Legislator And Road Warrior
One of the hottest seats in the Georgia House of Representatives during this year’s session belonged to Rep. Vance Smith, Republican from the 129th District. No surprise, considering that Smith chaired the House Transportation Committee, and transportation funding and governance were two of the hottest topics.
Two plans, one from the House, the other from the Senate, each addressing the hot-button topic of transportation funding, were lobbed to and fro throughout the 40-day session.
Among the differences, the House plan called for a statewide 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects from a long, statewide wish list, while the Senate plan promoted a regional funding matrix, allowing local governments to form alliances and create a 1-cent local option sales tax to fund projects.
Meanwhile, Gov. Sonny Perdue supported a reorganization of the entire Department of Transporta-tion, a plan giving control of the DOT board’s makeup to top state leaders.
In the end, neither funding plan passed, and the watered-down governance plan established a governor-appointed DOT director of planning who would be approved by the House Transportation Committee. The gridlock was almost enough to make a mild-mannered former construction business owner pack up his briefcase and head back home to Pine Mountain.
But Smith, 57, who’s served for 17 years in the House, hasn’t come this far to quit now.
“I’ve been joined at the hip with transportation for about two years,” he says. “There are some counties in this state that have been waiting for roads to be paved. Nothing fancy, just a paved road. My focus has been transportation funding and we have to make a move. There are no options. We have to be successful.”
Without denying the transportation needs of Metro Atlanta, Smith says he’s determined to make sure rural Georgia’s voice is heard at the committee table, a sensibility that has guided his behavior since he first came to Atlanta representing his district.
“It might take a while, but I answer each email that I get,” he says. And he learns from his colleagues: “The great thing about the committee system is that it gives you a chance to listen to a lot of debate. These are part-time legislators but they are full-time in their commitment and thought processes.”
Smith, who ran a family-owned construction and earth moving company for 30-plus years before selling off the equipment in the fall of 2008, made his first foray into politics in the mid-1980s, running for the Pine Mountain City Council. After serving on the council, he moved on to the Harris County Com-mission, serving there from 1987 until 1990.
Even then he was a student. “I learned a lot about the county where I was raised,” he says. “There was so much I didn’t even know until I was on the commission.” In 1992 he ran for state representative and won.
He was sworn in at the State Capitol in January 1993 and still remembers how awed he was as he drove to Atlanta as a representative for the first time. “It was such a humbling experi-ence,” he recalls. “I had goose bumps. I think about what we’re doing there, for the 9.5 million people living in the state. I don’t like all the legislation that comes out, but it’s a huge task. I will always try to do the best for the citizens of the 129th district, but I have to think about all the citizens of Georgia and what’s best for them as well.”
Smith’s biggest challenge was learning the language of legislation. “I’m not a lawyer,” he says. “Everything there is written in ‘legalese.’ For me, the learning curve meant learning how to read law. I’m not going to say it’s easy now, but you do adjust. “Colleagues in the House learn to depend on each other and draw on their knowledge base.”
And some of his best friends in the House are from across the aisle. “You have to learn to work together,” he says. “You do what you think is right for the citizens on any given subject and then move on to the next subject. There isn’t time for bickering.”
After the frustrating conclusion to transportation issues in the past legislative session, Smith might want to have that embroidered on a sampler to hang in his House office.