MARTA legislative panel butts heads with GM (and each other)
MARTA’s general manager and its chief legislative overseer locked horns today over the transit agency’s plan to spend up to $400,000 on outside lobbyists.
Then, state Rep. Jill Chambers took on a member of her MARTA Oversight Committee — Sen. Doug Stoner — when he objected to her “cross-examination” of MARTA officials over the agency’s spending on consultants.
The standoff escalated when Chambers, the committee chairman, cut off Stoner’s microphone in mid-sentence as he questioned her tone.
Stoner responded by talking louder.
“I’m very disappointed in us as a committee,” Stoner said. “I don’t think we’re getting to any real information. We’re playing games.”
Chambers had spent about 20 minutes grilling MARTA chairman Michael Walls somewhat incredulously about spending in FY 2009 for a communications consultant ($40,766), executive head-hunters ($42,214), exercise equipment ($46,774), employee cellphones ($547,546), outside attorneys and computer training for MARTA board members ($15,990).
“It shows an attitude that it doesn’t matter how much we spend, there’s going to be money to pay for it,” she said.
MARTA has solicited proposals to hire an outside agency to push the agency’s legislative agenda in 2010. MARTA was unable to persuade the General Assembly this year to give it access to capital reserves to balance its operating budget.
General Manager Beverly Scott told the MARTA Oversight Committee that the transit agency expects an annual budget deficit of about $80 million over the next several years.
“I can save you $400,000 right now,” Chambers told GM Beverly Scott. “As MARTOC chairman, I will not do business … or allow myself to be lobbied by anyone hired by this authority and paid with tax money.”
Chambers said she’d heard that MARTA wanted to hire lobbyists who could reach House Rules Chairman Earl Ehrhart and Ways and Means chairman Larry O’Neal. Earlier, she said about a half-dozen lobbyists hoping to secure the MARTA job were in attendance at today’s MARTOC meeting.
Scott denied that any specific legislators would be targeted. She said MARTA, which employed two lobbyists in the 2009 legislative session, was “outclassed [and] outmaneuvered” by other interests with larger lobbying corps.
“It’s not strong-arm or anything like that,” Scott said, but more about “political information and education.”
Stoner jumped to MARTA’s defense, noting that the proposed lobbying contract would be for three years, not just one, and would cover contact with the federal government as well as the state.
Several state agencies employ more lobbyists than MARTA does, Stoner said. And, he noted, “We have a public monopoly named Georgia Power which hired 70 people to lobby in the last session to lobby us with ratepayer money.”
Scott said MARTA ideally should have four or five lobbyists to educate the General Assembly about the agency: “There are many legislators, they just don’t know MARTA, they don’t have any clue.”