Centers of Power

Neely Young

“We need to get with the seven or eight centers of power in the legislature and try and get our plans implemented,” said Sam Williams, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. The fact that the legislature has that many centers of power is difficult at best. What happened to the “good old days” (just two years ago) when there was just one center of power, the governor? Or before Roy Barnes, when there were two, the governor and the speaker of the House?

Williams’s observation might be true. Others may say that there are no centers of power and that we are operating in a complete vacuum.

Gov. Sonny Perdue is occupying the weakest position the Governor’s office has had in the history of modern state politics. Much of this is structural, and is of his own doing. Last year he lost control of his constitutional officers and his Senate majority leader, and he has no control over the Democratic House of Representatives.

What happened?

The biggest sea change came when Gov. Perdue lost his lawsuit against Attorney General Thurbert Baker over congressional reapportionment. The Supreme Court ruled that the governor could not tell the attorney general what to do on any subject. The attorney general is independent of the governor, the courts ruled.

In the past, the constitutional officers were elected by the people, yet there was an unwritten code that they reported to the governor. When Perdue lost this important lawsuit, not only did he lose influence over the attorney general’s office, he lost any direct influence over other constitutional offices. Constitutional offices make up a huge part of state government involving millions of dollars, and include Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, Secretary of State Cathy Cox, State School Superintendent Kathy Cox and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

Constitutional scholars will dispute this notion. The governor’s office still controls the purse strings. But perception could become reality. Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond recently commented that under Gov. Barnes, he was in the governor’s office two or three times a week working on issues concerning his department. In 2003, how many times has he been in the governor’s office? “Not once,” Thurmond replied.

In the two houses of the legislature, the governor in the past would put his agenda on the table, and the House and Senate would do what the governor wanted. Not last year, and maybe not this year.

With the Republican takeover of the Senate, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor lost most of his influence. Senate Majority Leader Eric Johnson took control and rejected Gov. Perdue’s call for a tax increase, along with most of his other proposals. This had never happened in the past. Another sea change.

The House of Representatives is still controlled by rural conservative white Democrats and African Americans from the Atlanta area. Speaker of the House Terry Coleman, a Democrat, does not support any plans presented by Gov. Perdue. Sometimes the rural and urban factions come together on issues, and other times they break apart. The Republican minority members have their own agenda, separate from the governor’s. They mostly try to block Coleman’s efforts. Coleman has to navigate this legislative minefield to get bills passed out of the House and over to the Senate. And last year the Republican Senate didn’t pass many of the bills he sent over. Gov. Perdue could only stand by and watch.

Finally, Gov. Perdue’s influence has diminished because he doesn’t have the Big Stick — money. There is no money to pass around for favors to influence senators or representatives for pet projects back home.

These structural changes in state government are the reason “nothing got done” in the 2003 legislative session. The speaker of the House, Senate majority leader and constitutional officers do not answer to the governor. The lieutenant governor has no measurable control or influence in the Senate. It’s a mess.

Or is it? It may be what the voters want. Unless the governor gets his sea legs and his momentum changes, we will see more of the same this year.

Neely Young is the editor and publisher of Georgia Trend.

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