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Legislature preview: Power trip divides state leaders
DOT board among issues splitting Perdue, Richardson, Cagle
During a recent barnstorming event around the state, from left, Gov. Sonny Perdue, House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle spoke of their legislative priorities in this year's session of the General Assembly, which begins Monday. - photo by For The Times

Political dissension under the gold dome of Georgia's state capitol is not new.

The donnybrook among Democrats is legendary. Lester Maddox, the former governor who later became lieutenant governor, clashed often with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter.

Following the Carter years, the clashes between House Speaker Tom Murphy and Lt. Gov. Zell Miller extended through Miller's 16 years at the helm of the Senate.

When the gavel bangs Monday to begin the 2008 General Assembly session, the state's majority Republicans could find themselves in similar battles.

The Republican takeover of the legislative and executive branches of state government was completed a year ago with the installation of Hall County's Casey Cagle as lieutenant governor.

This week, Gov. Sonny Perdue, Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, flew around the state in what was billed as a show of unity among the state's top three Republicans. The barnstorming trip was scheduled to come to Gainesville on Thursday, but the plane was turned away by inclement weather.

Yet behind the scenes of the unity display is a power battle that has pitted the pugnacious Richardson against Perdue and Cagle.

The largest of these is a festering struggle for control of the Georgia Department of Transportation. In November, Perdue's handpicked choice for DOT commissioner, Gena Abraham, was elected by a one-vote margin over Richardson's man, state Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain.

The commissioner is selected by the State Transportation Board, which is elected by the legislature. Appointment to the DOT board is reserved for the politically connected and is coveted by lawmakers as leverage for landing road projects for their districts.

Former state Rep. Mike Evans, R-Cumming, is the chairman and ninth district member of the DOT board. Evans and board member Rabon Anderson of Statesboro voted for Abraham and are up for reappointment during the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

Evans, who served with Richardson in the House, now find himself at odds with his former colleague.
Richardson, according to two members of the Hall legislative delegation, has tapped former state Rep. Stacey Reece, R-Gainesville, to challenge Evans. Among others who had been considered for the post was Gainesville business and civic leader James A. "Jim" Walters, who is currently chairman of the Board of Natural Resources. Walters declined the opportunity, citing his obligations to the DNR.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said Thursday that he offered to resign his legislative seat to take the DOT board appointment, but that offer was rejected by Richardson.

Perdue hasn't spoken publicly about the fray between himself and Richardson, instead choosing to speak in broad terms about the issues on which they agree.

"We don't know how the session will come about," Perdue said in an interview with The Times. "I think on the broad issues that make a difference to people, there is much more agreement than disagreement."

Richardson, who was not available for a live interview, responded by e-mail to questions from The Times. While he declined to mention Reece or talk about his involvement in the DOT vote, he didn't shy away from commenting on Evans.

"I have great concerns about the way DOT has been managed under Mike Evans," Richardson wrote.
Cagle, who has sided with Perdue and his choice of Abraham, has been actively working on Evans' behalf, both publicly and behind the scenes.

"Mike Evans has done a very good job as DOT board member for the ninth district," Cagle said. "He is chairman and in a very influential role and in a position to affect projects in our community. His record demonstrates that."

Evans also enjoys support from Hall County's commissioners. The elected officials of Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Gillsville, Lula and Oakwood all have sent letters in support of Evans to members of Hall's legislative delegation.

That surprises Rogers, who is backing Reece. "They (local officials) want the present person, Mike Evans, when we have someone from Gainesville and Hall County (Reece) that is running for the seat," Rogers said. "They need to be supporting him because he lives here."

Cagle said Evans did the right thing in supporting Abraham. "He acted upon principle when he made the vote for Gena Abraham," Cagle said. "I don't think he should be punished in any way for what I view as an act of principle."

Evans said he is surprised how much energy has been focused on his race. "It seems to me the state has some real significant issues that need to be dealt with," Evans said. "For the most influential leaders in the state to be spending this much time on a little old DOT board member is mind-boggling."

Another point of contention between Richardson and both the governor and lieutenant governor is the speaker's plan for education funding. Richardson has been pushing for an overhaul of Georgia's tax system since early last year. The initial plan would have replaced all property taxes with a sales tax, which was met with opposition from local governments throughout the state.

His current plan would eliminate school property taxes and replace them with a 4 percent state sales tax on groceries, lottery tickets and services such as yard work and hair cuts.

"As I presented my plan across the state, I was amazed at the positive response from citizens who are simply fed up," said Richardson in an e-mail. "Property taxes are increasing faster than their ability to pay them, and I strongly believe that is fundamentally wrong and that it's time to change the system."

In the Senate, lawmakers are pushing their own proposals to curb the growth of property tax bills by capping residential assessments.

"There is no uniformity in the way property is assessed," Cagle said. "There is no predictability of the process. We can find a way to do that without disenfranchising local communities."