Sonny Perdue: Balancing Needs And Resources

Georgia’s governor says his job is adding value to citizens’ quality of life, not necessarily dealing with marquee issues. He’s introduced a new healthcare initiative, and says transportation and education will be high on his 2008 t
Kara Williams
Broad goals: Gov. Sonny Perdue wants to spend his final three years in office making Georgians safer|!!| healthier|!!| better educated and more prosperous

Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s first Republican governor in more than a century, is now one year into his second term. He grew up in middle Georgia and was a veterinarian and then a businessman who served 11 years in the State Senate – initially as a Democrat, before switching to the GOP.

During much of last year’s legislative session, Perdue was embroiled in a power struggle with House Speaker Glenn Richardson, a fellow Republican; and there is speculation that the upcoming session could be rancorous as well.

Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy interviewed Perdue at the Capitol in late August. Here are excerpts from the interview.

GT: How would you characterize the economy and economic development in Georgia?

Perdue: Georgia has been blessed by having the foundation of a stable, pro-business environment, and we are harvesting many of those opportunities currently all over the state. We are leading the nation in job growth numbers. The economy has been extremely resilient here, even with the pressure on housing, housing starts; and the values themselves are holding up, particularly on resales, more so than many parts of the country. I think all that means that we have a very stable, confident economy here in which most sectors feel very good about the future.

GT: You’ve announced a plan to help provide insurance for small businesses, the Health Insurance Partnership Proposal. What is it and why you are advocating it?

Perdue: Georgians and Americans in general are very compassionate people. We’ve had this safety net of public healthcare – through Medicaid, Medicare and many other ways for years. Unfortunately the escalation and the inflation [of] two or three times the CPI in medical expenses has made that bar higher and higher, and many times unattainable for people who are either small business owners or their employees. I’ve talked to many small business owners who have struggled to keep this benefit in their benefits package. With escalation of 20 and 30 and 40 percent of premiums a year, they have been unable to do so. And that – you can see it in their eyes and their face – that hurts them.

GT: Some critics call this kind of plan an entitlement.

Perdue: For those who say we don’t need any more entitlements or we don’t need any more programs, I would ask is it more moral to help people on the front end provide for themselves – and that’s exactly what this is – or to have them go through the trauma of not being able to meet their financial goals, literally, with tragic healthcare expenses and then the public paying for it on the back end, through uncompensated care and … the transfer payments that we make to hospitals and medical providers for uncompensated care? What’s the most moral thing to do?

My answer to that question is it’s better to help people on the front end with a small incentive to encourage employers to participate and employees to participate. The fact is, with more people insured I believe it helps lower the cost of healthcare for all of us. And as you pay for that on the front end rather than having to pay for uncompensated care on the back end, it provides people with a sense of worth, it provides employers with a sense of providing for their employees, it provides us a way in government to have people pay on the front end with dignity.

GT: Speaking of health issues, what’s the appropriate role for the state regarding Grady Hospital?

Perdue: Anytime public hospitals that provide care for many people are not financially healthy [that] is of concern to us and should be. We’ve had extreme hemorrhaging of finances at Grady, and many people are saying don’t worry about stopping the bleeding, just give us more transfusions. That’s the wrong therapy, in my opinion.

No physician at Grady or anywhere else would continue to give patients blood transfusions without stopping the bleeding. And I think we probably need to do both. But a transfusion will not help until we have a model in place that’s run in an efficient and effective way that has hope for the future that we will not continue to need transfusions.

GT: What about Grady’s governance?

Perdue: I know that many hospitals in the state are run by very well-run nonprofit boards, and I believe that Grady could be as well. I think anytime there are political appointees that feel an allegiance to anything other than an effective medical care business, then we’ve got the potential for not the best decisions to be made. And I think we’ve experienced some of that at Grady. Unless people are willing to admit that we can and we must do things better – more effectively and efficiently financially – then no amount of transfusion of dollars is going to help.

GT: Would you see a state takeover of Grady? Is that likely, even as a last resort?

Perdue: I do not think it’s a resort. The state is not in and of itself a good medical provider. It’s not our core competency.

GT: Traffic seems to be on everybody’s minds – there are suggestions that it has cost Atlanta some industrial prospects.

Perdue: The fact is that Atlanta is a wonderful place to grow a business and grow a family. Atlanta is the largest, fastest-growing metropolitan city in the United Sates. That’s stunning to think about that. This is our town. Every one of those [new] people are bringing three or four or five cars with them. And they’re driving them all at one time.

These are frustrating because they are problems of prosperity; but problems of prosperity are not as egregious as problems of scarcity. I would much rather have the problems that we have here in trying to manage our aggressive growth because people like our quality of life, they like our town, they love our state – than having to manage where people are trying to get out. Now that doesn’t mean that transportation is not a problem, but it has to be put in the context of it’s a problem because we’ve already been so successful in so many other areas.

GT: How do we solve the problem?

Perdue: That’s the issue. We have had several studies going on. Many people forget that when I came in, we proposed a $15.5 billion program called Fast Forward, moving up several years’ projects that would have been several years out, moving them up six, seven, eight years. And we’ve accomplished many of those projects. And the fact is it’s hard to keep up. This is like trying to be outside repairing the airplane while you’re in the air.

It’s a very tough challenge getting ahead of the growth we’re experiencing, because every time we build more capacity, more people are already there to take that capacity. But I think we are getting a handle on it. First of all we’re making decisions based on congestion issues rather than politics. In any business, when you have the problem, you go to the bottleneck, and you resolve the bottlenecks first. We’re working those bottlenecks off one by one and two by two and moving rapidly through them.

GT: You mentioned some studies.

Perdue: The Department of Transportation has undergone an efficiency study … with the goal of reducing the time by 15 to 20 percent, sometimes cutting a year or more off the time to get roads built. We are undergoing a Commission for a New Georgia study right now trying to determine if Georgians are getting the best value for their transportation dollar. We’re comparing nationwide as well as our peer states to make sure that we’re getting the top value. If we are, that encourages me to invest more and more. Even though we’ve moved up the $15.5 million dollars by investing in a fast forward program, I’m willing to look for other means of transportation funding.

GT: What are some of those other means?

Perdue: I’m frankly very intrigued by the international private capital [interests] that want to invest in long-term infrastructure projects in the U.S., and I think that we ought to be talking with them. If they can build it faster, more inexpensively, and operate and maintain them better than we’re doing, then we owe it to ourselves to have conversations with them.

GT: Does Georgia have the right governmental structure in place to deal with traffic issues?

Perdue: If you’re asking if the transportation governance is appropriate, I believe it is. I think our three agencies within the state, the Department of Transportation, GRTA, the regional transportation authority, and the State Road and [Tollway] Authority are working together better, with their leaders, than they ever have. They all have distinct responsibilities, one being planning, one being the financing and one being the design and construction and maintaining of the roads. And I think they are operating more as an integrated unit than they ever have. That’s certainly helping to add value. All of us can do better, and we’re committed to doing better.

GT: How?

Perdue: The Department of Transportation is taking this efficiency study and implementing many of those things that can make it more efficient and effective. We are looking at ways to reduce the planning time on projects. Much of that has to do with proposals and our interaction with [and] approval from Federal Highway. We are continually having conversations with them about how we can deliver them better information sooner and expect them to make decisions sooner.

GT: Last year’s General Assembly session was contentious. Is the upcoming one likely to be more of the same?

Perdue: I think it will have a different character, because I think everyone understands that the public hired us to get the job done, and there were some things that got accomplished that probably didn’t get much noticed among the noise last year. There are some things that still need to be done.

GT: What are some of those things?

Perdue: Education will always be an issue that we need to deal with, and we’ve had a group called IE2 – Investing in Education Excellence – for a couple of years now [dedicated to] building a ground-up model of what are the best practices in education. And how much do they cost and how should we fund them in cooperation and partnership with our local governments. We’ll continue to look at that. We’ll continue to focus on graduation rates. I’m very proud of the fact that during my tenure we’ve increased graduation rates 8 percent. That’s significant in the lives of people, and that’s a big percentage when you start trying to move those numbers.

But we’re not satisfied there. Whether it’s work-ready certificates, relationships with our technical colleges or the graduation coaches that we put in high schools or middle schools, we ought to be focused like a laser on making sure that our kids graduate from high school. … If they want to go on to get a technical college degree, we want to have a good system that’s available to all. Certainly we have already one of the finest university systems in the nation, and we need to continue to invest in there.

GT: Anything else likely to come up in the 2008 session?

Perdue: I think we’ll have some proposals about transportation, certainly. What’s the most effective means of getting the resources that we need to fund the transportation needs of our state? I believe healthcare and helping reduce the uninsured rate, particularly for those working in businesses that do not have access to healthcare, is vitally important.

GT: I want to ask a vision question. What are the things that are important to you to focus on for the final three years of your term?

Perdue: My four broad goals for Georgia are the same things I’m talking about: a more educated Georgia, a healthy Georgia, a safe Georgia – and continue to grow the jobs in Georgia to continue the economic prosperity. So those are things that we will be focusing on. Much conversation is focused on resources of the state. My goal is to right-size the needs of the state with the resources of the state. I don’t want to take any more than is needed. And how do we do that in a way that would impact as many people as little as possible? I think that’s a noble goal regarding tax policy, and how do we do that? By making our state a very attractive place to live in for the future.

GT: Anything else on your agenda?

Perdue: I think many politicians try to look at marquee issues that are politically popular. I’m a little bit different in that I believe my job, my primary job, is to add value to the quality of life of Georgians, where they get more bang for their education buck, they get better bang for transportation, they’re healthier. I am, as CEO of the state, responsible for many of these moving pieces here, to make sure that we move together in unison, looking for as much efficiency as possible in an effective way which translates into value.

If we can make the quality of people’s lives better with access to education, more opportunities for good paying jobs and the ability to spend more time at home with their families – that’s how people determine value. Many times it’s not sexy, marquee political issues, it’s about those important things that affect us. Oftentimes, we in political life are seduced into aiming [for] big declarations, trying to leave a legacy. If I can leave a legacy of having added value to this state by the management and the oversight of Georgia into the future, in transportation, in healthcare, in growing jobs and in education, I will feel like I have done what the people hired me to do.

GT: There’s been speculation about your next job and talk that you might run for U.S. Senate, or that you might be tapped to be a vice-presidential candidate.

Perdue: I ran in 2002 and for re-election, because I wanted to leave this state a better value for its citizens. I did not really plan this political step in my life, to be governor. I tell people I got too close and they pushed me in.

But the fact is, I don’t do political career ladders. I’m one of those people when they have a job I focus on what my job is and try not to focus on having ambitions for other jobs. I love the science of management, the engineering of making things run better. That’s why I’ve been fulfilled in this job of governor because I think we’ve made things run better, function better. I’ll just give an example. When you can shorten the driver’s [license] lines from hours to minutes, then that impacts people’s lives. I am essentially a businessperson at heart, and I’d be very happy returning to the life of business. I have at this time no political aspirations of a higher office.

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