Commissioner race leaves hard feelings

Georgia transportation officials have been laying the groundwork all year to convince state lawmakers to start plugging a projected $7.7 billion six-year shortfall in needed highway and transit projects.

Spurred by local political and business leaders, the General Assembly took up two major transportation funding bills during this year's session.

Then, after the Legislature adjourned for the year, a joint study committee kept the issue alive, holding meetings across the state to highlight the DOT's plight and look for solutions.

But with the 2008 session now just more than two months away, warnings are being sounded that recent political developments could wreck all of that progress.

Some members of the State Transportation Board who were on the losing side of this month's hotly contested DOT commissioner election say they're worried that Rep. Vance Smith's narrow defeat could come back to haunt the agency.

Smith, R-Pine Mountain, was backed by House Speaker Glenn Richardson, his legislative Republican colleagues and even House Democrats.

But board members instead chose Gena Abraham, a veteran agency administrator for Gov. Sonny Perdue and the governor's pick for the job, by a single vote.

House lawmakers' resentment over the snubbing of Smith, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, will make Abraham's task of prying more money out of the legislature "astronomically harder," said board member David Doss of Rome, who voted for Smith.

"Transportation funding is the critical issue, and transportation funding solutions originate in the House," Doss said.

But neither Abraham nor board members who voted for her see it that way.

In fact, Abraham said she will count on Smith as a key ally in her funding campaign.

"I'll have a really good working relationship with Representative Smith," she said. "We worked together on the Kia project ... and we delivered that project on time and with about $500,000 remaining in our budget."

Board member Larry Walker of Perry, who supported Abraham in the election, said there was no way the board could please everyone in a political contest pitting Perdue against Richardson, R-Hiram.

Walker, who served in the House for years and rose to majority leader, also noted that the governor, too, has a lot of say over the DOT budget.

"We've got to depend on the House, Senate and governor when it comes to funding, and they weren't all on the same page," he said.

But the political ramifications of the commissioner's race don't stop at the DOT's funding outlook.

Board members representing each of Georgia's 13 congressional districts are elected to six-year terms by members of the House and Senate from those districts.

Those who supported Abraham over Smith have some fence-mending to do with disgruntled lawmakers.

"I certainly had no reservations letting one of my board members know my disappointment," said Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, referring to Walker. "I am disappointed that Mr. Walker had more loyalty to the governor than to the House where he served for many decades."

Rynders said the widespread dissatisfaction among House members could lead to some legislative changes.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there weren't legislation considered to reduce the terms of board members," he said. "Perhaps they should serve two years just like us."

Walker said he based his vote on what he thought would be best for the state.

He doesn't have to worry about his seat for awhile. His term on the board expires in 2012.

But Chairman Mike Evans of Cumming and board member Raybon Anderson of Statesboro will be up for re-election during the coming legislative session.

"We had some people who took brave stands," Walker said. "They certainly were threatened with being defeated."

For his part, Evans said he tried to put the state's interests ahead of his political future.

"I'm less concerned about me personally than about transportation in Georgia, or I would never have taken the stand I did," he said. "Some feathers need to be smoothed over, and I'm committed to doing it."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.