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Roy who?

Perdue dynamites former governor's legacy

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The state flag.

Check.

The green space program.

Check.

Education reform.

Check.

The Georgia Fair Lending Act.

Check.

When Gov. Sonny Perdue's first legislative session is assessed, the one inescapable conclusion is that it had more to do with his predecessor's vision for Georgia than it did with his own.

The Perdue administration whacked each of the initiatives above and effectively removed much of the footprint of former Gov. Roy Barnes from state government.

Perdue did push ethics reform, but it was the only major policy initiative -- other than the imperative of the budget -- not tied to his predecessor. Maybe that's not surprising given the fact that Perdue's main selling point before his election was that he was not King Roy. Now, however, Perdue will have to define himself and his vision for the state and its top priorities -- transportation and water use -- without the foil of Barnes' legacy. Judging from this first session, only Perdue can possibly know what that vision holds.

Certainly, you get few clues from looking at the campaign he ran, notes University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. He didn't run on many issues. "It was a stylistic message, not a substantive one." Perdue largely made good on the stylistic promises, assurances that he would be more inclusive and less imperial, even as it occasionally made him look ineffective and weak, but it doesn't point to where he's going.

The problem is that Perdue's job looks to be just as, if not more, difficult next year. First, he will probably have to deal with a budget crisis. The Legislature wiggled a few quick-fixes into the budget this year to make it work, but the creative accounting figures make next year's ledger more difficult to balance. Meanwhile, in the Senate, where Perdue was reasonably successful, the governor will likely be looking at a much different body come next year, as a number of senators are expected to leave to pursue federal office, among them Senate Majority Leader Tom Price, R-Roswell, Sen. Robert Lamutt, R-Marietta, and Sen. Chuck Clay, R-Marietta. On the House side, Minority Leader Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, may challenge U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. The governor's staff will have to recruit replacements for the departed leaders and head off unwanted challengers.

One veteran of the Barnes administration familiar with the current administration says he expects Perdue to call a special legislative session once his team has firm revenue projections for the coming year.

"If things are as bad as they're looking, '05 will be ugly," the insider says. "I believe the focus of a special session will be a sales tax increase, a significant tax adjustment to get out ahead of the revenue projections."

So far, the governor hasn't committed to a special session, but if Perdue could sell such a plan and get it passed, it would give him more flexibility in the General Assembly next year.

As for this term, most observers consider the governor's first session a failure. In the House, his own party defected during the push for a tobacco tax hike. It remains the strongest example of how he stumbled diplomatically and failed to sell his agenda.

The overall assessment of failure, though, may be too harsh. He did manage to get most of his limited slate of proposals through the Republican-controlled Senate intact. But this session proved Georgia is no Texas, where there's a history of bipartisanship, Bullock says. Legislative success should be defined differently with a Republican governor and a Democratic House. The professor suggests Georgians might need to scale back their expectations.

"One could perhaps say that we are looking at him through a Democratic lens," Bullock argues. "A Democrat is more likely to have a more extreme to-do list whereas a Republican is more likely to feel that less government is better."

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com

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