MARTA privatization bill stalls in Senate

State House Republicans put the full weight of their chamber behind a bill mandating privatizing parts of MARTA to help salvage the financially struggling transit authority, but Senate Republicans may well derail it.

The bill has stalled in the Senate Transportation Committee, assigned to a subcommittee for study with only six days left in the legislative session — to the professed gratitude of MARTA’s union, which views privatization as a threat to jobs.

Union members pressed in the Senate against the MARTA bill, which also could affect collective bargaining, future employee pensions and the selection of MARTA board members, Curtis Howard, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732, said Tuesday. The union warned that some aspects of the bill could jeopardize critical federal grants because they could run afoul of federal rules protecting collective bargaining with management at transit authorities.

“We definitely appreciate the Senate Republicans taking a look at it and seeing whether it is right or wrong,” Howard said. “If you have somebody who gives you the time to listen, then you owe them respect. The House didn’t take any time to listen. They just rammed it through.”

Efforts to privatize MARTA grew more urgent last year as the nation’s ninth-largest transit agency projected an operating deficit of more than $30 million. An audit commissioned by the MARTA board, and conducted by KPMG, concluded that MARTA pays $50 million above the national average for employee benefits such as health care, retirement and worker’s compensation. Additionally, the audit said MARTA could save at least $12 million annually by privatizing some of its functions, such as its cleaning services.

Privatization of some services has the support of the MARTA board of directors, although it prefers that privatization not be mandatory. State Rep. Mike Jacobs told MARTA General Manager Keith Parker during a meeting Tuesday that he offered to take out mandatory privatization during a meeting with MARTA staff. Jacobs is chairman of the legislative committee that oversees MARTA.

Parker told the committee that MARTA has a plan for privatizing services. Jacobs asked Parker whether he and his staff could support the bill, pointing out that it did many things that MARTA had requested, including suspending the law that requires MARTA to spend 50 percent of its sales tax revenue on capital improvements and allow it to use it for operating costs.

Parker said he could not make that commitment. After the meeting he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the board governance issue in the bill was a sticking point. The bill takes away appointments from the Fulton and DeKalb County Commissions and gives them to mayors.

MARTA “has allies” on both sides of the issue, Parker told the AJC, and could not afford to take a position.

Jacobs, a Republican from Brookhaven, said the board issue was what was holding up the bill. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, would only say some committee members had issues with the bill.

Jacobs has done an end run around Gooch’s committee that could be successful.

He amended a bill — supported by key senators — that broadens the eligibility for contractors for public works projects to include four key aspects of the MARTA legislation: the mandatory privatization of certain functions such as para-transit or cleaners, the restructuring of the board to give DeKalb and Fulton mayors appointments, a debt ceiling and the ability to divert revenue earmarked for capital projects to operating costs.

One aspect of the original MARTA legislation that Jacobs didn’t include in the amendment was the one issue that he said the MARTA administration asked him to include in the stalled legislation: the ability for the governor to appoint a retired judge to arbitrate a disagreement between the union and MARTA management.

The union considers that language disadvantageous to it in bargaining on its contract with MARTA at a time when management says it is committed to privatization. It would allow the governor to appoint someone seen as more favorable to management. Several years ago the union got a rule installed that arbitrators would be professional arbitrators acceptable to both management and labor.

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