Originally created 05/17/98

New governor will be state's CEO



ATLANTA -- When Robert Edwards of Claxton got through the University of Georgia without having to pay tuition, he could thank the governor.

So could Camden County officials when they received money for a new school as part of a program to help fund local facilities in fast-growing districts.

And city officials in Augusta could as well when Korean polyester maker Hankook announced plans for a new plant that will employ 1,800 people.

"The governor really is the CEO of the state," said Steve Wrigley, chief of staff for Gov. Zell Miller. "This office is engaged in everything.

"Really, not much happens in state government, and really in the entire state, that doesn't go through the governor's office."

Whether it's how fast Georgians drive, what new jobs are available, how much groceries cost, what taxes are paid, whether parkland can be hiked and waters can be fished, or what kind of education children receive, the governor plays a role.

He sets the political and legislative agenda in the state, decides how much it will spend, and, indirectly, how much tens of thousands of government workers are paid.

And this year, Georgians are picking a new one.

"It's a tremendously important position," said former Gov. Joe Frank Harris. "A lot of power resides in the position and a lot of responsibility, and you do not share it with anyone else.

"Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even if you are around the world, no matter where you are, you are still in charge."

For eight years, state government has been presided over by Miller, an activist governor with a passion for education and a laser-sharp political mind.

Since taking office in 1991, Miller has helped to bring the state a lottery, reform the state hiring system, preserve thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land, increase Department of Education spending about 50 percent, and institute some of the country's toughest drunk-driving and violent offender laws.

Students with "B" averages now go to state colleges tuition free; 60,000 4-year-olds a year attend pre-kindergarten classes; classrooms are overflowing with computers, and teachers will receive their fourth consecutive 6-percent pay raise this fall.

Taxes were raised one year, then cut three times. The last penny of the sales tax on groceries will disappear Oct. 1.

In the meantime, Georgia has struggled to climb from near the bottom of national school rankings; uncontrolled development has begun to choke the capital with with pollution and cars; and the state's prisons and juvenile facilities have been under almost constant critical scrutiny.

For most of that period, the economy has sparkled, and Miller has touted the thousands of jobs brought to Georgia by out-of-state companies. The state budget has climbed from $7.6 billion to $12.5 billion.

Government employment has grown as well, with the Department of Labor last month listing 151,000 Georgians as being employed by the state, up 3 percent in just the past year. They are spread across the state, with large concentrations in Atlanta, Augusta, Athens and Savannah.

The 236 members of the General Assembly have had to approve the legislation that codified Miller's plans during his administration, but he and his staff were the architects and leading advocates.

Georgia has historically had a strong-governor system.

Besides the current duties, past governors have been able to let felons out of prison and pick the leader of the House of Representatives.

The General Assembly became more assertive when governmental novice Lester Maddox became governor in 1967.

One of the governor's most important jobs is to set the revenue estimate, or how much the government has to spend.

"The governor is the guy who prepares the budget, and that gives him a great ability to set the priorities," noted Arnold Fleischmann, a UGA political scientist who co-authored a book released last year called Politics in Georgia. "If you have an activist governor like Miller, that makes a big difference."

Those priorities are in a governor's yearly spending plans, which are generally approved by the General Assembly with minor alterations.

If lawmakers add something to the budget a governor doesn't like, he can veto it.

Governors also usually set the legislative agenda, proposing a series of new laws to be considered by the General Assembly. Many if not most of the major bills governors propose are approved. As in the case of the budget, the governor has the power to veto bills he doesn't like.

Since the governor is the only one who can call a special session of the General Assembly, lawmakers can do little about those vetoes because they usually occur after legislators leave town in March.

"A good governor ought to set the agenda," Wrigley said. "The Legislature is part-time. Nine months of the year, they are out making a living.

"This is a $12 billion enterprise, and it's difficult to keep up with everything unless you're here."

Besides the legislative powers, governors serve as head of their political party, represent the state across the globe, recruit industry, and appoint judges and members of dozens of policy-making and regulatory boards.

For instance, the governor names members to the Board of Regents - the governing body of the University System of Georgia - the Board of Education, the Department of Natural Resources board, the Department of Human Resources board, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

He also hires many of the department heads who run agencies, such as the commander of the state patrol, the prisons director and the revenue commissioner.

When there is a major elected position open, he fills that too, such as when Michael Bowers resigned as attorney general last year to run for governor.

UGA political scientist Charles Bullock says in some ways, Georgia's governor is more powerful than the president of the United States.

"We don't have nearly as much oversight (over administrative actions) as you do exercised by Congress," he added.

As Bowers said, "The governor has a lot of power to do a lot of good for a lot of people."