Road contractors shower governor with campaign donations

After the regional sales tax for transportation crashed and burned last year, Gov. Nathan Deal said he would set priorities for major road projects.

Road builders, civil engineering firms and others involved in infrastructure projects responded by giving the governor about $50,000 in campaign contributions in the second half of 2012 — perhaps a sign of the governor’s growing power to determine the future of transportation in the state and an attempt by the firms to get into Deal’s good graces as he prepares a re-election campaign.

The contractors’ contributions between July and December were nearly double what Deal received from the same sources during the 18 preceding months — about $50,000 in a half-year versus about $28,000 in a year and a half — and represented roughly a tenth of the governor’s total campaign receipts during the second half of 2012.

One contractor said he hoped the contributions might lead to new work for an industry that has “gone through three years of layoffs.”

The biggest donors were the Georgia Highway Contractors Association, the industry trade group; Sunbelt Structures, a Tucker-based construction firm; C.W. Matthews, a Marietta-based roadbuilding firm; and Yancey Brothers, an Austell firm that sells heavy-duty road construction equipment.

C.W. Matthews, which donated $5,000 to Deal in November and another $2,500 last January, has long been a force in Georgia politics. Matthews executives and others linked to the firm gave $176,000 to Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes for his 2002 re-election campaign and has since sought to mend strained ties by giving to Deal and his predecessor, Sonny Perdue.

Deal wasn’t the only recipient of the industry’s largess. The highway association contributed about $51,000 to state candidates, including members of the House and Senate transportation committees. But records show Deal was by far the greatest beneficiary of the industry’s gifts.

Thanks to a shakeup of the transportation bureacracy several years ago, Deal has more power than his recent predecessors over the selection of projects funded by the state’s dwindling road funds. He has made clear that he’ll use that authority to focus on a “need to do” list of projects such as the Ga. 400 interchange with I-285 and beefed-up infrastructure around Savannah’s port.

There is much at stake beyond those projects, too. The only major source of new roadbuilding funds in metro Atlanta is from toll projects, and Deal shocked the roadbuilding community when he pulled the plug on a nearly $1 billion toll road project in 2011. It’s back out to bid now, but it’s clear that project and others will rise if Deal wants them to and fall if he doesn’t.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in a statement the governor appreciates the polititcal support he’s received across the state, saying that “Georgians are taking notice and expressing their backing.”

James Mann, vice president at Pittman Construction Co., which specializes in building highways, said he doesn’t expect the governor to soon back a new funding source for transportation, but the donations keep the door open to a discussion.

“If you’ve gone through three years of layoffs, is there a possibility of a time when we’ll be needing to hire people?” is the question, said Mann, whose company donated $2,500 to Deal. “Every chance we get we get with any of them, we say the same thing: Please.”

Bill Hammack, president of C.W. Matthews, said the company supported the governor because he stuck his neck out to support the T-SPLOST while many others “wanted to hide.” It wasn’t a quid pro quo, he said, but a matter of supporting someone who is making a positive difference. “What we hope is we’ll have a better Georgia and more opportunity for transportation of all types,” Hammack said.

In the three regions where it passed, the T-SPLOST is expected to raise $1.8 billion, mostly for roadbuilding. Matthews owns an asphalt plant in Columbus, one of those regions, and plans to bid on T-SPLOST work, Hammack said.

In addition, Matthews is one of three bidders on the massive toll project that Deal pulled and then reinstated. Hammack said Matthews’ support of Deal is “not directly tied to that,” but he said it’s an important project for the company and for Georgia drivers.

Chuck Clay, a former Republican lawmaker who lobbies for C.W. Matthews, said the jump in contractor contributions isn’t about trying to win support for individual projects. It’s more about persuading state leaders to keep supporting the industry with big projects at a time when many contractors have had to slash jobs.

“There continues to be a smaller and smaller pie in terms of available projects, available money,” said Clay. “That increases the pressure in the (contractor) community itself to try to ensure that the pie does not shrink further.”

C.W. Matthews was paid or was owed about $400 million for road projects in fiscal 2012, the last full year for which figures are available. Clay said contractors had it easier a decade or so ago, when state revenue was growing more rapidly and there were plenty of jobs to go around. In more recent years, the firm has had to cut hundreds of jobs.

“The level of distress in the contracting community is very real,” he said, adding: “There just is not much money and it continues to put the contracting industry, if not on the ropes, close to it.”

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