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.