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Crawford: Roads bill gives Perdue more power
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This was one of those legislative sessions where our elected representatives didn't accomplish much, with one exception. They did pass Senate Bill 200, that could have an enormous impact on state politics and the balance of power at the capitol for many years to come.
SB 200 will drastically revamp the Department of Transportation, shifting much of the power over the agency's $2 billion yearly budget to the governor and, to a lesser extent, the legislators.
The office of governor, already one of the strongest in the country, becomes that much more powerful with the ability to control which highways get built and which do not.

"Mark my words," said Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, a longtime House member. "It may take three years, it may take six months, but we just changed the face of politics in Georgia."

Perdue lobbied heavily for the adoption of SB 200 and has said many times that a departmental restructuring is needed to reform the "dysfunctional" DOT. Legislators who have been unable to get road projects started in their districts were also taking out their frustration on the department.

"We as the General Assembly will have control over the money," said Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. "DOT's ineptness to plan and fund will change. ... DOT will accomplish what we want them to accomplish."

There could be a darker side here: by turning over so much power to the governor and the General Assembly, SB 200 could also provide more opportunities for corruption and political meddling in the award of lucrative highway construction contracts. Those were the factors that prompted Gov. Carl Sanders to put the current DOT structure in place in the 1960s.

"This system breeds corruption - it has before and it will do it again," warned Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs.
SB 200 creates a new position at DOT, planning director, that will be filled by the governor. The planning director will have the most important job at DOT because he or she will draw up the list of highway projects authorized for construction, subject to review by the governor.

After the governor has refined the project list, the General Assembly then chooses the projects it wants to fund so long as the total amount spent on them doesn't exceed 20 percent of the available funds.

By controlling what's on the list of transportation projects, the governor will have a very big stick for threatening lawmakers who aren't voting his way on other legislation.

While the current governor is a Republican, he will have about 18 months in office to exercise the powers granted to him under SB 200. If the next governor should be a Democrat — such as Roy Barnes, for example — then lawmakers will have greatly enhanced the leverage that Barnes and his longtime adviser, Bobby Kahn, could use in getting legislation passed.

There have already been some indications as to how the "new" version of DOT could be used by the party in power to reward political supporters.

Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, sponsored HB 277, which would have implemented a statewide 1-cent sales tax to raise money for transportation projects.

Smith's bill included a long list of transportation projects that would be funded by the new tax, including a road widening that provided access to the posh Reynolds Plantation in Greene County, a resort developed by Mercer Reynolds. He is a heavy hitter in Republican circles as a fundraiser for George W. Bush and a supporter of Perdue and other GOP political figures.

Perdue's ultimate goal in getting SB 200 adopted may be to facilitate the award of major contracts to private companies that want to take over the construction and management of public highways in Georgia.

One of the world's leading private developers of toll roads is Cintra, an international conglomerate based in Spain. Cintra has built and operated such major American highways as the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road.

When Perdue flew to Spain last September with a contingent of business leaders, at the same time that Georgia motorists were struggling to cope with a severe gasoline shortage, one of the companies he met with was Cintra.

That could be the ultimate legacy of SB 200: Georgians paying high tolls to drive on highways owned by a European conglomerate. You heard it here first.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.

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