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Sonny Perdue: Legacy building or lame duck?

Governor's final two years will shape how his administration is remembered

POSTED: November 16, 2008 12:30 a.m.
Sara Gievara/The Times

Gov. Sonny Perdue speaks at the opening for the Women & Children's Pavilion at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center earlier this month.

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When he entered office in 2003, Gov. Sonny Perdue faced a budget shortfall. While there was a time of improvement, the current economic downturn has been evident in declining state revenues.

But Perdue, who is about to begin his final two years in office, rejects the notion of being a lame duck and is upbeat about the remaining term.

"I'm one of these guys that doesn't quit before the tape," Perdue said in an interview with The Times. "I'm going to run all the way through governing Georgia and leading Georgia. Even with all the economic challenges we have nationwide and even in our state, Georgia is going to be in business for a long time."

Education and economic development were two themes Perdue sounded in his 2003 State of the State address, and he said there is still work to be done.

"We want to continue the march toward education improvement, graduation rates, a talented work force, job development, economic development and work on the transportation challenge that we know has developed," he told The Times.

The governor said the transportation puzzle is complicated by both declining state revenues and lower collections of fuel taxes that are designated for roads.

"How do we secure the funds that will provide for the transportation infrastructure we need?" he asked.

One of Perdue's major disappointments is the lack of progress on the tri-state water agreement. The dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama already was 13 years old when Perdue took office. It is now 18 and no closer to resolution.

"This is one of the frustrations I've had," said Perdue. "Even before I was inaugurated, I reached out to Florida and Alabama and said ‘Let's solve this thing.' Unfortunately it's gotten more litigious as it has gone on. We essentially had a deal with Alabama that fell through, unfortunately. The facts are with the Interim Operating Plan and the crisis we had last year, the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers and (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife learned a lot of things about this watershed that I don't think they knew before."

This week, Perdue, who has been relatively quiet about the ongoing dispute, took aim at Florida's coastal development.

In Georgia, "you have a ... pristine undeveloped coastline with marshes there that people love to look out on," he said. "And then I come to Florida and I see the developed coastline all the way around from Jacksonville all the way up to Tallahassee, I really wonder how we can be preached at as Georgians over environmentalism and water."

Perdue, who was attending a Republican Governors Association conference, also said Florida should just say what there argument is really all about - answering to the area's commercial fishing industry.

"Utilizing the endangered species act as a weapon in this battle is somewhat disingenuous. We know what this is about, we know it's about the bay and the quality of the bay and the oysters and that very powerful, very loud political constituency," Perdue said. "Let's don't try to make it about a federal law that really it's not all about, about mussels or about sturgeons."

Perdue said Georgia, which implemented a major water conservation plan last year, is doing a better job of managing the resource.

"While we haven't had abundant rainfall to renew the reserve in the reservoir, we've had adequate for our needs and I'm looking for the day when the rainfall will come," Perdue said. "But we are managing the reservoir better. I'd like to get all the legal issues out of the way so we could insure the water supply.

"I believe constitutionally and legally, the federal government understood the human water supply was a purpose for these reservoirs just like navigation was."

Former Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris, who served from 1983 to 1991, said he was as busy in his final two years in office as he was in his first two.

"In the second four years, we had the Growth Strategies Commission that came back with recommendations for regional water reservoirs and low interest loans for water and sewer expansion," Harris said.

Ironically, it would be the idea of new reservoirs that would be the catalyst for the tri-state water conflict.

Harris said he was also heavily involved in keeping the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta through construction of the Georgia Dome. The former governor was also in Japan in his final year in office when the announcement was made that Atlanta would be the host to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. He was also involved in the contract that would bring the 1994 Super Bowl to the dome.

Harris, who lives in Cartersville, said he was able to bring in more than 1,000 companies during his eight years in office and spent his last two years finalizing some of those agreements.

"I went on 18 trade missions, some of those in the last two years, to 34 countries to bring these people into Georgia," Harris said.

Among his favorite moments was an agreement with evangelist Billy Graham for a crusade that took place at the Georgia Dome.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said that as Perdue gets closer to the end of his term, those who want to succeed him will be elbowing their way to the forefront.

"Some of them in the General Assembly will be pushing their own legislative initiatives," Bullock said.

"His (Perdue's) influence will continue to weaken," he said, adding that the governor still has the power of the legislative veto until the end.




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