Perdue's spending priorities draw mixed review

By Dave Williams


ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue aptly demonstrated his view of the limited role of government with the 2009 budget he rolled out last week.

Not surprisingly, the governor's vision doesn't jive with lawmakers and lobbyists pushing for more money for a host of pressing needs.

Of the new spending initiatives Perdue is recommending in his $21.4 billion budget proposal, the largest - and most widely supported - is his request for $120 million for water projects.

The jury is still out on the $53 million the governor is seeking for a statewide trauma care network because of uncertainty over how much of that package would go to financially struggling Grady Memorial Hospital.

And critics already are lining up to oppose Perdue's education and transportation budgets as inadequate for the challenges Georgia faces in those areas.

The water money is drawing widespread bipartisan support in the General Assembly, thanks in large part to the record-setting drought that has the northern part of the state in its grips.

"We understand Georgia has grown very fast," said House Speaker Pro Tempore Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta). "These needs collide with a historic dry period. It puts us in a situation where we have to react."

A big chunk of the $120 million would become available quickly in the form of $40 million in cash in the 2008 mid-year budget.

Another $30 million in bonds is in the 2009 budget request.

Perdue wants the funds for reservoirs and water system improvements.

"We welcome the reservoirs," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, of Columbus, chairman of the House Democratic caucus. "We've said all along that reservoirs give us an opportunity to have some storage capacity."

The other big piece of money in the water package - $42 million - would be used to fund loans for water and sewer projects the state would make available to local systems.

Trauma care

Lawmakers also praised the governor for putting the statewide trauma care network on his priority list.

The General Assembly passed legislation last year creating a commission to oversee the planned network of trauma centers, but neglected to approve any funding.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) is pushing a plan to raise most of the money from a $10 vehicle registration fee, while another part of the funding could come through a bill Perdue is backing to increase fines on "super speeders" in Georgia.

Grady Memorial, which has metro Atlanta's only top-level trauma center, is expected to get a substantial portion of the money the governor is recommending.

But Smyre said uncertainty over exactly what Grady's share will be is clouding the proposal's prospects.

"Trauma is still wrapped around the Grady issue," he said.

Smyre said once that becomes clear, everything else should fall into place.

Perdue is seeking roughly the same amount - $50 million - for his major transportation budget initiative as for the trauma care network.

He is looking to create a transportation infrastructure bank that would oversee a revolving loan fund to help local governments with road, bridge and mass transit projects.

Democrats complained that $50 million is a far cry from what is needed to reduce the traffic congestion that is choking metro Atlanta, causing delays that hurt both business production and workers' quality of life.

"Why are Georgians spending more time in traffic and less with their families?" was the question Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta) posed in the minority party's official response to the governor's State of the State address.

Foot-dragging DOT

Perdue said last week that it would be senseless to pour a lot of new money now into transportation when the Fast Forward program he launched several years ago is lagging because of an inefficient state Department of Transportation that can't deliver projects on time.

He said 60 percent of the program's money has been spent, but only 21 percent of the projects have been completed.

Perdue expressed confidence that Gena Abraham, the new DOT commissioner, will turn the agency around, but that will take time.

But Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett County developer who is the driving force behind a group pushing for the state to build a commuter rail line linking Atlanta and Athens, said he is growing increasingly frustrated with a governor he said is not showing leadership in tackling Georgia's transportation woes.

"Fifty million dollars in the overall state transportation scheme is nothing," Morsberger said. "That doesn't even fill the potholes."

Georgia educators also are frustrated with Perdue's budget. Once again, it contains an "austerity" cut to the per-pupil school funding formula of $141 million.

The governor has reduced that money every year he's been in office, in both good economic times and bad.

"They're continuing to bleed public education," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 72,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "Local school systems are having to raise property taxes to make up for the state retreating from its obligation."

As he did during his successful re-election campaign in 2006, Perdue points to the fact that while the formula has been reduced, overall education spending has increased every year he's been in office.

The governor has targeted state spending to specific programs, including his graduation coaches initiative and $14 million he is seeking in the 2009 budget to hire "recruiters" to get parents more involved in middle schools and high schools experiencing high truancy rates.

But Callahan said by the time the money is divided up among the schools, it won't be enough to make a difference.

"You can't legislate parental responsibility," he said. "It's a lightweight approach to a serious problem."