Sonny Perdue has been an easy target for the media during the years he has headed state government.
Some pundits have written him off as a do-nothing governor who spends his time holding photo ops when he should be tackling serious issues like the state's crumbling highway infrastructure or its poorly regarded school systems.
But there are times when he has risen to the occasion, as he did with his decision to veto legislation, House Bill 481, that would have enacted a huge cut in the state's capital gains tax rate.
This bill was one of the most ill-conceived measures I've ever seen rushed through to a vote in the legislature. You'd almost have to go back to the time of the Yazoo Land Fraud to find a more haphazard piece of legislation.
As it was originally introduced, HB 481 would have eliminated the corporate income tax in Georgia. It went through the standard process of committee review and analysis, as it should have. The House and Senate debated it extensively before passing two different versions of the bill. As the session was winding down, a conference committee tried to work out a compromise on the measure.
On the last night of the session, barely three hours before final adjournment, the House and Senate negotiators produced an entirely different version of the bill. This one made no reference to corporate income taxes and instead featured a 50 percent reduction in capital gains taxes, which are paid on the sales of stocks, bonds and real estate assets.
The proposal to cut capital gains came out of nowhere. It had not been part of the original legislation, it was not reviewed or analyzed in any committee, and it only came up for a vote with the clock running down.
A quick analysis of the bill showed that 77 percent of the benefits from the capital gains cut would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Georgians (in terms of income); 92 percent of the benefits would flow to the top 5 percent of income earners. The bottom 80 percent of Georgians, most middle-class workers and families, would receive about 1 percent of the total benefits from the tax cut.
This jerry-rigged bill was hastily passed by both the House and Senate before the session adjourned for the year.
The bill was not only slanted to benefit Georgia's most affluent citizens, it also would have wrecked the state budget for years to come. By the time the tax cut kicked in fully during fiscal year 2012, it would have reduced annual state revenues by nearly a billion dollars. This billion-dollar reduction was being proposed at a time when the economic recession was already blowing a hole in the budget of $2 billion to $3 billion a year.
Perdue did the right thing in vetoing this junk legislation. He noted that the tax cut for the wealthy would have made it virtually impossible for his successor as governor to develop a balanced budget.
"During a period of growth in our economy, the budget may be able to absorb tax cuts that result in short-term revenue reductions but provide long-term economic benefits," he said in his veto message. "We are not, however, experiencing a growing economy at this point. Accordingly, in the current budget environment — where revenues are continuing to decline and are not expected to recover in the near term — the short-term revenue reduction resulting from large tax cuts cannot be sustained in a manner consistent with the budgets passed by the General Assembly."
As he told reporters more succinctly: "It has to be affordable or it's not possible."
When he describes his relationship with the legislature, Perdue sometimes compares himself to an exasperated parent who's trying to keep unruly teenagers from fighting with each other. That comparison is especially relevant in this situation.
You had a bunch of lawmakers dropping in a radical tax proposal on the last night of the session that would have crippled any attempts to pass a balanced budget for years. Somebody had to be the adult who stepped in and kept the kids from tearing apart the house.
Perdue may leave office in 2011 without a lot of accomplishments or much of a legacy to show for his two terms as governor. In vetoing this bill, however, he has performed a commendable service for Georgia and its citizens.
Tom Crawford is editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.