.”

To contact Telegraph staff writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.