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Crawford: Perdue finally catches a break over budget

POSTED: October 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The past few months cannot have been much fun for Gov. Sonny Perdue.

He's had to watch his good friend, President Bush, sink to record low levels in polls that show Bush is the most unpopular president of the modern American era.

Perdue's dream of becoming the vice presidential nominee on the Republican Party ticket went bust when the GOP establishment picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who is not only younger than Perdue but looks better in lipstick.

His hopes of running for Johnny Isakson's Senate seat in 2010 also went by the wayside when Isakson decided he would much rather stay in Washington than come home to run for governor.

On top of that, Georgia's economy went down the tubes and state tax collections went with it. The state budget that Perdue signed last May is no longer operative because revenues are sinking faster than the Titanic. Perdue and his department heads have been scrambling to plug a financial hole that could easily exceed $2 billion.

The budget mess is especially embarrassing for Perdue because he ran for re-election in 2006 bragging about how he had handled a $600 million revenue shortfall when he first took office as governor. Less than two years after Perdue made that boast, he had to dip into the state's reserve funds to eliminate another $600 million deficit at the close of fiscal year 2008.

Every dark cloud has its silver lining, as we all know, and there have been some bright spots for Perdue among the gloom and doom of a budget crisis.

At least two state agencies are achieving the budget cutbacks Perdue ordered by eliminating divisions that were created to provide assistance to Georgia's hard-hit consumers.

The state banking department terminated a three-person unit that had fielded complaints from consumers who felt they were being gouged by banks, loan companies or other financial institutions.

The Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs pulled the plug on the consumers' utility counsel, a state-paid lawyer who for nearly 30 years had represented the interests of families and small businesses when utilities like Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light filed for rate increases with the Public Service Commission.

Perdue must have been delighted to hear about those cutbacks, because he has always been a politician who is most comfortable when he's in the company of corporate CEOs and high-powered lobbyists.

After Perdue was sworn in as governor back in 2003, one of his first actions was to create two highly paid positions on his personal staff, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, and hire retired bank presidents to fill those positions. Each of the persons Perdue has selected to be chief of staff has come from the ranks of capitol lobbyists (his current chief of staff was a Georgia Power lobbyist for many years).

The first bill Perdue signed as governor was a measure rolling back consumer protection provisions in the state's predatory lending law (financial industry lobbyists worked hard to get that bill passed).

Thanks to the budget crisis, all of those pesky consumer advocates who might have annoyed the governor's business friends have been eliminated.

The budget crisis also had the effect of killing a lawsuit filed by rural school systems who contended the state was not putting enough money into public education.

That lawsuit, which Perdue adamantly opposed, was scheduled for trial in October before Fulton County Senior Judge Elizabeth Long.

If the state had lost that lawsuit, then Perdue and the legislature would have been forced to spend another billion dollars or so on education, in addition to all of the other problems before them.

Because of the budget cutbacks, however, the state's court systems have been forced to stop using retired senior judges like Long. The school funding case was transferred to a full-time judge who is a Perdue appointee and would probably have dismissed the lawsuit before it ever got to trial. The rural school systems, seeing the handwriting on the wall, withdrew the lawsuit.

In the end, it was not a total loss for Perdue. While he did not get the vice presidential nomination, he also doesn't have to worry about losing a massive school funding lawsuit. That might be considered a fair exchange.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Thursdays.



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