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Taylor: Ever so slightly the lesser of two evils

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The best thing to be said of Georgia's gubernatorial contest is that it has some humor value.

Unfortunately, the joke's on taxpayers.

While two rubes vie for the state's top job by casting juvenile epithets at each other, their constituents' real concerns are studiously ignored. And both candidates are so ethically challenged that it's hard not to throw up your hands in disgust at the thought of voting for either.

Pitted against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, Sonny Perdue might actually have merited consideration for a second term -- until voters learned of his Florida-gate land scandal.

Perdue's basically been a typical bubba, faithfully running the state for the benefit of his well-connected bubba pals. He had a tough start four years ago when he took office in the midst of a budget shortfall. But at least he was still trying a few reforms. For example, he created an inspector general's office to root out corruption, and even appointed a retired Air Force general as chief snoop.

Those reforms were long ago tossed out the window. Have you heard much about the inspector general in the last three years? Nah. Too many of those who should be targeted for probes are Sonny's bubbas.

Once a moderate conservative, the governor now emulates his party's leader in Washington. While he kicked thousands of poor kids off Georgia's medical program for impoverished youngsters and herded state employees into a managed-care system with too few doctors, he found $400 million in corporate welfare to bestow on a corrupt Korean auto-maker.

He likes to claim his education policies nudged the state from the academic cellar. The truth is the state's SAT scores are static; they've only stayed where they are because of programs, such as pre-kindergarten, initiated years before Perdue became governor.

As Taylor points out, Perdue slashed education budgets by $1.2 billion during his first three years as governor and stalled policies mandating smaller class sizes. Much as "No Child Left Behind" dumped expenses on the state, Perdue dumped a bigger chunk of the financial burden for education onto local school boards, many of which have been forced to raise taxes.

While the governor idled the state on such critical needs as transportation and health care, his fellow Republicans in the Legislature recklessly careened backward on social issues that they revved up simply to scare religious conservatives to the polls. They scapegoated gays and illegal immigrants, and did everything in their power to suppress black voters by repeatedly approving an unconstitutional voter ID law.

What did Sonny do? He cheered them on. Such a performance rates around a grade of "D" -- about what Georgia's schools score compared to other states.

Democrats had ample opportunity to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the venality of the party in power. That chance vaporized when Secretary of State Cathy Cox, Taylor's primary opponent, demonstrated incredible ineptness as a campaigner. Taylor didn't so much win the primary as have it handed to him by the blundering Cox.

The lieutenant governor does make some attractive campaign promises. His PeachKids plan to provide health insurance to most children who don't have it would be a modest step forward.

But there's no avoiding that the Big Guy is an unappealing nominee. He's mean, arrogant and bellicose -- the perfect caricature of a Southern political hack. He's built a political machine on his daddy's wealth and, in turn, has amassed a grotesque appetite for power. He shows few signs that he'd ever see far enough through the special interests surrounding him to do something courageous on, say, overdevelopment or wasteful spending. Taylor's demagogic campaign promise to end paroles -- which, by placing ex-cons on the street without supervision, would surely leave Georgians more vulnerable to violent crime -- is just one example of his unprincipled pandering.

As the two candidates staggered toward the homestretch in September, Taylor seemed more burdened than Perdue by ethics problems -- most notably suspicious campaign contributions and the $2.6 million in building leases the state has awarded his father's business.

Even to some Democrats, Perdue appeared the better candidate. A slow retreat from the progress Georgia made over the last few decades seemed better than the wholesale partisan warfare promised by Taylor.

Then came Florida-gate.

It's too bad the governor's scandal is too complicated for a bumper sticker. Perdue's campaign has relied on snide denials and special-interest-funded TV ads to dampen his smelly mess.

It simply strains credulity, however, to think Perdue is anything less than guilty of using his power to change the law so that he personally benefited: On the frenzied day before the end of the 2005 legislative session, his own lawyer snuck an obscure amendment through both chambers that retroactively qualified Perdue for a $100,000 tax break on his purchase of 20 acres near Disney World. Perdue signed the bill just in time to pocket the money. When a wily radio talk-show caller caught the governor off-guard by asking how he too could get such a tax break, Perdue let the truth blurt through his anger: "Well, you get elected governor."

If the abuse stopped there, it would be sufficient to say "no" to a second term. Pile on top the fact that Perdue bought the land from a developer whom he favored with an appointment to a plum state board, and that the land appears to be worth more than the $2 million Perdue paid for it, and that he misstated the property's price on his financial disclosure form. Pretty soon the ick-factor gets a little too gooey.

Given the choices, it's no surprise that polls show Libertarian Garrett Hayes threatening to break double digits. But a protest vote for Hayes would send the wrong message. At the very least, his ideas would do little to improve public schools, transportation, health care and the environment; they'd likely make things worse.

Democrat Mark Taylor is a deeply flawed politician -- hardly a model for governor. Yet his policies come closest to squarely addressing Georgia's real problems, especially when it comes to education and health care. Couple that with the arrogance and sleaziness of Perdue's Florida-gate, and Taylor is the only viable choice for governor.

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