By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue asked Georgia lawmakers Wednesday to approve a major infusion of funding for water projects and commit smaller amounts to transportation improvements and a statewide trauma care network.
During his annual State of the State message, the governor also waded into the ongoing debate over tax reform, proposing that the General Assembly do away with the state portion of property taxes.
Legislative leaders welcomed the governor's emphasis on water and trauma care. But even some of Perdue's fellow Republicans were lukewarm toward his more modest transportation and tax proposals.
In a 34-minute speech to a joint session of the House and Senate, Perdue outlined highlights of a $21.4 billion fiscal 2009 budget request, up from this year's $20.2 billion.
The spending plan includes $120 million in low-interest loans to local governments for water projects. The largest piece of that investment - $70 million - would go toward building reservoirs and water system improvements.
With Georgia nearly two years into a historic drought, water has become a top concern both for the state's policy makers and for voters.
"This is not a silver bullet," Perdue said. "More room for storage will not make the rain come. But investing in reservoirs is part of the formula for smart growth."
In addition to the $120 million package, the governor also recommended more than $11 million as a first installment toward putting into place Georgia's first statewide water management plan, which is now before the legislature.
Perdue's commitment to tackling the water issue drew widespread support from lawmakers.
"We absolutely need the reservoirs," said Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock). "You can't measure the economic loss we've suffered from people and businesses being scared off from Atlanta because of the water situation."
Perdue also asked for $53 million for a planned statewide trauma care network and gave a plug to legislation he began pushing last year to increase fines for "super speeders" in Georgia as a way to help pay for it.
A substantial part of the money likely would go to the Level 1 trauma center at financially ailing Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta.
But the governor hinted strongly that Grady won't get that money without overhauling its management structure, an idea he and other Republican leaders have advocated for months.
"This is not a blank check," he said. "The elected leaders of this state ... expect - and demand - that the recipients of these tax dollars serve as good stewards of these funds."
On transportation, Perdue announced that he will recommend expanding new Commissioner of Transportation Gena Abraham's role to include heading the State Road and Tollway Authority.
He said the move would lead to greater cooperation between the agencies.
He also proposed creating a transportation infrastructure bank and seeding it with a $50 million revolving loan fund for local governments.
The governor has suggested it wouldn't be wise to invest more in needed transportation improvements before Abraham has finished overhauling an inefficient agency bureaucracy that has resulted in a backlog of projects.
But House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta) said lawmakers need to act now before traffic congestion in metro Atlanta gets even worse.
"It took me two hours and 15 minutes to get to the Capitol last Thursday," he said. "That's not a good quality of life. We need to address transportation in an aggressive way that shows results."
Democratic leaders also criticized the level of the governor's commitment to transportation spending.
In a formal response to Perdue's State of the State message, Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta) took Perdue to task for failing to mention during his speech that he is recommending another "austerity" cut in education.
The governor's budget would reduce K-12 per-pupil formula funding by $141.5 million. That brings the total cuts in the school formula to $1.5 billion since Perdue took office in 2003.
"Yet again, Governor Perdue has said one thing and done another on education," Ashe said.
Perdue did propose some increases in education spending, including $14 million to hire "recruiters" to work with parents whose children attend schools with high truancy rates, and $6.4 million to increase the number of pre-kindergarten slots to 79,000.
Georgia teachers also would get $100 gift cards again this summer to buy classroom supplies.
Perdue also asked lawmakers to approve 2.5 percent pay raises for teachers and state and university system employees.
Perdue's plan to eliminate the state's quarter mill property tax would yield about $94 million in tax relief to Georgia homeowners, starting in fiscal 2010.
That's less far-reaching than Speaker Glenn Richardson's proposal to abolish school property taxes on Georgia residences and replace that lost revenue with an expanded sales tax.
Burkhalter said the House will keep an open mind on Perdue's ideas, but would like something more substantial given the state's record $1.5 billion surplus.
But Rogers called Perdue's proposal a good first step.
"The governor has struck on something that should have been agreed on a long time ago: The state has no role in taxing property," he said.