BY HARRIS BLACKWOOD
The state House narrowly approved a massive makeover of Georgia’s transportation bureaucracy that would hand the governor and state lawmakers vast new powers over how infrastructure money is spent, and keeping alive a separate proposal for a 1 cent state sales tax to fund transportation projects.
The 91-84 vote on Wednesday came after heavy lobbying by Gov. Sonny Perdue and Republican legislative leaders who argued that granting lawmakers new powers over transportation funding would help transform a dysfunctional bureaucracy into one that is more accountable to voters.
State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, voted for the measure, but said he still has some reservations.
"There needs to be some change," Collins said. "In light of funding and everything else, we needed to move forward on this bill. If we didn’t, we would have left it hanging and I believe the people of Georgia expect more out of us."
House leaders said the vote would help break a gridlock over a separate proposal for the one-cent tax that had stalled in the legislature over the last two years. Senate leaders refused to try to hash out a compromise over dueling plans until the House adopted the transportation makeover.
But the overhaul still almost failed amid concerns it would politicize the road-building process and hand too much power to the governor. State Rep. Vance Smith, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, voted against the proposal, and House Speaker Glenn Richardson froze the vote count for about five minutes as he tried to muster enough support.
During that time, at least five legislators switched from "no" to "yes" votes to ensure its passage.
"I wanted the opportunity to keep it going," said state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, one of the lawmakers who switched votes.
Steve Farrow, who represents the 9th district, including Hall County, on the State Transportation Board, said the House bill was not much better than what was passed by the Senate.
The Senate has already passed its own measure of the makeover that would create a new agency to oversee transportation funding. The House version retains much of the same setup, but creates a new planning division in the Department of Transportation that would submit the agency’s budget to the governor.
"I think both versions of the bill make significant changes from the present system which has primary authority of transportation policy and spending within the Department of Transportation," said Farrow, a Dalton attorney. "I’m not convinced the House version is that much of an improvement over the Senate version."
The bill, as approved Wednesday, allows the governor to appoint a planning director for the DOT and does not require approval of the transportation board. Presently, the governor can recommend a candidate for DOT commissioner, but the board must ratify it.
The House plan would also give lawmakers more direct control of up to 20 percent of the annual transportation budget — or around $400 million this year.
Perdue and legislative leaders have long sought more authority to determine which infrastructure projects are funded. Under the current system, a 13-person state transportation board elected by state legislators has the final word in choosing projects.
"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. "Every other department goes through this process but one — and it’s time to change."
Critics derided the overhaul as a poor April Fools joke, saying it would create an even more cumbersome bureaucracy that could ultimately reduce the independence of legislators.
"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. "If you’re truly concerned about your citizens back home, please vote ‘no’ on this bill."
And Smith, who surprised many by voting against the measure, said after the vote that legislators need more time to hash out potential problems. He said he was particularly worried about how the overhaul could effect federal stimulus dollars.
"It changes the direction of how we fund transportation. We have yet to have all the facts or the ramifications of the change — we don’t exactly know how it would work," said Smith, a Republican from Pine Mountain.
The vote helped break the gridlock over debate on a separate proposal for a one-cent sales tax to fund infrastructure improvements. House leaders back a statewide sales tax, while the Senate supports a tax that could be imposed regionally. But the Senate had refused to negotiate a compromise — until moments after the bureaucratic makeover passed.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the House’s proposal is "helping us reform transportation." House leaders agreed that it would help build momentum for the statewide sales tax they seek.
"I think it’s extremely tough for a funding bill to pass without a governance bill," said Ralston.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.