"I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed."
– Jonathan Swift
The cloth of Georgia politics is made of strange threads – the warp of free-flowing lobbyist and corporate money through which runs the weft of politicians' self-enrichment and grandiosity. The fabric, although often colorful, is rotted from the get-go, but generally adequate to hide the naked greed of the political midgets who hunker down under the Gold Dome. Until reality erupts.
The General Assembly is far enough into the session – about a third of the 40 legislative days have passed – for us to get a peek at what's likely to transpire as the dwarves confront the towering problems facing Georgia. And what you'll see can be described in two phrases: "darn little" and "political cover."
Let's start with water. You'll recall – although few at the Capitol seem to – that we are in the midst of a crisis of historic proportion. Lake Lanier is still at breathtakingly low levels, and despite a few rain storms, the core problem hasn't changed: We have too little water for too many people. Leaders, that rarest of all critters in Georgia politics, could have seized on the crisis to galvanize public attention on creating good policy.
"What an opportunity they had," says Honey Rand of Lutz, Fla., one of the nation's leading water consultants. Her clients have included several public and private outfits in North Georgia. "Now everybody is listening. That's the time to make a case. Georgia's water problems aren't temporary; they're not going away. They're not cheap."
Rand recalls that similar water shortages in the Tampa Bay area during the 1990s resulted in real leadership. "We utilized public recognition of the problem to build resolve to fund and build alternative water sources," she says.
Gov. Sonny Perdue doesn't want you to figure out that Republicans, just to be spiteful against Democrats, axed reservoir and other projects that would have mitigated the current water crisis. As Lake Lanier dried up, Perdue had to appear to do something – blame Florida and Alabama, for example. And he imposed mild conservation measures.
But those were even too much for his bidness cronies, who apparently sent the message to their boy. Let's imagine a couple of conversations:
"Look, you twit, if I can't fill my pool, forget any more sweetheart land deals in Florida or (fill in the blank with other financial favors, lobster and steak dinners, football game tickets, etc.)."
Or, "Sonny, I'm about ready to clear-cut a few thousand choice acres of woodland and build me a heap of my special cheapo homes, and my customers want yards. Hear me, Sonny? Yards, and that means grass. Cut the crap about no lawn watering. Now."
So Perdue last week did as ordered. Lawn watering is back, and he told children (and their wealthy, influential, pool-owning parents), "Swim, kids, swim."
Then there's the other giant, humongous, gargantuan, bigger-even-than-Glenn-Richardson's-ego catastrophe facing Georgia: transportation.
Commuter rail is dead. No Lovejoy line. No Brain Train. There's lots of agencies with acronym names, but darn little in big-picture plans.
What's the major transportation story so far out of the Legislature? House Speaker Glenn Richardson purged three members of his own party from committees and leadership roles because they didn't go along with his ploy to plant a handpicked crony as boss of the Department of Transportation.
Oh, and this being Georgia, one of those three legislators, Rep. Martin Scott, was so oblivious to the depth of the transportation problems, he offered to barter his vote on the DOT chief if Richardson would support another in the never-ending nonsensical anti-abortion bills.
Because of pressure from the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce – which realizes this state won't have any business left to be pro-business about if we don't attack congestion – Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and a few senators are at least toying with good legislation. Primarily, it would allow counties to band together and pass sales taxes to fund transportation projects. But don't expect any support from the House or governor.
Here's the real story in a nutshell. The state's infrastructure -- notably water and transportation -- have been neglected for decades. Transportation was funded only when it meant roads, because road builders have a mortgage on the souls of Georgia politicians. Cassandras in the state for years have pointed out that more roads don't lessen congestion; they only fuel more sprawl, which means even greater congestion. Such epiphanies don't register at the Capitol.
Democrats weren't great at governing – and fell before the GOP anti-tax mantra. Republicans have been even worse. Under the GOP, reservoirs weren't built. Home-builder lobbyists stalled water-conservation measures. The need for a regional mass-transit network was scoffed at by legislators with wads of road-builder cash in their pockets. The list of Republican atrocities is loooonnnnng, from abandoning children (after they're born, that is) to stripping what few protections Georgians have against predatory businesses.
It's going to cost about $70 billion to fix congestion in the metro area, and hundreds of billions of dollars to ensure water keeps flowing from Georgia's taps. Perdue should have convened a statewide discussion on growth and water, and imposed draconian conservation measures that brought us in line with, say, many California communities where per-capita consumption is about two-thirds of ours. Legislators should sweat with the urgency of building commuter rail, and limiting growth to the carrying capacity of existing roads and water supplies.
Not likely. To do that would be an admission that the people who refuse to solve the problems are the very ones responsible for our crises. So Perdue and the legislators passed a few little things – a bit of funding to study water, for example, and a water "plan" no one will pay attention to but which can be described as "taking action."
The real game is political cover. Perdue just wants to dump the state's woes on the next governor. To concede the magnitude of the calamities would require telling Georgians they're going to have to reach deep into their pockets and dramatically change much of their lifestyles. No one at the Capitol has the courage to do that.
Georgia deserves better.