Monday, January 26, 2009

What comes first at General Assembly: political posturing or good policy?
by Tom Opdyke
Georgia Online News Service

The early rhetoric makes it clear that this session of the Georgia Legislature is going to be as difficult – and perhaps as long – as any in more than a decade.

Among the large issues threatening to push the General Assembly's work to the last hour are severe budget cuts amounting to about 10 percent of the state's nearly $20 billion budget, a looming transportation tax, heavy borrowing from the state's reserve funds and in the form of bonds, the potential loss to property owners of a $200 to $300 real estate credit.

What gets done by the last day, however, could have more to do with next year's political agendas than with this year's tough choices of closing a state budget gap in a struggling economy.

With two Republicans declaring their aim to replace Gov. Perdue in 2010 – a third is about to announce – and the presidential victory providing encouraging signs for Georgia Democratic hopefuls, insiders and even some politicians fear this year's meeting of elected officials could be overwhelmed by politics at the expense of policy.

Perdue, in remarks at the kickoff of the annual Eggs and Issues legislative breakfast, suggested that this year it be called Eggs and Issue. He was talking about the state's budget problem, but it could have been read as a reference to the large shadow the 2009 race for governor will cast over the 40-day session.

"I think you are going to see a lot of posturing going on, but they have heavy-duty budget issues that I hope they will not ignore," said Bullock County Commissioner Jan Tankersley, who is president of the Association County Commissioners Georgia, the policy-formulating and lobbying group for Georgia's counties.

William Boone, a Clark Atlanta University political science professor, did not take the rough edges off his viewpoint when he predicted that budget decisions and subsequent tax increases would be determined in the final days against a political backdrop.

"Are they ready to make the tough choices when so many of them are thinking about next year's politics? This one is going to be a kind of chicken," Boone said. "I think they are going to wait each other out, especially with the folks who want to run for governor."

Among the Republicans eyeing the governor's mansion are Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine. Perdue protégé Karen Handel, the secretary of state, is expected to join them. Aside to Handel: Learn from the campaigns of Lewis Massey and Cathy Cox, secretaries of state who plunged into the chasm when they tried the same leap.

No Democrats have stepped into the spotlight, but a few are expected, encouraged by President Obama's victory and Perdue's struggles to balance a budget that had a $580 million surplus when he ran for a second term in 2006.

House Majority Leader DuBose Porter, a Dublin newspaper publisher, sounded like a candidate when responding to Perdue's State of the State address. The governor proposed budget cuts and ending the state subsidy for homestead exemptions.

"After seeing August revenue figures, our Democratic House Caucus . . . called on the governor to bring us back into session – to give parties on both side of the aisle a chance to roll up our sleeves, fix the problem before it got worse and do the job the people of this state elected us to do. That call went unheeded," Porter said.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes quickly deflects the question of candidacy with the mention of responsibilities that include his law firm, a new house in Marietta and his newly born 10th grandchild, via daughter Allison. But he talks like a Democrat perfecting a stump oratory.

Of the Republican-dominated Legislature, Barnes, who lost to Perdue in 2002, says: "They have nibbled away at the tax base by giving tax breaks to special interests. I look and I say, " 'How did this happen to my state so quickly?' "

The perception of fiduciary responsibility is a key driver of voter choice. As the real work of the session begins, politicians will be looking for shelter from accusations that they agreed to take $200 to $300 in additional ad valorem taxes from homeowners' pockets by getting rid of the state homestead exemption subsidy. But if not there, where do they find the $428 million that cut would produce?

The failure to be on the team that puts Georgia on a better financial footing can be just as risky as voting for a tax increase, which puts the potential candidate for top office in a difficult position.

"There's immense cross-pressure," said Sandy Springs councilman Rusty Paul, a former lobbyist and one-time chairman of the state Republican Party. "They need to walk out of this session with some bragging points on what they have done."

Chuck Clay, a Marietta Republican who was a state senator in 1990 when then-Gov. Zell Miller ordered 10 percent budget cuts, sees the ugly choices potential candidates will have to make in an economy with unemployment topping 8 percent. University of Georgia business analysts don't predict a turnaround until 2010.

"I don't how where you can go to cut hundreds of millions as opposed to a few millions," Clay said. "Do you set aside property tax relief or cut funding for the mentally ill or put hundreds of criminals on the street because you can't pay for them? But you can't get to billions unless you start with hundred-plus millions."

Conversely, you can't raise the millions it takes to run for governor – Perdue collected $12 million in 2006 – without the right people on your side.

Candidates risk political exposure in going along with Perdue's plan. For example, his proposal to impose a new fee on hospitals and insurance companies to raise about $300 million to help fund the state's Medicaid contribution sparked immediate outrage from the medical community, a major election contributor.

Who votes to take $575 million from the state education system over the next two years when the proposal includes no routine pay raises for teachers next year?

Whether through the Perdue plan or by other means, lawmakers will have to make choices to keep Georgia solvent. Clay and others hope that need over-rides politics.

"I think," Clay said, "these people will have to get together, because they have to, and make the only decision they can on the budget – if they do not do a single other thing."

In his 32 years of journalism, Tom Opdyke has been a reporter and editor in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Denver and Allentown, Pa. He spent 19 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covering or directing coverage of government, politics, transportation and the environment.   [full bio]

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