Originally created 02/11/99

Barnes budgets funding for ex-neighbors



ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes may have changed his address from Mableton to the executive mansion in Atlanta, but he hasn't forgotten his former neighbors. His budget includes $5 million to help them build an amphitheater at a local park.

It's not a project the state previously identified as a need. In fact, the state budget director, Tim Burgess, said he'd never heard of the project until Mr. Barnes was elected last November to succeed Zell Miller.

"It's kind of a new need that's just come up," said Mr. Burgess, who, like other agency heads, is a holdover from the Miller administration.

It may look like pork, but pork -- as former Gov. Miller used to insist -- is in the eye of the beholder. And the Barnes administration doesn't behold this project as that.

"There is a solid public policy reason underlying what they've recommended," said Gary Horlacher, the governor's press secretary.

"This is an area they've been trying to redevelop out there. It's sort of a transitional area," he said, adding that the project has bipartisan support.

The amphitheater will be in the senatorial district of Mr. Barnes' Senate floor leader, Steve Thompson, who, like Mr. Barnes, is a Democrat. On the Republican side, supporters include Cobb County Commissioner Woody Thompson, Steve Thompson's brother.

Woody Thompson says the money will be used for improvements at a county park developed around the antebellum home of Robert Mable, Mableton's founder. The improvements include restoration work on the home, once used as a Civil War hospital, and building a 2,500-seat amphitheater for concerts.

After winning the election in November, Mr. Barnes told county officials he'd like to see some current figures on the project, Woody Thompson said.

It is far from the first time a governor has used his substantial power over the state budget to fund a pet project for himself and his friends. Mr. Miller, for instance, built a $24 million golf resort in the mountains near his hometown.

And over the years, state budgets routinely turn up with millions of dollars for various museums, halls of fame, trade centers, golf courses and marts.

The projects are usually worthwhile, but the process for deciding which get funded is flawed, Georgia State University economist Donald Ratajczak said.

"Certainly, it would be nice if we had some justification for all of these spending activities, not merely that the governor's decided to include it or not to include it in his budget," he said.

Republican House leader Bob Irvin of Atlanta agrees, saying the proposed Mableton project sounds enough like pork to be "a whole pig farm" unto itself.



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