In addition to doing normal reporter stuff today I was interviewed by a French television station about the role religion is likely to play in the Republican presidential primary here. Except I thought the guy was asking about the role race would play for the first several questions. Don't ask.
We also had Elliot Minor, former Associated Press reporter for South Georgia, stop by The Telegraph for a workshop.
And at 4:30 we're having a newspaper wide meeting to meet our new publisher, whose job I applied for, but did not get.
So it's been an odd day, and busy. But I don't want to go without posting, and I spoke briefly with state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, about this joint legislative transportation study committee's recommendations, which came out today.
Basically, they're recommending a ton of stuff and (I'm going into a state Senate press release here):
During the next several weeks, additional pieces of legislation affecting transportation and transportation funding will be introduced by the lawmakers who served on the Joint Committee on Transportation Funding. This legislation will include measures on public-private initiatives, transit systems, magnetically levitated transit lines, High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes and a resolution urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to devolve the federal highway and transit program to the states, allowing them to take over collection of the federal fuel tax in order to spend those revenues on transportation priorities of their own choosing.
But will that be enough to make up the funding shortfalls, you ask. I'm glad you did.
History: Basically there's a multi-billion difference between the projects the DOT wants to build or has promised to build and the money that's going to be available to do it. So there are two over-arching proposals (other than the public-private and the tolls) to raise a ton of new money: A statewide sales tax and a regional sales tax where several counties get together and charge an extra penny.
Typically these are seen as competing proposals, but this study committee is recommending that the General Assembly consider both ideas as well as the toll lanes, etc. So this is my conversation with Sen. Mullis, who is a study committee co-chairman and head of the Senate's transportation committee. It's been edited so it's still accurate, but much shorter and slightly more entertaining.
ME: So basically you guys recommended everything, which is like recommending nothing.
SEN. MULLIS: That's kind of cynical. Be an optimist. Our job was to make recommendations to the General Assembly and through the will of the legislature, with input from the Governor and transportation officials, decisions will be made. We thought if we narrowed it down to one or two options, that may not be good.
Sen. Mullis is pretty cool. At one point, talking about how all this would move forward, he said: "How do you eat that elephant? One bite at a time." I'm just wondering how many of those bites have already been taken, despite the study committee's apparent lack of commitment to one option or another, and how many will be taken on the floor of the House and Senate, or in committees there.
Also included in the plan is a recommendation that the General Assembly vote each year on an over-arching transportation plan. Now, we already have the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) that gets redone each year. Basically it bubbles up from local officials, who work with the DOT, to put projects into a funding timeline.
POSSIBLE CORRECTION: I'm not sure it's redone every year. Let's say every so often.
In other words, it's a list of projects with funding years attached to them. If you've ever read "so-and-so road is slated for construction in 2009," that means the STIP has the project budgeted in 2009.
This new plan, the one the General Assembly would vote on, is more of a goal-oriented plan, not a list of projects, Sen. Mullis said. A "direction list," he called it. It may also focus more on mass transit than plans have in the past, since Mullis said the state has done a poor job in that area over the years.
Now here's the key, and you can put it into the context of the house cleaning going on at the DOT under the new director, the fight over DOT board membership and the new funding mechanisms that may eventually start up.
Said Mullis: "We think we need a little more legislative oversight (over transportation)."
UPDATE: Dick Pettys posted the governor's response to all of this, contained in a letter you can download. I will summarize the governor's positions:
On the joint committee: Thanks for all your work, guys.
Transportation infrastructure bank: I'm on it. It's in my budget.
Railroads and aviation: I want $500,000 to study our freight infrastructure needs.
New taxes: Hell no. Or, "At this time, I cannot in good conscience advocate raising taxes on our citizens."
A new transportation plan: We totally already do that, so stay out of it. Or, "requiring another transportation plan would not only be redundant with duplicate research and reporting, it would also create conflicting mandates for performance of the transportation system."
HOT Lanes and Public-Private initiatives: Hell yes.