On right side of a wrong bill

In politics, the only good thing about being on the losing side is when you’re pretty sure your side is right. Even then, it’s meager consolation.

The Columbus area House delegation, most notably Vance Smith, a Pine Mountain Republican and chair of the House Transportation Committee, went down in honorable defeat Wednesday when they voted against a bill to radically reorganize the governance of Georgia’s transportation bureaucracy.

The guess here is that time and politics will vindicate them.

In an extremely close vote, decided only after House Speaker Glenn Richardson froze the count for a few minutes and at least five representatives switched sides, the House approved Senate Bill 200. It transfers most of the authority over the state’s Department of Transportation, with its $2 billion budget, from a 13-member regional board to the governor and General Assembly. This law does not dissolve the board or the post of commissioner, but it transfers control of the DOT budget from the board to the legislature, and creates the new position of DOT planning director, who will be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the governor.

In so doing, the General Assembly has almost certainly made the allocation of transportation projects and dollars infinitely more, rather than less, political, and has given unprecedented authority over those decisions to the governor. What Georgians could soon see is a Tower of Babel debate among political figures with little or no expertise in, or even understanding of, transportation issues.

Richardson, who cast the deciding vote, argued that the bill is “not a power grab … It is not because the governor got mad.”

That is a tangential point at best, because the concern isn’t specifically about Gov. Sonny Perdue; it’s about placing that kind of authority in the hands of any governor. this one and all of the others who follow him.

“The governor will have the power to put projects on the list,” said state Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross. “And if you’re not voting in lockstep with the governor, you will not get a project on this list for your district.”

But it was Smith, whose opposition to the legislation put him at odds with his party leadership, who most artuculately defined the problem.

“I think we need to be very careful,” Smith said Wednesday, “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 … 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.”

None of that happened, and precious little about this legislation looks careful.