ANALYSIS: The Senate Roads Plan
REAL REFORM, NON-REFORM, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
On Wednesday night, senators emerged from a behind-the-scenes meeting to adopt an amendment to the roads bill.
As it exists now, the bill does not include a tax/fee increase and includes changes that would improve the current system. Even so, it does not eliminate the State Infrastructure Bank – a key component of any genuine road funding reform – and does not make the governor fully accountable for roads.
What does the plan do?
Revenue. The plan includes no provision to take new money from taxpayers. It designates $400 million in general fund revenue to the Department of Transportation, but does not direct the money to repair and maintenance.
DOT reform. The plan abolishes the legislatively controlled Joint Transportation Review Commission (JTRC) that functions as legislative leaders’ means of controlling DOT. The governor would appoint all eight commissioners, one from each region, with advice and consent of the Senate. He or she could not, however, remove commissioners at will. Code section 1-3-240(C)(1), which is untouched by the plan, only allows the Governor to remove commissioners for cause (malfeasance, misfeasance, conflicts of interest, etc.)
State Infrastructure Bank. All powers and governance remain intact, but projects must get final approval from the DOT commission.
Transparency. The plan includes no transparency measures – meaningful priority lists, publicly available check registers, etc.
This plan does not achieve the hallmark of genuine reform – separate powers.
The amendment provides no substantive reform of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB). The plan leaves in place the process by which four of the seven STIB board members are chosen by the Senate president pro tem, and House speaker, legislative leaders who are only accountable to small legislative districts. Requiring that the DOT commission approve the decisions of an unaltered STIB board would likely amount to a de facto rubber stamp. The only way to reform the STIB is to eliminate it, since DOT already has the power to initiate new projects. As it stands now, the STIB is a legislatively controlled fiefdom, totally unaccountable to voters.
The amendment does not make the DOT fully accountable to the governor and therefore the public. While the plan should allow for greater public input in the selection process – there is currently none – the day-to-day decisions of the commission would remain beyond the public. Once commissioners assume office, however, they would not be any more accountable than current DOT Commissioners are now. If the Governor lacks the ability to remove the Commissioners at will she effectively has no real check on their behavior. Moreover even if the governor possessed at will removal powers, it is difficult to blame/hold any one member accountable for the decisions of an eight member board. In order to establish real accountability at DOT, the department must be made into a cabinet agency run by one Secretary appointed by the Governor.
In addition, the plan fails to bring transparency to DOT decision making. Transparency is every bit as vital as establishing clear lines of accountability. It’s difficult to know whether an official should be praised or removed if their decision making remains shrouded in mystery. A full reform plan would include provisions requiring transparency in all DOT spending and contracts. The process for all state contracts for road construction, maintenance, or repair should be open to public inspection, and the DOT should also make publicly available detailed descriptions of its expenditures, including all the road projects in which it is currently engaged.
Finally, the plan doesn’t guarantee needed maintenance work will be done. The amendment would require that the legislature regularly appropriate an additional $400 million to the state highway fund, but there is no requirement concerning how that money should be spent. Absent such a directive, or more appropriately, a transparent DOT fully accountable to the Governor, there is no mechanism to ensure that these new funds are spent on the most pressing needs of the entire state.