Thursday, February 5, 2009

There's little conversation between Georgia and Obama administration
by Tom Baxter
Georgia Online News Service

How do Georgia and the Obama administration talk to each other? In a roundabout fashion, you might say, but with a keen sense of urgency on both sides.

The complicated business of how state and federal officials establish lines of communication is always an important matter after a change of administrations, but never more so than this year, with the Obama administration desperate to get economic stimulus money out to the nerve ends of the economy, and states frozen on the edge of a deepening chasm of debt.

At one level, the conversation between this Red State and the new Democratic administration has been a frosty one. Privately, some Democrats complain that Gov. Sonny Perdue won't pick up the phone to talk with the new administration about the state's needs, as other governors have.

While declining to criticize Perdue directly, U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat from Georgia's east central 12th Congressional District, recently warned that the lines of communication have to stay open.

"You can't have a New Deal at the national level, if we've got 50 Herbert Hoovers out in the states holding things up," Barrow said. "The states that are ready to go are going to get help, and those that aren't are going to miss the train."

In his State of the State message last month, Perdue told legislators the budgets he was presenting were "balanced and do not assume money from Washington," although the almost universal belief among lobbyists and legislators is that the state, like most, is utterly dependent on ObamaBucks to get out of the red. Twelve days into the session, there's been little action that would change that sentiment.

"It's going to be a hell of a job to get either the supplemental or the real budget passed until we know what we're going to get from Washington," said state Sen. George Hooks (D-Americus), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In Washington, things are frosty as well. Georgia's House delegation split straight along party lines in last week's vote on the stimulus package, a relative rarity in a delegation where Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow have often parted company with their fellow Democrats.

Since he became chairman last month of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry – an important position for this state – Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott complained that "not a single person has even taken the time to call me up and say, 'Congratulations, what can we do?' "

And yet at another level, a necessary conversation is under way. Much of it can be expected to go through U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, who has become the go-to guy on the House Appropriations Committee. That's emblematic of the volume level of the Georgia-Obama conversation.

Bishop, who represents a district in the southwest corner of the state, is soft-spoken and cagey: He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Obama, while his wife, herself a power in Columbus political circles, backed Hillary Clinton.

"Georgia is a very important state, and I have every confidence the administration will insure we fully participate in the economic stimulus package," said state Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur), one of Obama's earliest Georgia supporters.

Important economically, that is, but also politically. In a post-election meeting with environmental lobbyists from around the country, the legislative director for a national environmental organization named Georgia as one of four states where the transitioning Obama campaign hoped to significantly improve its performance in the next election.

And despite any official reticence over advertising the fact, the state has been letting the administration know what it can do for Georgia. At a recent budget hearing, Department of Transportation Commissioner Gina Evans testified her office has three to four people working full-time to find those all important "shovel-ready" projects that qualify for an instant infusion of federal cash. Next week, several members of the DOT are going to Washington to talk with the congressional delegation about the stimulus package, which is still being hotly debated in the U.S. Senate.

It's such a rarity for an environmental organization to praise the Georgia DOT that a Friends of the Earth analyzing how states would spend their stimulus money comes as a shocker. The DOT's stimulus request is "smartly executed," the report said, with 34 percent of its request directed to public transportation, and 69 percent of its requested road money aimed at repairs rather than new roads.

On closer inspection, it turns out this high praise is somewhat misleading. To bump up its request, DOT included the wish lists of MARTA and other public transportation agencies. And to locate a lot of places it could spend money quickly, DOT simply identified a host of sites where necessary repairs and safety improvements were overdue.

"We've got a lot of every kind of project, that we don't have the money to do," said DOT press secretary David Spear.

In addition to its initial requests, Spear said, DOT is considering requests for new road projects that are pouring in from around the state. The requests, on the stationary of every town, hamlet and county in the state, are streaming in not only to DOT but the mailboxes of legislators and members of Congress as well. Georgia may have voted for John McCain, but it is no stranger to federal aid.

"When money is being apportioned and the state needs it," Scott said, "we've got a tradition of making sure Georgia gets its fair share."

What is also somewhat surprising is that the initial Georgia request was sent last Dec. 12. In other states, there have been stories about the "wish list" being sent to Washington with big hopes for long-awaited projects, but Georgia's "smartly executed" one was dispatched with almost no public notice. A conversation is indeed going on, but at the most crucial levels it's going on at the whisper level.

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]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! I've had a few questions from folks – media and civic and political leaders – asking me to explain the Georgia Online News Service (GONSO). Without being too grandiose, our purpose is to preserve quality journalism in Georgia at a time when news organizations are shrinking.

We were founded by concerned journalists, business leaders and educators, and after months of planning, we launched two weeks ago. Our "inventory" is a roster of about 30 of the most talented journalists in the state. We're providing GONSO content free for a few weeks – but we're a business, and our goal is to become the source of premium content to newspapers and broadcasters in the state.

The menu of the Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) today is topped with squirrel meat. No kidding. Larry Wilkerson writes about how this meat, popular in many corners of the South, is catching on among our distant cousins in Jolly Old England.

On a more serious note, Tom Baxter, one of the most authoritative political writers in Georgia, examines the communications – or lack thereof – between Georgia officials and the Obama administration. And, in the second of two articles about consumer legislation pending in the Georgia General Assembly, Maggie Lee takes a look at bills that would do everything from cracking down on "foreclosure rescue" scams to making sure that lawyers who advertise on TV must play themselves and not use actors.

Finally, in today's Soapbox, W. Todd Groce, CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, warns that Gov. Sonny Perdue's plan to eliminate state funding for the group will mean "a citizenry less educated, less informed about its past, less prepared for the future."

As always, send your comments and suggestions to john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org or call 800-891-3459.

-- John F. Sugg, Executive Editor


Today's GONSO

There's little conversation between Georgia and Obama administration

by Tom Baxter
How do Georgia and the Obama administration talk to each other? In a roundabout fashion, you might say, but with a keen sense of urgency on both sides.

The complicated business of how state and federal officials establish lines of communication is always an important matter after a change of administrations, but never more so than this year, with the Obama administration desperate to get economic stimulus money out to the nerve ends of the economy, and states frozen on the edge of a deepening chasm of debt.

Full Story

Lenders and lawyers among those targeted by consumer legislation

by Maggie Lee
Allison Wall, executive director of the Georgia Watch, often has a tough job battling for consumers issues at Georgia Capitol. But she's looking forward to a bill this year that gives some relief to homeowners, renters and municipalities, one that may help "clean up the mortgage broker industry here in Georgia."

Senate Bill 57 would throw a lifeline to homeowners mixed up in so-called foreclosure rescue scams. These are short-term, often predatory loans, made against a property deed. The law would treat these loans as mortgages, giving homeowners more rights to maintain possession of a home.

Full Story

Brits are wrong by not serving squirrel with most important meal of the day

by Larry Wilkerson
Our distant British cousins, out to protect their environment and their native red squirrels against threats posed by an immense population of gray ones introduced long ago, are barking up the right tree: They've begun to eat the invaders like crazy.

Reporting from London for The New York Times early this month, Marlena Spieler wrote that "squirrel is selling as fast as gamekeepers and hunters can bring it in."

Full Story

SOAPBOX

Sonny Perdue's message to Georgia Historical Society: Drop dead

by Todd Groce
The Georgia Historical Society's state funding has been deeply slashed. We've been hit by the Secretary of State's office with an immediate elimination of nearly $75,000 of funding needed this fiscal year to operate our library and archives in Savannah, effectively ending a relationship that began in 1966. We have also absorbed a 10 percent reduction in funding for the historical markers program. But the worst is yet to come. Gov. Sonny Perdue has recommended the elimination of our entire state appropriation, $327,275, representing 15 percent of our current operating budget - in the fiscal year 2010 budget.

What do these cuts mean for you? In the short term, they mean limited access to history: no more historical markers will be erected, thus ending a program that started in 1954; severely curtailed library and archives research hours; the end of any hope Georgia had to participate in the national 150th anniversary of the Civil War; the loss of billions of tourist dollars which might have helped to improve our economy and to create jobs.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Nuke Financing Passes Committee, Goes to Full Senate
by Maggie Lee
Eight months in a cloud of dust and paperwork lead to GSU's very first football players
by Wendy Parker
Capitol Debts to Pay
by Hollis Gillespie
Vouchers are the way schools can improve themselves
by Senator Eric Johnson

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