Georgia View: Sonny Perdue's Non-Legacy

An editorial cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich depicted moving day at the Governor’s Mansion. As Gov.-elect Nathan Deal unpacks, he comments that he will have “some pretty big shoes to fill.” Meanwhile, the movers find shoes better suited to one of Santa’s elves in the governor’s closet.

Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s first GOP governor since Reconstruction, is leaving office with Georgia pretty much in the condition he found it eight years ago.

Think back to a few other governors and their legacies: Joe Frank Harris – the Quality Basic Education Act; Zell Miller – the HOPE Scholarship, Georgia Lottery and removal of the sales tax on food. Roy Barnes gave us a new Georgia state flag, the development of Atlantic Station and limitations on teacher tenure.

Perdue’s first election surprised many, perhaps including the governor himself. His early leadership style, particularly as it related to setting the agenda for the Georgia General Assembly, was pretty “hands off.” Perdue inherited an empty cupboard and wiped-out financial reserves, and he leaves office with the state treasury in similar shape, although the challenging economy played a larger role this time in declining state revenues.

Perdue presided over a heyday in Georgia growth and government spending, with the annual state of Georgia budget at one point exceeding $21 billion. Those happy days allowed the governor to loosen academic requirements for the HOPE scholarship and grow state government while advocating government efficiency.

Looking for a Perdue landmark initiative might be as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack – unless you are looking in Houston County, his home base.

Perdue’s much discussed “Go Fish” tourism initiative remains a good idea, particularly if you take a look at the thousands of amateur and professional fisherman who travel to Alabama for events like the Bassmaster Pro Tournaments and the millions of dollars they bring. Georgia has some of the largest and most beautiful lakes in the south.

So is that why Gov. Perdue put his “Go Fish” program headquarters in Perry at the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter – 100 miles from the nearest major body of water?

Perdue ordered a statewide government performance audit and launched an effort to improve customer service within state agencies, as well as inventory the thousands of buildings that the state owns or leases. The customer service initiative did shorten lines and improve service gaps at the Georgia Department of Driver Services, and the audit did facilitate the sale of some redundant and non-performing assets.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s water wars continue with Alabama and Florida, despite Perdue’s serving simultaneously with two peer GOP governors and chairing the Republican Governors Association. This leaves the majority of north Georgia in danger of running out of water or running out the clock set by a federal judge’s decision that requires Metro Atlanta to return to early 1970s water withdrawal levels from Lake Lanier, absent a negotiated settlement between the states.

Urban sprawl has been slowed by the real estate bust, but traffic and congestion have not, and any real state funding or master plan solution related to transit and mass transportation remains years in the future.

Georgia’s public education outcomes are improving, and Perdue created additional opportunities for charter schools and private schools; but K-12 test scores, graduation rates and comparative Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) scores continue to lag behind.

As Gov. Deal moves those teeny shoes from the closet, we may come to realize that Perdue’s largest legacy was simply being elected.

While I was working in state government for Democrats, including Zell Miller and Max Cleland, I heard many state employees remark that they were “not really Democrats.” They simply voted that way to protect their bosses, as well as their own jobs. Perdue’s election allowed thousands of state employees to essentially spring out of the GOP closet. Not exactly landmark material, but certainly trend-setting.

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