Transportation, budget, billboards could top final day of Georgia General Assembly

There are a lot of unresolved issues as the Georgia General Assembly prepares to gavel the final legislative day of the session at 10 this morning.Lawmakers have to approve a more than $18 billion state budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins in July.

A statewide transportation funding plan, which has been in the works for more than two years, remains unresolved in the final 14 hours of the session.

Then there is this little matter of billboards.

A bill that would give billboard companies the rights to cut more trees on the public right of way so that their signs are more visible appeared to be defeated on Wednesday’s penultimate legislative day.

But supporters of the bill called for reconsideration, meaning it will likely come up for another vote in the House.

“The billboard bill will come back up,” said Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus. “We are working hard to keep the votes we got.”

The bill, being pushed by Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, was defeated 88-74.

A statewide coalition of more than 20 environmental groups across the state — including Trees Columbus and Keep Columbus Beautiful — have fought the powerful Senate Rules Committee chairman to defeat the bill.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, said those seeking to get the bill up for a vote will have to be creative. House rules require that the bill be brought up for reconsideration after the vote.

“I am told they are looking at putting it on Senate Bill 101,” Smyre said. “It is a germane bill and they can tack it on and send it back. That will spark a little tension, but the major focus will be the budget and transportation. That will consume the day.”

Smyre and Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, are in the middle of a transportation tug-of-war between the House and Senate. A version of the transportation funding bill has passed in both chambers. The House wants to do a statewide sales tax to fund $22 billion in road improvements over 10 years. The Senate wants to use regional sales taxes to address the state’s mounting transportation issues.

Vance Smith, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Smyre are on a six-member House-Senate conference committee trying to work out a compromise.

The conference committee met once Wednesday night, at least three times Thursday and likely will be meeting today, Smyre said.

“I am hopeful and I am optimistic,” Smyre said.

But he is also a realist, he said, and knows a transportation funding plan fell apart on the final day of the session last year.

“We started wide apart,” Smyre said. “They want a regional T-SPLOST and we want a statewide transportation plan so all of Georgia can benefit. This is painful and tiring.”

A regional Transportation Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax would benefit Metro Atlanta.

“The regional T-SPLOST will be a Band-Aid,” Smyre said. “We know what a penny will do in Metro Atlanta — it will be a huge economic drawdown. Put Columbus, Chattahoochee and Harris together and it is not a significant amount of money we are talking about.”

The budget will also take center stage.

“Legally that is the only thing we have to do,” Richard Smith said. “That’s it.”