published Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Georgia business groups push to break legislative jam

By Greg Bluestein

The Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers speeding toward the end of another legislative session without a deal on transportation funding got an extra push Monday from business leaders, environmentalists and other advocates eager to help the legislators break the impasse.

But lawmakers appeared no closer to overcoming the gridlock over the fate of a transportation funding plan that failed in the final hours of last year’s legislative session. And House leaders decided to delay a vote on a separate plan that would overhaul the state’s transportation bureaucracy until later this week.

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http://www.legis.ga.gov

The negotiations showed no signs of thawing late Monday, when state Rep. Vance Smith convened an emergency meeting of his House Transportation Committee. He said Senate leaders have warned him that no funding proposal will move forward unless it is tied to the bid to transform the way the transportation projects are funded.

But the two chambers still seem miles apart on an agreement, with the House supporting a statewide sales tax that would raise $25 billion over the next decade. Senate leaders, meanwhile, back a plan that would allow counties to band together to levy the fee on a regional basis.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said through a spokesperson Monday, “The House language seems pretty far off on the funding bill.”

House leaders offered up what they called a “compromise” last week that sought to blend the two plans by allowing counties to join forces if a referendum on a statewide sales tax failed. But Senate leaders rejected the plan, and House leaders insisted on their version Monday. A conference committee between the two chambers is set to try to hash out the differences by Friday, the last day of the session.

The fate of the sales tax could be tied to a separate proposal moving through the Legislature that would give Georgia’s transportation funding system a dramatic makeover.

That is a bill co-sponsored by Sen. Mullis.

“It’s too close to tell if both the bills will go through,” he said Monday.

The legislative traffic jam has frustrated the business leaders, green groups and other transportation advocates who lined up behind an effort for a 1 percent sales tax that would fund infrastructure improvements.

Leaders of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition, which was formed to lobby for transportation funding, urged lawmakers to strike some sort of agreement before the session is set to end this week.

“We are on the one-yard line and we’ve got to cross the finish line to get things done,” said Doug Hertz, the group’s co-chairman. “We are asking them to come together, to compromise, to show leadership to get something done.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue and Senate leaders are pushing the plan that would create a new agency that would oversee transportation funding, while House leaders unveiled their own version of an overhaul that keeps much of the same setup.

Both proposals would give lawmakers and the governor new authority to determine which infrastructure projects are funded, pleasing legislators long eager to have greater influence over how transportation dollars are spent. Under the current system, a 13-person state transportation board elected by state legislators have the final word in choosing which projects are approved.

Perdue’s proposal would have abolished the board entirely and replaced it with a new 11-member panel, while House lawmakers want to retain the board but strip it of some powers.

House lawmakers also support creating a new planning division in the Department of Transportation that would submit a budget to the governor, who would then send it to Georgia lawmakers — a process that now applies to other Georgia agencies.

Under the House plan, lawmakers also would have more direct control of up to 20 percent of transportation funding — or around $400 million this year.

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the proposal was “another step” toward an agreement but stopped short of calling it a compromise. And House leaders didn’t bring their plan for a vote Monday amid concerns from critics worried about the scope of the changes.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, for one, said he was worried it would grant too much power to the planning director, someone he said “is not accountable to either the Legislature or the board.”

The transportation coalition, meanwhile, worked furiously to urge lawmakers to separate their long-sought one-cent sales tax from the recently introduced effort to overhaul the state’s entrenched bureaucracy. The group’s members urged lawmakers to first forge a compromise over the transportation funding before tackling the makeover.

“We’ve got time to work out the governance side,” said Hertz. “We don’t have time to work out the funding side.”

Staff writer Tom Turner contributed to this report.

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