DOT governance passes Georgia House despite Vance Smith's opposition

ATLANTA -- Vance Smith, a Pine Mountain Republican, stood eye to eye with the leadership of his own party Wednesday afternoon.

Smith, the House Transportation Committee chairman, didn’t blink in the face of a controversial bill being pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue and supported by House Speaker Glenn Richardson that will alter how the Georgia Department of Transportation is funded and governed.And, he didn’t win, either.

Senate Bill 200 narrowly passed the House, paving the way for influence in the state Department of Transportation to shift from a 13-member board to the governor and General Assembly. It still has to get out of a House-Senate conference committee before Perdue can sign it into law.At stake is control of more than $2 billion in annual funding and a long list of road projects across the state.

The bill calls for the DOT budget to be approved by the General Assembly instead of controlled by the board. While keeping the current DOT board and commissioner, the bill will create a new planning director for DOT who will report to the governor.

“I think we need to be very careful when we’re reorganizing any department. And I think when you do, you need to call all the players in, sit around the table, and — in this instance — let’s discuss where we’re headed with transportation for the citizens of Georgia,” Smith said after the vote. “Those people should be the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker, the House and Senate transportation chairmen, the DOT board, and the commissioner. And let’s look down the road and move together toward that goal.”

The speaker came to the floor to speak in favor of the bill.

“This bill is not a power grab,” Richardson said. “It is not because the governor got mad.”

The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill so it will move to a conference committee to work out those differences. Smith will not be on that committee because he voted against the bill, though he did not vote for a motion to reconsider the original vote.

David Lucus, D-Macon, said that if the DOT board had made Smith commissioner in 2007 this governance bill would not be an issue.

“If Rep. Smith was commissioner of DOT we would not have this problem,” Lucus said. “That is where the deadlock started.”

Gena Evans was chosen commissioner on a 7-6 vote over Smith. Evans, who later married one of the board member Mike Evans who voted for her, has since been fired by the DOT board.

Richardson acknowledged before the vote that he was on the opposite side of Smith.

“He’s still my friend after this vote,” the speaker said of Smith.

Smith said he did not expect the speaker to retaliate.

“No. The speaker and I are friends,” Smith said. “We’ve got a friendship. We just happen to have a difference of opinion. And that’s OK.”

Smith said he could not remember a time in the last four years where he has gone against the his friend the speaker on a critical vote.

“I had a decision to make and I made it,” Smith said. “The process moves on and we will see what comes out of conference.”