Friday, March 6, 2009

Senate passes GDOT restructuring, and a new wrinkle

I wanted to highlight this bit from GONSO, a start-up news service available via email, regarding Perdue's GDOT restructuring:
As far as GDOT's annual budget, which bill sponsor Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) supposed at $2.5 billion annually, supporters note that rural districts are in for more money.

The bill allows the General Assembly to earmark 10 percent of the total annual transportation budget, ...

Another quarter of the budget would be sent to local governments.

The General Assembly would appropriate the rest as it sees fit: for new construction, maintenance or more local grants, according to Williams.

"You'll be able to fund locals like never before," Williams told his Senate colleagues, trying to win their votes with just those funds.
Now, there is a little editorializing with the writing, but it is an important wrinkle in the GDOT bill that I haven't heard before. A newsletter (which I cannot link to) that Sen. Williams put out adds this:
The bill allows for a new, transparent funding model much like the way other agencies in Georgia are funded and governed. As legislators, we will be able to represent our constituents’ needs much better by having a greater say in the appropriations process and directing what projects are funded. Local governments will also see increased funding, as a minimum of 25 percent of the State Motor Fuel Funds collected annually will be deposited into a Local Grant fund and will be dedicated to local transportation projects. This more than doubles the amount of funding local governments are currently receiving.
Another way to read this, of course, is, "more pork". I'm not sure that it really changes that much as far as the Atlanta region is concerned, since it at least makes it all transparent. This sort of political funding goes on currently, only it goes on through the GDOT board and clogs up the department's actual operations. I'd rather political fights stay in the political arena, which is partly what elected representatives are there to do.

Certainly I don't like the idea of rural legislators having more influence - I think they currently have too much. However, Thomas Wheatley's article on the GDOT mess has Doug Stoner saying rural legislators would lose influence.
Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, told lawmakers the bill would send Georgia back to the Dark Ages — aka the days before GDOT existed — when transportation decisions were allegedly made in the governor’s office and then relayed based on political preference. Anecdotes of lawmakers having to “kiss the governor’s ring” to get a road built in their districts serve now as warnings rather than old yarns.
WTF? Which is it?

As I read the short-hand version of the bill (pdf, via Political Insider), Perdue's plan has the new STA develops appropriations for Motor Fuel Funds according to a fund allocation formula, submits the requests to the Governor, who then includes them in the budget which the Legislature then passes into law.

I can't see how this is fundamentally different from the current set-up. The GDOT website lists the GDOT board's duties, none of which include appropriations. As far as I can tell, the legislature currently has control over the DOT budget and ultimately would still have control via the appropriations process going forward.

The difference is the make-up of the board that is approving projects. It goes from a legislature-elected board to an executive-appointed board. This is where the loss of influence would come in for the rural lawmakers, since they wouldn't get a say in who is on the board anymore. The earmark provision and the local fund provision that Sen. Williams mentions would seem to give legislators more control over what gets funded, however.

So they are both right? Perhaps - it would take lawmakers out of the big-picture decisions, since those would get made by the STA board for the most part. If the metro area can dominate state-wide elections, then it would indeed mean less power for rural lawmakers. However, the bill would still let lawmakers get their pet projects funded through the earmarks. If rural legislators can keep more power in the House and Senate than in state-wide elections (historically true), then they would be able to dominate these funds. If Dems ever re-took control of the House or Senate, then it is possible that urban legislators could get a piece of these earmark funds (ha, like that will ever happen).

At the end of the day, I can't see how it really changes my view of the bill - it is a risk to put more power in the hands of the governor, but the current system isn't doing anything for us.

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