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Cagle wants Clark Howard for citizen transportation panel

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

If the July 31 transportation tax referendum passes in metro Atlanta, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he has a great choice for one of five spots on a citizen review panel: consumer advocate Clark Howard.

Howard "understands the value" of a penny, Cagle, who supports the referendum, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I don't think there is anyone in this entire region that is more respected than Clark Howard on financial matters, and I want the voters to know that we intend to take the citizen oversight process seriously."

But Howard, during a break on his radio show Wednesday on AM 750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB, told the AJC he would "love" to be on the panel but doubts he has enough time to give it the commitment it would need. Some referendum opponents question whether Howard has the right background anyway.

"I want tough, tough watchdogs on this beat if this were to pass, and I don't know that I have the time that it takes to do it right," Howard said. "I've heard from people over and over again that they just automatically assume if this passes ... the thieves are going to be there stealing and stealing."

Howard, however, has been a vocal supporter of the referendum and on Wednesday lent his name and words to a mail piece targeting voters in the region.

"You know I hate taxes," Howard is quoted as saying on the mailer. "That's pretty obvious from everything I've said over the years. But I am emphatically for [the transportation referendum]. The more I've learned about it, the more I think we need to do it."

Cox Enterprises Inc., the parent company of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio, has contributed to the campaign in support of the transportation referendum.

Cagle had hoped Howard's membership on the panel would assuage worries about the money being spent properly. The state is divided into 12 regions for the referendum; each has its own project list for voters to consider, and each would have its own citizen review panel.

"Voters should have as much information as possible, and the citizen oversight committee is a key part of this process," Cagle said.

For the metro Atlanta citizen review panel, Cagle gets to appoint two of the five members — House Speaker David Ralston gets the other three. The panel has great power to review progress on projects paid for by the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax and can demand information from nearly any state or local government and agency. The board also will issue an annual report that shows the progress made on every project on the approved list.

The panel can make recommendations to the state Department of Transportation and other state agencies.

What it cannot do is stop a project it believes is wasteful or inappropriate, and that is what concerns opponents of the entire concept.

Jack Staver, chairman of the Transportation Leadership Coalition, which opposes the referendum, said the panel would have no power to block or stop projects that don't meet the criteria.

"They have no authority whatsoever," Staver said. "Just in our [region] alone, there's 157 projects. These guys are going to watch over 157 projects?"

Besides, Staver said, Howard isn't the best choice.

"They better be construction people," Staver said. "Clark Howard, yeah, he's a consumer advocate, a money guy, but what does he know about heavy construction?"