Perdue sides with Legislature on commuter rail funding

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gov. Sonny Perdue signed next year's budget Monday without issuing any vetoes, dashing the hopes of Gwinnett County leaders who had urged him to quash a provision putting restrictions on commuter-rail funding.

The record $18.65 billion spending plan includes 4 percent pay raises for Georgia teachers and 2 percent to 4 percent increases for most state employees.

It also includes language added by the House on the final day of this year's General Assembly session prohibiting the state from spending any money on commuter rail projects without the Legislature's approval.

There's some question whether the provision will affect the timetable for Georgia's first commuter rail line linking Atlanta with suburban Lovejoy south of the city. The $106 million in state and local money needed to get that project up and running as early as 2008 already has been secured.

But the restriction undoubtedly will slow down planning for a second commuter line connecting Atlanta and Athens via Gwinnett County, said Emory Morsberger, a Lilburn developer and chairman of the Georgia Brain Train Group, a coalition of business and political leaders pushing the project.

"Traffic in Gwinnett County is getting worse, and it's getting worse fast,'' he said. "We can't wait until the Legislature comes back into session (next January) to work on this.''

Morsberger and several other local leaders met on Monday with members of Perdue's staff to plead their case for the governor to use his line-item veto authority to remove the provision from the budget.

The Gwinnett contingent also included state Reps. Clay Cox, R-Lilburn, and Melvin Everson, R-Snellville; Gwinnett County Commissioner Kevin Kenerly; and Stephen Loftin, executive director of the Regional Business Coalition.

The governor was away from the Capitol on Monday, dedicating four new pre-release centers operated by the state Department of Corrections.

"I think the reception was warm in general for commuter rail and, in my mind, it was warmer specifically for the Atlanta-to-Athens rail proposal,'' Cox said after the meeting.

"When you talk about moving professional people up and down a regional corridor, rail needs to be looked at. ... I think the people in the governor's office at least began to share that vision.''

But it wasn't enough to convince Perdue to go against the

Legislature's wishes.

"He respected the General Assembly's prerogative to be involved in large transportation projects like commuter rail,'' said Shane Hix, a Perdue spokesman.

The governor also left intact a $600,000 cut in operations money for "intermodal'' transportation programs made by the Legislature to his original budget request.

Hix said although governors can veto items out of the budget, they do not have the power to put money back into the spending plan.

The dispute over rail accounted for just a tiny portion of next year's budget, which takes effect on July 1.

Perdue emphasized the role education will play in fiscal 2007. Some 70 percent of the $1.2 billion in additional state spending will go toward education, including smaller class sizes and a $100 gift card for teachers to buy classroom supplies.

"As I laid out my budget and legislative agenda earlier this year, I said my top priorities would be education, education and education," Perdue said in a written statement.

To help fund the reduction in class sizes approved by the General Assembly, the budget contains a $383 million bond package for classroom construction. The Gwinnett school system will receive more than $22.5 million of that money.

Between them, next year's budget and the midyear adjustment to the current spending plan - which Perdue also signed on Monday - provide $311 million in bonds for construction projects throughout the state university system and $114 million for work at Georgia's technical colleges.

The new Hamilton Mill Branch library will receive $2 million from the university system, which controls the purse strings for Georgia's public libraries.

The $17.8 billion midyear budget to carry state government through the end of June adds $444 million to the 2006 spending plan approved by lawmakers a year ago.