Ralston announced his plan in a speech to the Atlanta Press Club, a couple of hours before appearing at a press conference with Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to endorse a unified approach to transportation funding. It was basically the plan Perdue announced at the beginning of the session with one important addition: A three-year suspension of the law which prohibits MARTA from spending more than 50 percent of its sales tax revenues on operating expenses.
At the press conference, Perdue - who has had his own high-profile differences with the DOT board this year - said he also would "whole-heartedly endorse" Ralston's term-shortening proposal. Both the governor and speaker were angered by the DOT board's move to an accrual accounting system, which Perdue has said is unconstitutional.
"We've allowed, I think, a lot of accountability to fall by the wayside over there, and I think it's important that we start the discussion about tenure on that board," Ralston said in his press club speech.
In questioning after his speech, Ralston said he would submit a proposed constitutional amendment next Tuesday which would shorten the current five-year term for DOT board members to one year. He said he would also listen to arguments for a two-year term.
Ralston said another possibility was limiting board members to a single, five-year term, a move that he said could be done by statute and would not require a constitutional amendment.
"I think there is going to be a good bit of support for that in the House," he said, referring to the constitutional amendment.
When asked why he was proposing the change, he replied: "More accountability. You've got a board over there that's defying the law and continuing to resist change, continuing to resist our efforts to bring a planning component over there to give greater accountability to the way they spend their money."
The speaker said his amendment will also require departments and agencies such as DOT to adhere to the same ethics laws that apply to legislators. House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson said later this would involve clearing up some technicalities in the ethics rules governing board members which could create loopholes.
At the joint press conference, Perdue said his transportation bill will call for a vote within each of 12 transportation regions coinciding with the 2012 presidential primary. Voters will vote up or down on a sales tax increase of up to 1 percent to fund a list of local projects approved by DOT's director of planning, the new position created by the legislature last year and appointed by the governor.
"I know there has been some debate about the date, but I believe that our economy must be given time to recover," Perdue said.
MARTA CEO Beverly Scott looked on approvingly as Perdue announced the three-year suspension of the rules which have kept the transit system from plugging its budget holes with that portion of the money from the 1-cent sales tax it collects in Fulton and DeKalb counties which is earmarked for construction. She said afterwards the greater flexibility "helps, but does not in any way solve the problem" of funding for MARTA.
The suspension would go into effect immediately.
Most of the details of the plan were known before Thursday's joint appearance by the three top state leaders. What was more newsworthy was their united front, in contrast to the divisions which have crippled the effort to force a transportation plan in the past two sessions.
"For the first time you're seeing the governor and the lieutenant governor and the speaker together, embracing an idea that really is a visionary approach to the ways we're going to solve the real issues of our state as it relates to transportation," Cagle said.
At the press club lunch, Ralston said he is determined to break the transportation logjam.
"I don't want to go back to Blue Ridge until that bill gets done," the speaker said.