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At legislature's deadline, DOT reform gets approval
Plan gives lawmakers control over transportation money
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ATLANTA — Transportation was the issue that Lt. Gov Casey Cagle was banking on Friday, and as the final minutes ticked away from the 2009 session, so did hope for a 1-cent sales tax that would fund hundreds of road projects.

Senate leaders thought they had brokered a deal with the House and conferees had signed off on it, but it was rejected by House leaders.

Before a dinner break, Cagle made an appeal to Senators to lobby House members.

“If we want funding that’s going to insure the prosperity of this state for transportation, we’ve got to do it,” said Cagle, a Gainesville Republican.” I commit to you to fight to the bitter end. I know each of you feel just as strongly as I do. Now’s the time.”

But when the legislature adjourned for the year, there was no agreement.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, the Senate Transportation chairman. “You shouldn’t get this way as a politician, but I was personally vested here to do something about transportation.”

In the end, Georgia lawmakers struck a late-night deal over a transportation overhaul that would give state leaders vast control over infrastructure dollars.

The transportation makeover, which passed the Senate 33-22, comes after heavy lobbying from Republican leaders who argued that granting the governor and lawmakers new powers over transportation funding would help transform a dysfunctional bureaucracy into one that is more accountable to voters.

But it didn’t go as far as Gov. Sonny Perdue’s original proposal, which would have replaced the 13-person state transportation board elected by legislators with a new agency appointed by Georgia’s most powerful politicians.
Instead, the version passed by the House and adopted by the Senate late Friday retains much of the same setup, with some key changes.

It creates a new planning division in the Department of Transportation that would submit the agency’s budget to the governor. The planning director would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the House Transportation Committee.

It would also give lawmakers more direct control of up to 20 percent of the annual transportation budget, which amounts to around $400 million this year.

Perdue and legislative leaders have long sought more authority to determine which infrastructure projects are funded. They have bristled at the current system, which gives the state transportation board, not politicians, the final word in choosing projects.

The governor came to the House around 11:30 p.m. Friday to congratulate members on the session. He made no mention of the transportation tax or the governance bill. There has been no indication he will sign the bill.

But critics have worried it would create a more cumbersome bureaucracy that could ultimately reduce the independence of legislators.

The overhaul was tied to the fate of the 1-cent sales tax for transportation, which was never passed.

House leaders back a statewide sales tax, while the Senate supports a tax that could be imposed regionally.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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