House Bill to Create Transportation Panel Dies in State Senate

Mon April 26, 2004 - Southeast Edition

MONTGOMERY, AL (AP) Some Alabama legislators have complained for years about the state’s highway construction program being too political, but efforts to change the management are stalled for now.

A bill passed by the Alabama House to create a state transportation commission was killed by a Senate committee, and a separate bill seeking the same goal hit a roadblock in another Senate committee.

The chief advocates of a transportation commission –– Sen. Bobby Denton and Rep. Cam Ward –– said they will be back in future legislative sessions.

“We are going to keep fighting because there is nobody in the Legislature who can tell me this department doesn’t need reforming,” said Ward, R-Alabaster.

But others see no need for a commission.

“It would put more politics in it than there is today,” said Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega.

In Alabama, the state Transportation Department is one of the governor’s Cabinet agencies, and the governor appoints the transportation director.

In 2002, Gov. Bob Riley campaigned on turning over control of the Transportation Department to a transportation commission so that the department’s priorities wouldn’t change with each new administration in Montgomery.

Riley also ended the practice of the transportation director going to the Legislature when one of the governor’s proposals faced a key vote. In the past, legislators complained about road projects being used to leverage votes.

They’ve also complained that the state’s road priorities seemed to depend on how counties voted in the governor’s race. The most famous example, Denton said, is the delay in completing the interstate highway system in Jefferson County.

“You and I know why the largest, most populous county was the last to get the interstate finished ––┬ábecause it didn’t vote for George Wallace,” Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, told state senators.

Ward got the House to vote 93-1 last month for his bill turning over the highway program to a commission. Denton heads the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and urged his committee to approve Ward’s bill, but the committee killed it 4-3.

Ward’s bill, which was supported by Riley, would have created a nine-member commission appointed by the governor. The commissioners would serve staggered six-year terms so that one governor’s appointees would extend into the term of the next governor. The commission would hire a director to oversee day-to-day operations of the Transportation Department.

Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said he voted against the bill because the governor would make all the appointments to the commission. Bedford said the appointments should be made by several officials to take out the politics. He also complained that the bill didn’t set any qualifications for the commission members.

Denton, a veteran member of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, is sponsoring a bill similar to Ward’s, but the Senate Rules Committee, headed by Preuitt, has refused to put the bill on the Senate’s work agenda.

Neither bill would take effect until after the next election for governor in 2006.

Preuitt said Denton’s bill has opposition from Democrats and Republicans and can’t pass in the Senate.

Preuitt said creating a Transportation Commission won’t remove any politics. Instead of going to see the governor about a highway project, a legislator would have to see all nine commissioners and the officials who appointed them, he said.

Preuitt also said that he and many other legislators ”have been able to work closely with the governor on our highway needs.”

Denton sees the opposition another way.

“It’s coming from selfish people who don’t want to turn loose of the possibility of being in a favorable position with the next governor and highway director,” he said.