AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

New $115 million judicial complex near Capitol back off the drawing board - for now

Plans to build the most expensive state-funded building in state history - a fancy judicial complex down the block from the Capitol - are off the drawing board. Again. At least for now.

The State Financing and Investment Commission - made up of Gov. Nathan Deal and other state leaders - used what has been a controversial tactic in the past and re-directed $7.5 million in bond money the General Assembly approved in 2014 to design a new complex and prepare the old Archives building site.

Unlike past budget re-directions that produced an uproar at the Capitol, this one probably won't cause much indigestion.

Governors have put money in the budget for more than a decade to tear down the old Archives building, and the state's top judges have asked for a new home for the Supreme Court and Appeals Court for years.

But the General Assembly seldom rushes to spend state bond money around the Capitol, preferring out-state construction. Tearing down the dangerous, 60-year-old old parking deck across from the statehouse and turning it into Liberty Plaza was an exception.

General Assemblies have generally taken money governors recommended for the old Archives teardown/judicial building and found other uses for it.

In 2014, they approved $7.5 million in bonds to design the judicial complex and prepare the site. Deal and lawmakers knew at the time that it wasn't enough money, but the state sold the bonds in June 2014 and banked most of the money.

Last month, the commission publicly admitted what Deal and lawmakers already knew, that they'd need another $6.5 million to demolish the building and prepare the site. So the original $7.5 million - minus a little money already spent - was moved to other priorities of the Georgia Building Authority.

Among those priorities - fixing or replacing the chiller and HVAC at the Governor's Mansion, replacing the roof and piping at the current judicial building across from the statehouse, and several other Capitol Hill upgrades.

The last time a commission re-direction made the news, it hit with a splash of cold water in the face of the General Assembly.

As Gov. Sonny Perdue wrapped up his second and final term in 2010, the commission he led quietly funneled millions of taxpayer dollars into two heavily criticized projects in Perdue's home county.

The $4.37 million it spent was originally approved to help pay for a reservoir in west Georgia. The commission put $4 million toward the purchase of Oaky Woods -- a giant forested tract adjacent to property that Perdue owns in Houston County. Another $375,000 paid to finish the much-maligned Go Fish Education Center just down the road from Perdue's hometown, Bonaire.

Lawmakers didn't find out for more than a year and many of them were outraged about what had happened. Nonetheless, a bill to mandate that lawmakers approve the re-direction of bond money in the future went nowhere.

The fact that the commission eliminated the money to plan the judicial complex doesn't necessarily mean it's dead. Reports are that Deal wants to add two more seats to the Supreme Court and he may try to sway current jurists to his view by promising the new judicial complex, which could cost $115 million or more. He asked for a bigger planning and Archives tear-down bond package in 2014, and he may do it again in 2016.

But the final piece of the puzzle, the construction bond, will be a big ask, possibly amounting to 10-15 percent of the total bond package the year it's requested. That may be a lot for a General Assembly historically reticent to spend money around the Capitol to swallow.




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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.