0

Deal vetoes 2 bills after legislator's motives questioned

ATLANTA (MCT) -- Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday vetoed bills that would have abolished the Heart of Georgia Airport Authority and remade the Dodge County-Eastman Development Authority after the heads of both bodies accused the bills' sponsor of abusing his office.

"The governor had some questions and unfortunately failed to get the answers regarding these bills," said Chris Riley, Deal's chief of staff.

Rep. Jimmy Pruett, R-Eastman, pushed the bills -- House Bills 635 and 636 -- through the General Assembly in the final days of the legislative session.

Development authority Chairman Jack Burnham and airport authority Chairman Eddie Driggers both claimed Pruett had personal and financial motives for pushing the legislation, a claim Pruett denied.

"I'm extremely happy and extremely glad we've got a governor like Nathan Deal and his staff that will take the time to look over the legislation that these representatives and senators pass on to him to sign," Burnham said.

Burnham and Driggers made several appeals to Deal's office asking the governor to veto the legislation. They claimed Pruett had multiple conflicts of interest, beginning with a questionable land deal that resulted in Pruett receiving a $500,000 taxpayer-financed industrial building free of charge. Burnham started looking into the building last year when he was appointed to the industrial authority.

Property records show Pruett purchased a building in Eastman's industrial park in 1997 for $600,000 and sold it to the development authority in 2000 for $2.1 million, with payments deferred until 2003. The development authority built a new building on the property using a state grant before transferring it back to Pruett in 2003 at no cost.

Development authority attorney John Harrington said the land shuffle resulted from a development deal that went bust and the authority did not have the money to pay Pruett for the land. Transferring it back settled the debt, and the improvements Pruett received were unintentional, he said.

But Pruett, who was elected to the House in 2006, did not pay taxes on the property for nearly a decade after receiving it back from the development authority. Pruett said it was a county clerical error he could never get fixed.

In addition to the land deal, Pruett is on the board of directors of a bank being sued by the airport authority over a bad debt.

Pruett's bills had support from the Dodge County Commission. Chairman Dan McCranie criticized the airport authority as obstructionist and unwilling to coordinate on economic development issues.

Pruett, who did not return a call seeking comment, earlier told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that opposition to the bills came from political enemies who were twisting the facts to suit their own agendas. That argument was not enough to convince Deal.

Those weren't the only measures Deal vetoed on the final day of his 40-day period to review bills.

He rejected a measure that would have extended sales tax exemptions for some nonprofit health centers, saying it needed additional review. And he vetoed a measure designed to allow some clinical fellows to be reimbursed by Georgia's Medicaid program out of concern it would open the door to other medical providers seeking similar benefits.

Vetoes aren't the only way Deal can express his frustration with legislation.

Deal signed House Bill 276, which extends the landfill fees Georgians pay for garbage pickup. But the governor wrote a "signing statement" declaring that language in the bill tying the fees to their intended purpose -- the state's Hazardous Waste Trust Fund -- is nonbinding.

The issue has been a sticky one for years, with state leaders criticized for diverting the landfill fees, along with those customers pay when they buy new tires. The money is supposed to go into trust funds to clean up landfills, tire dumps and hazardous waste sites, but county officials say about $130 million in fees has been used in the past decade to pay for other things.

In the final minutes of the 2013 session, lawmakers passed HB 276, which not only extends the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund fees, but says the state must reduce the landfill and tire fees if the money is diverted.

Clint Mueller of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said counties agree with Deal's interpretation that the fees can't be dedicated to landfills without a constitutional amendment. HB 276 doesn't do that, he said. It only says if the fees don't go to the trust funds, they must be reduced and can be phased out, he said.