Democrats need a seat at the table to pass a state transportation funding bill

By Maria Saporta

As we wind down to the last couple of weeks of the legislative session, it feels like déjà vu, all over again, when it comes to a transportation funding bill.

Once again, despite outward appearances of unity early in the session from Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, the various branches of government can’t seem to agree on which way to go.

When it was clear that the governor wasn’t going to get the transportation bill that the he had proposed and that the amended bill was not something he could live with, legislators had to move to a Plan B.

That Plan B was to revive the regional transportation funding bill that had passed the Georgia Senate last year.

A transportation conference committee between the House and the Senate was appointed to try to negotiate some kind of bill. Because such a bill likely wouldn’t get the governor’s blessing, it appears far more likely that the legislature will propose a constitutional amendment.

A constitutional amendment must be passed by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, but it doesn’t need the governor’s signature. Not having to be beholden to the governor would give the legislature far more flexibility in drafting a more popular bill.

To get at least two-thirds of the votes in both houses, bipartisan support (in this case Democrats signing on to support the bill) would be essential to get the bill passed.

But the conference committee has been made up of all Republicans — three from the House and three from the Senate — and all but one from outside metro Atlanta.

For the record, the six legislators currently on the conference committee are:

Rep. Jay Roberts, Chair of House Transportation Committee; Rep. Jerry Keen; Rep. Donna Sheldon; Sen. Jeff Mullis, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee; Sen. Preston Smith; and Sen. Tommie Williams.
Because they are all Republicans, that did not bode well in terms of getting Democrats on board to vote for a compromise bill. And transit is not a big issue in any one of these legislators’ geographic districts.

But everything is subject to change.

Sen. Preston Smith was stripped of his role as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee because he did not support a “sick tax” that was being pushed by the Republican leadership.

Now it appears that Smith also could lose his spot on the Transportation Conference Committee as well.

That would open up a spot for another senator to join the team.

One name floating to the top of the list is Doug Stoner, a Democrat from Cobb County who served on the conference committee last year and has been one of the leading advocates for new transportation funding during his time in office.

If Stoner is named to the conference committee, that would be good news for the Atlanta region. Stoner is one of the leading advocates for MARTA and for transit in general, which would be critical in drumming up Democratic support for a constitutional amendment.

Given that it’s an election year and given that the legislature and the executive branch have managed to abort any progress on transportation funding for the past several years, it is still a long shot that a bill will be passed this year.

But putting a Democrat from the Atlanta region on the conference committee at least would open up the possibility that we may not have to live through another déjà vu all over again.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

9 replies
  1. Scott says:

    The advantage of a constitutional amendment would be that it would go to voters this year I believe which would be a big plus. It just depends what said amendment says thats importantReport

  2. Yr1215 says:

    Read this jewel from Pres Pro tem Tommie Williams:

    “This has been a very challenging year. I am proud that we still have a citizen legislature here in Georgia. Our state legislature operates on one of the smallest budgets in the country when compared to other state legislatures. We are 48th in the country for legislative budgets and 50th per capita. That is something we should all be proud of as a state.”

    I think you get what you pay for….Report

  3. Maria Saporta says:

    And people wonder why we’re 44th in SAT scores, 47th in terms of per-capita arts funding, and towards the bottom in transportation investment…Report

  4. Smell the Coffee says:

    Whether it is Ds in Washington or Rs in Atlanta, the game is the same – it is more about grabbing points/votes from the electorate than building a bipartisan concensus for action whether transportation, education, health care or water. Incumbent Senators and Representatives are being measured against their track record over the last 7 years plus. If you are stuck in congestion, if breathing is a problem, if your community can’t get a four lane road for economic development, if your bus service no longer operates, or if scarce jobs go elsewhere, it’s not GDOT nor County Commissioners nor transit operators, the problem is under the Gold Dome and their lack of vision for our children’s future.Report

  5. professional skeptic says:

    Maria (@3:16 PM),

    After living in this state for the past eleven years, I am convinced that our conservative state legislators wear those particular statistics like badges of honor.

    Regarding your main topic, I’m afraid that even if a Democrat is granted one of the six seats on this transportation committee, it will be just for show. Five voices still outweigh one. Georgia Republicans have proven definitively that they do not tolerate any form of dissent or diversity of thought within their own ranks. Anyone who so much as voices an independent idea is stripped of his positions, ousted from power and relegated to the sidelines.

    How can we expect them to listen to rational ideas on transportation from a Democrat, when they refuse to tolerate dissenters even within their own ranks?Report

  6. Yr1215 says:

    Yes, I’d say we’re also 50th in intelligent legislative accomplishments. I’m a small government person. But I think they should have to stay under the dome until they get all the work done. Not sure how one would ever define that, but it seems like the 40 some odd days they have just ain’t gettin’ it done.Report

  7. professional skeptic says:

    Oh, and by far, the most striking point in your column is the following:

    “For the record, the six legislators currently on the (transportation) conference committee…are all Republicans…and transit is not a big issue in any one of these legislators’ geographic districts.”

    And there we have it, folks. This is why transportation is in such disarray in the Great State of Georgia. Laughably, we’ve got people from places like Chickamauga, GA (pop. 2,245 at the 2000 census) deciding how we Atlantans should spend our own tax dollars, and whether we’ll even have the right to design and implement and pay for transit solutions that make sense for Atlanta.



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