Friday, January 23, 2009

Georgia's budget crisis could sour Perdue's legacy
by Tom Baxter
Georgia Online News Service

As he awaits the day, not too far in the future, when his portrait is hung on the walls of the state Capitol, Gov. Sonny Perdue presents a painterly problem for the person assigned to capture his legacy on canvas.

Gubernatorial portraits are an austere genre in which the artist has only the executive's pose and a few desk props to express the leader's essence. But this governor presents more of a problem than most.

We can expect some kind of elephant motif to signify his place as the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction, and maybe a fish hook, in reference to his efforts to bring championship bass fishing to the state. A fish, wrapped inside a copy of the local newspaper, already has been employed in the wittiest portrait hanging in the Capitol, that of the late Gov. Lester Maddox.

For Perdue, perhaps a stopwatch or something, to connote the governor's drive to bring efficiency to state government.

Beyond that, the lines in his painting begin to fade. Two legislative sessions away from history, Perdue's legacy seems less clear than it did when he swept into office on what might have been the greatest political upset in the state's history.

When he dealt in his first administration with budget problems much milder than those he faces now, Perdue more than once portrayed the troubles as a dark storm through which the light airplane of state was being piloted bravely. The governor even flirted briefly with giving the State of the State message during evening prime time and arriving at the Capitol by helicopter from the Governor's Mansion.

Since then, however, the State of the State and the annual budget message to the Legislature have been compressed into one speech, given without much fanfare during the first week of the session.

Across the country in this hard winter, governors have resorted to Reaganesque or Rooseveltian rhetoric, depending on their persuasion, to steel incoming legislatures to the hard choices they will face as plummeting state revenues create big holes in the budgets for schools, health care and roads. But Perdue, while acknowledging it as "a pivotal moment in our nation's history," was strangely understated in this year's message, laying out the primary budget challenges in bare terms while reminiscing about how his administration had brought a "customer-focused culture of public service." He referred again to the "problems of prosperity" which our fast-growing state faces, but, with unemployment in the state racing past the national average, the phrase rang out of tune this year.

"Don't hear me dismissing the scope or severity of this downturn. But, more importantly, don't leave failing to hear the message that we need to look beyond this downturn," Perdue said, searching for a ray of sunshine in the storm that has blown up late in his administration.

A colder reality was compressed into an ominous paragraph: "Political mantras aside, cutting more than 10 percent from a budget cannot be achieved by simply cutting waste. While we have worked for six years to do more with less, at some point, in business or in government, it becomes less with less," Perdue said.

After hearing Barack Obama outline his recovery plans at the National Governors Conference in December, Perdue announced a bond program for public works projects that is an increase of some 20 percent over previous years. Perdue has been generally complimentary of Obam's efforts to revive the national economy, but Democrats say he has been reluctant to reach out to the incoming Democratic administration at a time when other states are putting together their wish lists for the expected federal recovery money.

But a gathering chorus of public advocacy groups says the state has failed so far to deal with the prospect of long-term joblessness and increased strain on the state's creaky social service network. And even some of Perdue's closest legislative allies are puzzled at the way Perdue has handled this budget and left them with little advance indication of his plans.

"We are budgeting as if nothing is going to change," Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, said at a recent day-long conference organized by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Economist Alan Essig, executive director of the budget and policy institute, warned that the current downturn in state revenues is different in character from previous dips in collections, when the state has been able to make up the rainy-day money it has used to cover shortfalls.

The real worry, Essig said, aren't the budget holes that will be filled with one-time funds this year, but the wider holes opening up in 2010, 2011 and 2012, with no reserves to cover them.

Thus, the greater share of Perdue's legacy will involve the leadership he shows in guiding the state over his final two years, which he had hoped – and, until mid-year 2008, when the bottom dropped out of his fiscal year budget projection, expected – would be much fatter.

Scratching their heads over Perdue's seeming reluctance to step up to the moment, Republican legislators often refer to one of the core ironies of his six years as governor.

Perdue has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. As a rural Georgia legislator, his bright vests and grand demeanor suggested a Founding Father, arriving at the organizational meeting a few hundred years late. As a fist-pumping candidate for governor, he dared to dream of a victory even those in his own party deemed out of reach.

But Perdue won that great upset running against the grand plans and institutional arrogance he saw in Roy Barnes' administration, and it resulted in a governing style that has avoided anything that smacked of his predecessor.

"He became the anti-Barnes," a Republican senator said.

To watch Perdue from the second level of the rotunda as he worked his way through visiting groups during his first administration was to see a political talent few at the Capitol recognized when they dealt with the governor eye to eye. Having no big projects for the state to tackle hurt Perdue far less among the voters than it did under the Golden Dome, and he won re-election handily in 2006, which wasn't a good year for Republicans nationally. Some observers think that Perdue harbored aspirations for a cabinet post, which didn't come to pass, or maybe even a spot on the ticket.

But now, some are beginning to doubt whether Perdue's popularity remains as strong. The sea change, a Republican House member said, came last summer when Perdue went on a junket to Spain in the middle of the statewide gasoline shortage.

"I must have had a hundred e-mails from constituents, wanting to know if I was on the same trip," the House member said.

The news that Perdue, who declined to put his personal affairs in a blind trust when he became governor, has financed a personal loan of more than $20 million, as recently reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is sure to lead Democrats to step up the attack on Perdue as distracted and out-of-touch. It also raises troubling questions about how a sitting governor whose net worth was reported in a 2006 disclosure as $6 million could end up owing three times that amount three years later.

Legislatures can't lead in a time of economic crisis, and, in any case, the current Georgia General Assembly has only a shard of the institutional confidence it had 20 years ago.

In what California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called "a year of political courage," the only person who can lead the state is the one whose portrait will hang on a Capitol wall.

Tom Baxter is editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. He was the chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 20 years.

Tom Baxter is editor of the Southern Political Report and senior vice president of its parent company, InsiderAdvantage, a media and polling firm. He was the chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 20 years.   [full bio]


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Today's GONSO

Georgia's budget crisis could sour Perdue's legacy

by Tom Baxter
As he awaits the day, not too far in the future, when his portrait is hung on the walls of the state Capitol, Gov. Sonny Perdue presents a painterly problem for the person assigned to capture his legacy on canvas.

Full Story

This year's session to be a classic clash of political philosophies

by Eric Tanenblatt
Over runny eggs and undercooked sausages, Gov. Sonny Perdue found himself before 2,500 people at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's annual legislative session Feb. 13 starting the "Eggs & Issues" breakfast discussing a budget crisis much like he did when he took office just prior to the 2003 legislative session. Full Story

Behold the Gold Dome, behold the media – and weep

by John Sugg
Georgia, we have a problem. It's called leadership – or more precisely, a lack thereof.
Full Story

Senate Agrees to New Transport Agency, Barely

by Maggie Lee
In a nearly a party-line vote of 30-25, the Georgia Senate has approved a bill that would create a new state transportation agency, and in the view of its sponsor, give more power to rural districts.
Full Story

Senate Agrees to New Transport Agency, Barely

by Maggie Lee
In a nearly a party-line vote of 30-25, the Georgia Senate has approved a bill that would create a new state transportation agency, and in the view of its sponsor, give more power to rural districts.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
What comes first at General Assembly: political posturing or good policy?
by Tom Opdyke
Problems abound with single party control
by J. Randolph Evans
Funding for Georgia health programs, trauma centers may be a smoking issue
by Bill Hendrick

 
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