ATHENS, Ga. — Former Gov. Sonny Perdue says he tried to fix the plummeting HOPE Scholarship when he was in office, but state legislators wouldn’t listen.
It was obvious, as college enrollment increased and lottery revenue stayed flat, that “those lines were going to cross,” Perdue told University of Georgia College Republicans in a wide-ranging talk Wednesday night. He has mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving office a year ago.
HOPE once paid the full cost of tuition, books and fees for in-state students with grade-point averages above 3.0. Now it pays just 85 percent of tuition and nothing for fees or books, and that figure is expected to fall to less than half of tuition within four years.
Perdue said he tried to convince the legislature to trim HOPE years ago and save money to avoid more drastic cuts later, but they wouldn’t listen.
“Most politicians don’t like to make the tough decisions until the crisis is already there,” he said. “You don’t change because you see the light; you change because you feel the heat.”
Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican lawmakers passed HOPE reform last year.
Perdue credited Deal with having a better relationship with the Legislature than he did. The new Republican majority early in his tenure didn’t always play well with others, he said. Perdue clashed especially with former House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who engineered the GOP’s House takeover in 2004.
“I think (Deal’s) relationship with the legislature is much smoother than I had in that regard,” Perdue said.
Perdue also reflected on the 2002 campaign that made him the first Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction. Initially, his plan was to win control of the Senate that year, but when Democrats passed a redistricting plan that improved their chances of keeping power, he said he decided to run for governor.
The new districts, later overturned in court, were a sign of Democratic overreaching, he said.
“There was a sense, a fragrance out there, that people were being disenfranchised,” he said. “People had no voice. Everything was being run from the top.”
Perdue upset Democratic incumbent Roy Barnes in spite of being outspent $25 million to $3 million. His biggest advantage, he said, was his pilot’s license. He was able to fly to campaign events in far-flung places while his opponents spent hours in the car, he said.
“It finally had become acceptable to be a Republican,” he said. “‘Republican’ in my lifetime had been a slur.”
Before leaving the Senate for the governor’s mansion, he convinced four Democratic colleagues to switch parties, handing the GOP control of the Senate.
At the time, Perdue had only been a Republican for four years. The former Senate majority leader when Democrats ran the show jumped the fence in 1998. He said he’d never voted for a Democrat for president and felt like the state party was becoming like the more liberal national party.
“I thought it was just kind of like changing churches,” he said. “(Democrats) didn’t see it that way.”
He said state Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, who was in the audience, made a “courageous” decision to switch parties in 2010.
His legacy as governor, he said, is that he ushered the state through two recessions, cut waste and reformed the budget system.
“We got in a fat, dumb and happy mood with the growth in the ‘90s,” he said.
Perdue cautioned young Republicans not to overreach and warned them about embracing “talk show ideology.” If the party tilts too far to the right, Democrats could make a comeback, he said. He was especially critical of the strict new immigration law passed last year, saying it is hurting the party with Hispanic voters.
“We’ve got to be broad-minded and realize most people don’t care what initial you’ve got after your name,” he said. “They just want government to work.”
As for the presidential race, Perdue said he won’t be endorsing another candidate after withdrawing his support for Newt Gingrich and putting it behind Tim Pawlenty, who later dropped out. Regardless of who Republicans nominate, President Barack Obama has “no chance” in Georgia, he said.