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State Transportation Board Votes to Include DBE in HB 170 Projects

On April 16th, the Georgia State Board of Transportation unanimously and unceremoniously approved a formal resolution to increase efforts of the Georgia Department of Transportation to include disadvantaged business enterprises (DBE) in contracts funded by revenue changes stemming from the passage of House Bill 170.  The DBE resolution pledges to apply the principles of the 2012 disparity study (of federal contracts) to state funding.

            The matter-of-fact disposition of the resolution does not accurately portray the maneuvering it took to get it before the Transportation Board.  There was no discussion and no dissenting votes when the Chairman called for the question.  Equal Access Committee Chair Stacey Key presented the resolution in a routine tone of voice that did not hint at the dramatic activity that occurred during the 2015 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly.

            The preparation started in mid-2014 when Governor deal appointed a committee to study transportation infrastructure need in Georgia.  The only blacks on the committee were David Lucas and Calvin Smyre.  That committee ultimately returned a report indicating Georgians need $2.9 billion a year to maintain and improve transportation.  By summer, 2014 African American contractors, GDOT officials and civil rights activists were engaged in a robust dialogue.  

            COMTO (Conference of Minority Transportation Officials) came to Atlanta for its annual conference during the summer and MARTA lobbyist Rhonda Briggins Ridley made sure the national organization of transportation advocates understood the issues and shared their experiences.  Janice Mathis hosted a Radio Town Hall on transportation during the conference. 

Rainbow PUSH invited U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to Atlanta in October.  Rep. Dee Dawkins Haigler, chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, convened a pivotal luncheon on January 26, 2015  to discuss the issues raised by the now-famous House Bill 170.   The lobbying continued at the GLBC's annual heritage dinner in February and even at the glitzy Xernona Clayton documentary premiere at the Hyatt Regency on March 14th. 

Senator Vincent Fort played "bad cop" throughout the legislative session, but was demure in his comments at the GDOT Equal Access Committee meeting on April 15th, 2015.  He raised the issue of whether the current federal DBE study would be amended to include a study of state funds and thanked the GDOT staff and everyone involved in getting the resolution recommended for passage by Governor Deal. 

By contrast, Fort, known for fiery rhetoric, went to the well (podium) of the Senate almost daily during the session to chide his fellow Senators and the public about the lack of consideration for 14% of the state’s business enterprises. 

No one contributed more to the historic effort than Macon's long-serving legislator David Lucas.  He worked relentlessly behind the scenes with legislative leaders and others to make sure the people's voice was heard and understood.  Reportedly, Lucas gave up the chance to be on the all-important Conference Committee that reconciled the House and Senate versions of House Bill 170 to preserve his clout with the Lieutenant Governor. 

Others played pivotal roles, like a well-oiled political machine, disproving the notion that black elected officials don’t work well together.   Senator Emanuel Jones was said to be working chamber of commerce types, while Democratic Senate Caucus Chair Horacena Tate insisted on a Caucus vote of support and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson did shuttle diplomacy between the Dems and the GOP.  Senator Gloria Butler made it clear to her Senate Transportation Committee colleagues that the Senate Caucus was serious about the issues involved and would not be taken for granted.

Many were surprised that the 18 Democratic Senators were able to hold together as a bloc to oppose HB 170 when it came to a vote in  the Senate, especially after GLBC House members failed to amend House Bill 170, and, under pressure, voted in favor of the measure.  Only Rep. Pam Stephenson refused to go along. 

There was close coordination throughout the session between DBE supporters and MARTA.  MARTA has a long history of engagement with DBE firms and is  generally viewed as being more inclusive.  Black business people in places like Athens, Savannah and Augusta called their GOP reps to indicate their desire to see inclusion.  Benny Polote from Savannah was one of the most actively involved.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. stopped by the Capitol in the waning days of the session.  Contractor vans circled the Capitol with signs reading GDOT and Create Jobs while Jackson addressed a small crowd and posed for photos with legislators and staffers,  including a descendant of Herman Talmadge.  While he was there he met privately with his old pal Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus) who assured that he had already decided to work to get inclusion language in a resolution that would be a companion piece to House Bill 170.  In addition, there would be consideration for MARTA, engineering scholarship money and a fund to facilitate DBE bonding, which is often a barrier to participation.  Smyre ended up on the conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate versions of HB 170. 

During the  transportation board meeting on April 16th, the Chairman and new GDOT Commissioner thanked everyone profusely for their role in getting HB 170 passed.  The bill was referred to as "historic."  No one mentioned the pivotal role that Senate Democrats played in assuring passage.  First voting en banc against the Governor’s No. 1 priority, they later gave their full support to the final version of the bill, assuring some $2.7 billion dollars in new state funding for transportation over the next 3-4 years.

Advocates for disadvantaged business enterprises realize that the resolution does not carry the weight of legislation, but it is the best indication of a willingness to level the playing field in state contracting  since Zell Miller was Governor.  23 years ago, Bill Cannon, Benny Polote, David Lucas and others managed to get Governor Miller  to sign an executive order setting up a registry of state contracts, making it easier for all firms, including DBEs,  to find out what business the state was doing.

            Most advocates, including Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and Nancy Flake Johnson, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, felt that it was long past time for another victory.  DBE participation is not merely aimed enriching at a few relatively well-off minority-owned business people.  Empowering these small businesses is a way to create jobs where they are needed the most.  "Anyone who thinks people ought to work for a living instead of relying on various forms of assistance should applaud what GDOT did today.  Inclusion leads to growth and independence," indicated Janice Mathis, VP of Rainbow PUSH.  "Our team worked well together, putting the needs of the entire state ahead of personal interests."

Inclusion advocates are the first to admit that a lot more is left to do, but took the pragmatic view that politics is the art of the possible.  Tea Party reluctance to support any revenue enhancements gave Democrats a rare opportunity to influence the shape and tenor of House Bill.  Future efforts will include recruiting  more highly qualified diverse and encouraging them to get certified, pre-qualified and actually bid.  Goals must be set on state funds (as opposed to federal) and relationships built with the major players in the highway construction industry.  And federal highway funding ends unless Congress acts by the end of May. 

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Gwenette Westbrooks
by Janice L. Mathis, ESQ