When Sonny Perdue took the oath as governor in January 2003, Georgia’s transportation system was hamstrung by a lack of funding and vision, and its education system was underperforming national standards. The state also faced a $620 million budget shortfall, and was tied up in a lengthy ongoing water war with its neighbors in Alabama and Florida.
Almost eight years later, with Perdue ready to leave office, little has been done to address those problems. In fact, some of those problems have become considerably worse.
In his 2002 campaign, for example, Perdue said he would call a summit of governors to resolve the tri-state water war. “We’ll come together face-to-face with no staff and hammer this thing out,” he promised. But years passed and no resolution was found, and with a federal deadline of July 2012 looming, Georgia’s legal situation in the water wars is much more precarious today than it was when Perdue took office.
The state’s transportation crisis has worsened as well. The resource-starved Department of Transportation is all but bankrupt, with almost no means to address traffic congestion and decaying, inadequate infrastructure. There’s no help in sight until at least 2012, when metro Atlanta and other regions will be asked to vote on an inadequate but badly needed one-penny sales tax devoted to transportation. And even that sign of hope may prove an illusion.
Perdue’s stop-and-go leadership style on transportation was epitomized by a much-ballyhooed 2008 news conference in which the governor announced firm support for a new commuter rail line.
“Let’s move out aggressively,” Perdue said. “Once I’ve made up my mind, I’m usually impatient.” And that’s the last that’s been heard of it since.
Going into 2011, the state’s budget shortfall is also three times larger than when Perdue took office, which will no doubt force additional budget cuts to education and other programs already cut to the bone.
Given the global economic situation, it’s hard to blame that shortfall on the outgoing governor. To the contrary, Perdue’s greatest strength as governor has been fiscal management. But any assessment of his legacy must include the billions of dollars that he insisted be cut from education even when times were good, making later cuts all the more painful.
Looking ahead — and I hope I’m proved wrong about this — anyone who liked Perdue’s lackadaisical eight years is probably going to love incoming Gov. Nathan Deal. His history in politics and his post-election behavior suggest that he will be even less willing than Perdue to lead aggressively.
In almost 18 years in Congress, Deal left almost no mark and showed no instinct for leadership. And since his win over Democrat Roy Barnes, he has shown no sign of changing.
His transition team, for example, is dominated not by his own people but by longtime lobbyists representing most if not all of the state’s special interests. (In an awkward bow to ethical concerns, the lobbyists are required to refrain from lobbying during the actual transition, but it’s hard to see what that accomplishes.)
Deal has also been oddly acquiescent as Perdue moved to install his own loyalists in critical state posts. Those include the top two jobs at the Department of Economic Development, the state treasurer and the heads of the Office of Planning and Budget, Personnel Administration, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.
(UPDATE: Gov.-elect Deal has recommended the appointment of Chris Cummiskey to head the state Department of Economic Development, replacing Heidi Green, who had been elevated to the post by Perdue in July.)
A more aggressive new governor with plans to use his authority would demand the right to fill those jobs himself. Deal’s passivity suggests that once in office, he will make Perdue seem downright activist.