Analysis: Will Georgia really consolidate colleges?

ATLANTA -- The clash between government efficiency and parochial interest usually comes down to the vantage point of the political majority, and two recent initiatives hint at how a coming shift can have far-reaching reverberations.
Item No. 1 is Chancellor Hank Huckaby's initiative to consolidate Georgia's 35 public colleges and universities. He hasn't given many clues on how he aims to do it or how far he plans to go.
He hints that he'd like to take a page from the Technical College System of Georgia which consolidated 13 colleges into six in 2009 to save an estimated 10 percent of the system's budget. There was relatively little complaint, and they weren't even as geographically close together as some of the state's traditional colleges.
What he must know, though, as a native Georgian and as someone who served half a term in the legislature, is that local communities have more of their identity tied up into colleges than they do the tech schools. Counting the three historically black colleges nearly in the same zip codes as historically white colleges that have been mentioned as consolidation candidates often in the past, the University System of Georgia would have to merge 15 colleges to match the scale of the tech-school consolidation.
"I know this will be somewhat controversial to many," Huckaby said.
In the abstract, who could oppose consolidation if it saved 10 percent of the University System's $1.85 billion budget? After all, $185 million ain't chicken feed.
That's where the parochial interests comes in from the towns that take pride in being the home to a campus. While the campus wouldn't disappear, the name would and so would half of those college presidents who lend such gravitas to local civic functions.
The political opposition might be diffused by merging all of them down to just three schools, one for medicine, one for engineering and one general university. Other states have done it, even Georgia at one time, as Huckaby was reminded at his own investiture ceremony by a history professor speaking on the University System's genesis.
Prof. Thomas Dyer said a similar arrangement led to confusion and miscommunication until Georgia's present organizational chart was devised in the 1940s.
Item No. 2 is a recommendation to reduce by half the 48 posts of the Georgia State Patrol. Doing so would save $1 million a year and put more than 100 additional troopers on the road.
The Department of Public Safety's own consultant made the recommendation in 2005, and the Department of Audits & Accounts renewed the suggestion this month.
Again, saving money and putting more troopers on the road would seem like a non-debatable idea in the abstract, but the commissioner of public safety isn't for it.
"I don't think consolidation of posts is the right thing to do," said Col. Mark McDonough.
Instead, he likes having a physical presence close to the 159 sheriffs and 500 city councils he calls his customers. Those 48 counties that host a post like it, too, and not just for the civic pride.
That's because the counties get revenue from the tickets troopers write, not the State Patrol. That dispels notions that troopers have a ticket quota for the sake of revenue, but it also creates a financial incentive for hosting a post. After all, troopers are going to spend more time cruising the roads going to and from their post than in surrounding counties, hence more tickets.
Speaking of counties, even they are a candidate for consolidation every now and then. The only reason for 159 was supposedly so no farmer lived more than a day's horse ride from the county seat.
Considering government is the major employer in most rural counties, with welfare offices, sheriff, clerk of court and other officials in each, merging them would save plenty of money but put a lot of well-connected people out of work.
When the legislature was dominated by rural lawmakers, these parochial issues were held in check. As the population continues its steady march to the cities, the political power is consolidating there, too. 
That kind of consolidation is hard to stop, and sooner or later, rural interests are going to fall prey to it. How soon is the question.
It all depends on how the majority of voters look at an issue. If they see it from the standpoint of taxpayers supporting services in another part of the state, they'll opt for the efficiency that comes from consolidation. When they lived in those towns instead of the city, they had no trouble justifying the opposite stance.
People on the losing side of the equation blame politics. The winners credit common sense.
Soon, we'll see who is the captive of politics and who has the most common sense, Huckaby or McDonough.


Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.



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