Originally created 02/19/03

Budget dominates Perdue's agenda



ATLANTA - In the month since Sonny Perdue became the first Republican governor of Georgia in more than a century, he has been at the center of a host of issues.

He has pushed for a statewide vote on the Georgia flag - saying residents deserve a voice in helping lawmakers decide whether to return a controversial Confederate symbol to the banner.

He has sponsored sweeping ethics reforms to govern how elected officials conduct themselves.

But no single issue has dominated Mr. Perdue's short tenure like the state budget.

Mr. Perdue focused on the budget, but also talked about the culture of state government and his own personal reactions to it during an interview last week.

Q: Obviously, the big issue for you so far has been trying to balance the budget.

A: There were a lot of decisions we were confronted with early on, the most stark of which was that we realized we would not even meet our budget estimate of a fairly meager 3 percent growth.

We have to make up $620 million just to make the budget this year, then fund the ongoing expenses of Medicaid - an education formula which is growing because in a slow economy, a lot of people want to stay in school.

So you would have to get way deep into across-the-board cuts, with fairly massive layoffs of people and a reduction in services, if we didn't look for other ways to balance this budget.

Q: With an agribusiness background (he owns a grain company in Bonaire), was it tough to look at those tobacco taxes?

A: I think the agricultural community has faced this issue. I think they understand there's less and less public support of tobacco and they don't view it as a growth industry. What they're concerned about are transfer payments - that they get their share of the buy-out proceeds from the tobacco lawsuit.

And I agree with them. The farming decision was not that bad. But obviously, it was like a pail of ice water being splashed on me to even confront the possibility of having to suggest raising taxes.

I can tell you that I considered all of the other alternatives prior to doing that.

Q: What's the best thing that's happened so far in your term?

A: It's the people. (During the campaign) we'd come over here and custodians and security people would come up and hug my neck.

These are people I maintained a relationship with here when I was in the Senate. I've been able to outreach when people come to the Capitol. We want to make them feel like it's their home and we want them to be well received.