ATLANTA --- The bills are still being tallied for two overseas trips Gov. Sonny Perdue took this month, one to Cuba and one to Argentina and Uruguay, but critics already say he used poor judgment.
He was chastised for his timing and for visiting a communist country.
The governor's office defends both trade missions as being part of the state's strategy for minimizing future economic slowdowns.
Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley compared the trips to trade missions the governor led to South Korea in 2003, which led three years later to the announcement that Kia Motors would build a plant in West Point, Ga., spawning nearly 4,000 jobs.
"What this really is about is meeting face-to-face with prospects that would potentially invest in Georgia and establish jobs here," he said.
On June 6, the governor led a 43-person delegation for a two-day trip to Cuba, including four journalists and 23 private business people who paid their own way at $2,500 apiece. The governor's office said the per-person costs to taxpayers would have been slightly less for the state employees.
Traveling with the governor were his press secretary; bodyguard; deputy chief of staff; officials from the departments of Agriculture and Economic Development; the dean of the University of Georgia's College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences; the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority; a member of the authority's board; Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons; and Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn.
Perdue left again June 20 for a three-day visit to Uruguay and Argentina with just a small group of staff. The longer flight and added day of travel doubled the cost to about $5,000, according to the governor's office.
Though the expenses will be divided among several state agencies, their total is likely to be around $100,000 for both. That rankled Jeff Hubbard, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
"During this continued, unprecedented time of economic upheaval in Georgia, and especially near the end of Georgia's fiscal year, it is our opinion that Gov. Perdue should be dealing with the daily challenges of life in Georgia ... education, health care, water, etc. rather than taking taxpayer-paid trips to foreign countries to lobby for international trade," Hubbard said.
The state's fiscal year ends Wednesday. Tax collections have continued to come in below expectations, meaning the state will begin its new spending year roughly $300 million lower than planned. Congress' decision so far not to renew an extension of its Medicaid assistance to states pulls out another $375 million legislators counted on when they drafted the budget.
Since Perdue is unlikely to call a special session of the General Assembly to raise taxes, he will be overseeing the next round of cutting himself.
The timing of the Cuba trip also fell on the deadline for when he had to sign or veto legislation, including the budget. While he had all during the legislative session and 40 days afterward to decide, his absence meant he wasn't present to face questions from the media, the public or legislators when he issued his vetoes.
"Regardless of budget, why would the governor of Georgia make a trip to Cuba, especially in the final weekend before the veto cut-off of the 2010 legislative session?" asked Tricia Pridemore, head of the 9.12 Project Action Network and the Conservative Leadership Coalition.
H er bigger concern was about Cuba's status as a communist dictatorship.
"Gov. Perdue's recognizing them with his presence is an insult to the freedom-loving Georgians who voted him into office," she said. "There are plenty of other nations that can use our agriculture products. Let's do business with those who do not kill their own people for the sake of power."
Brantley argues that going to Cuba positions Georgia to capitalize on the possible lifting of some of the boycott restrictions being hinted at by the Obama administration. Georgia is already a major exporter of agricultural products to Cuba - such as chicken, soybeans and pork - and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin has made almost yearly trips to the island nation since farm products could be shipped there.
"The governor believes, whether it's China (that Perdue visited in 2008) or Cuba, there are inroads you can make through trade and the cultural interaction," Brantley said.
Georgia ranks sixth as an exporting state to Uruguay and seventh to Argentina, selling more than $156 million yearly. The state ranks third in exports to Cuba, a figure that doubled in the last year.
In the next five years, visitation from Argentine tourists is expected to grow 55 percent, according to Perdue's office.
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