Neely Young: A Successful Commission

Many say that when Gov. Sonny Perdue leaves office, his legacy will look pretty grim. For instance, the regulatory arm of the Depart-ment of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Division, has had its budget cut by 40 percent. The mental health system in our state is about to be taken over by a federal judge. You can see for yourself the lack of state patrol cars that used to monitor our highways. Teachers and other state government employees are now joining the unemployment lines. There are college professors who qualify for food stamps due to cutbacks in funding.

A lot of people blame the legislature for the fact that our state government hasn’t – except for the 2010 session – accomplished much since it turned Republican six years ago. This year, more than 35 state representatives and senators have chosen not to run for reelection, the largest number in memory. They must feel the anger of the voting public.

Nonetheless, Gov. Perdue’s underreported and unappreciated effort called the Commis-sion for a New Georgia has scored big points in making state government more efficient, saving tax dollars on basic services and collecting past due taxes. Perdue formed the group early in his first administration. It was made up of business leaders from all over Georgia, and their task was to make the state run more like a private business.

The first recommendations of the commission were adopted, and the effort was wildly successful. Early on, the state saved $170 million by tightening operations in its agencies. The commission recommended that the state sell surplus equipment on eBay. It discovered the state owned too many automobiles and sold some of the used vehicles to the private sector. The commission told each agency it would refund 20 percent on each dollar saved, and the people of Georgia would reap the benefit of lower costs of services, including making driver’s licenses easier to obtain and speeding up the process of securing hunting and fishing licenses.

Yet when the Governor’s office reported the millions in savings, to great fanfare, the legislators’ response was to take the savings and spend it on their own special projects.

So much for Senate and House Republican claims of waste in government. The Commis-sion for a New Georgia learned its first lesson. Every dollar saved by the Governor’s office was spent somewhere else by the legislature. So the Commission stopped publicizing its findings.

The next effort concerned the collection of unpaid state taxes owed by business and personal deadbeats. This effort garnered $300 million in back taxes over many months. Revenue Commissioner Bart Graham tapped into the Federal Tax Offset Program. Georgia has not taken advantage of this program in the past. It is an easy way to collect back taxes: If a state tax dodger has paid federal taxes, the federal government can reimburse Georgia the difference.

Graham started posting names of delinquent payers on the state’s website. The embarrassment factor made people rush to pay their taxes and have their names removed.

In the past, some restaurants and liquor stores in Georgia were delinquent in paying state taxes. Graham partnered with the agencies that control alcohol licenses, so delinquent accounts could not receive renewal permits until they paid their taxes. In 2005, this policy alone raised $100,000 in back taxes.

Several years ago, Medicaid, the program that provides healthcare to the poor in our state, had cost overruns out of control. The commission recommended that the state change to a managed care type system. They contracted with three partners to run the program, and over the past several years the savings have totaled a whopping $300 million.

These are just a few of the programs the Commission for a New Georgia has implemented. As bad as state revenues are now, they would be even worse if not for these savings.

These nuts and bolts issues often go unappreciated. We owe a debt of gratitude to volunteers like Waffle House President Joe Rogers, Jr., banking executive Bob Hatcher of Macon and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Donna Hyland for bringing some good private business practices to state government.

Gov. Perdue and his heirs can look back with pride at his establishment of the Commis-sion for a New Georgia.

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