The state Transportation Board, defying the state auditor, voted 10-1 Thursday to spend money the department had set aside for future road work payments.
The move would reverse a change in DOT's accounting practices that state auditors demanded in searing reports issued over the last two years. It would take effect July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, said David Doss, the board member who made the motion.
If successful, supporters on the board said, the move may put millions more dollars into transportation projects sooner, creating road work jobs in a brutal economy. If it fails, uneasy DOT staff cautioned the board, DOT could wind up back in a deficit, having to choke off road spending again to fill the hole.
The board also decided Thursday to seek the attorney general's opinion on the accounting question. If he tells the board to stop, and does so before July 1, the issue will probably be moot.
In its reports, the state auditor said the DOT had been unconstitutionally signing multi-year contracts – when the department had, for example, only the first year’s money in the bank and the expectation of future revenue. The DOT should have waited to sign contracts until it had set aside all the money in the bank for all years of the contract, according to the auditor. The agency knew or should have known it was wrong, said the auditor, who also criticized other areas of DOT finance.
When the books were changed to set aside the proper amounts of money for contracts, auditors said, DOT finished the 2008 fiscal year with a $456 million deficit. State road spending nearly ground to a halt, and thousands of contractor employees went out of work.
Board Member Bobby Parham, who brought the issue up Thursday, said it wasn’t up to the auditor to decide what was constitutional, it was up to the judiciary.
A staff attorney from the attorney general's office strongly backed up the auditors. But DOT board members like Dana Lemon said Thursday they had heard secondhand that Attorney General Thurbert Baker believed DOT was in the right on the accounting issue, and they wanted Baker to put his opinion in writing.
Russ Willard, a spokesman for Baker, said the office had not yet received DOT's request for an opinion. "However," Willard said, "our office, including the attorney general himself, worked closely with the state auditor to unwind the DOT's prior overspending."
As chairman of the DOT board, Bill Kuhlke didn't vote but said he was against the measure.
"We’ve had this battle," Kuhlke said. When Lemon said it couldn't make DOT's situation any worse, Kuhlke answered, "Unless we have to pay it back. That’s what my concern is."
Vice Chairman Rudy Bowen voted for the move.
"I'm concerned about jobs," he said after the meeting. "I'm concerned about what we need to do in...getting engineering done and getting our road program back into the way it needs to be done to serve the people of Georgia."
The vote comes one week after Gov. Sonny Perdue backed a transportation funding plan, citing DOT's turnaround.
The board's decision is "very troubling," said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley. But it has not prompted Perdue to yank his support for the funding plan.
"The thing the governor said to me was, ‘There’s just a tone deafness.' A sound has emanated from the A.G., from the auditor, certainly from the governor, and they are just not listening to that."