Years ago at the state Capitol, if you truly wanted to do a friend a favor, you fired him.
Under a quirk in state law, laid-off workers received an immediate, life-time pension. Many well-connected state employees, some in their forties, waltzed into early retirement in this manner.
There are those who point to former state Senate majority leader Chip Rogers, now Georgia Public Broadcasting’s most famous employee, as yet another example of this kind of cronyism. But that is like mistaking a bream for a large-mouth bass.
Right genus — and still fishy — but wrong species.
In fact, the Rogers affair is the mirror image of the state’s old “involuntary separation” law. Instead of firing a friend, Gov. Nathan Deal has arranged employment for a potential troublemaker. As an executive producer, Rogers will create a weekly, statewide radio program focused on economic development and jobs. A formal job description has yet to be crafted.
Yes, the optics are poor.
But for $150,000 a year in taxpayer funds and a blemish on GPB’s reputation, the governor has guaranteed himself a smoothly operating Senate. The purchase has already paid off. As early as Friday, the Legislature could dispose of one of the thorniest problems of the session – continuing a tax on Georgia hospitals in order to plug a hole in state Medicaid coverage.
Has Deal handed out state positions to close friends and allies? Certainly. His leadership style is one that values loyalty over experience. But Rogers and Deal aren’t that close. In fact, the Cherokee County lawmaker was viewed as a possible threat to an easy re-election bid for the governor in 2014.
In 2010, as majority leader, Rogers and Senate President pro tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, led their fellow GOP colleagues in an effort to strip Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of his authority over the chamber. Two chaotic years followed. The governor’s ability to push his agenda through the Legislature was greatly restricted.
Williams declared early last year that he would not seek another term as the Senate’s leader. The governor quietly began helping Cagle regain his authority. David Shafer, R-Duluth, would eventually be elected president pro tem. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, the governor’s floor leader, would replace Rogers as majority leader.
Rogers – although he was easily re-elected in November — would be shoved into the background, a senator without portfolio. But that’s precisely what the governor and his lieutenants were afraid of.
Last year, as the summer debate over the transportation sales tax reached a fever pitch, Rogers – who had voted to put the TSPLOST on the ballot – declared himself opposed to the measure, and began working with tea party forces. He was very effective.
Democrats have made great hay over some of Rogers’ positions – his sponsorship, for instance, of a state Capitol seminar on Agenda 21, the alleged international conspiracy to eliminate private property rights in the United States.
But the governor and his people saw a talented campaigner with a marvelous voice, who could serve as a rallying point for disaffected Senate Republicans – those who might balk at renewing the hospital “bed tax” set to expire this year. Failure would have sent Deal’s budget for the next year into a tailspin.
And so, in yet another year of budget cuts and austerity, a miracle job at GPB jumped up and grabbed Rogers by the collar.
Two weeks ago, on the third day of the new legislative session, all but three Republicans lined up and passed Deal’s Medicaid fix – after a personal pep-talk from the governor. The House could pass it as early as Friday.
The Rogers episode has clearly flummoxed the fine people on 14th Street. A long-time producer – who was paid a princely $54,000 a year — has quit in protest. Executives are worried about the next pledge drive. On Tuesday evening, GPB for the first time –very gingerly — addressed the controversy during a broadcast of “Prime Time Lawmakers.”
GPB board Chairman Mike McDougal addressed GPB’s editorial independence. “I do not believe that there’s anybody on our board that would just fall down and bow down if they were requested to come in and allow that kind of interference,” he said.
Another board member on the broadcast was Bert Brantley, former spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue. “There is that independence,” Brantley said. “It’s a state-owned media, but not in the sense you’d see [in] other countries, where the state runs the media and delivers the content.”
So there’s the good news. We’re not a re-creation of the Soviet Union. But we may be reliving Machiavelli’s Italy.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider