Originally created 05/28/03

Perdue creates panel to overhaul budget



ATLANTA - Gov. Sonny Perdue turned to the private sector Tuesday to help the state government find its way out of a budget crunch brought on by the recession.

The Commission for a New Georgia, to be headed jointly by a banking executive and a restaurant-chain CEO, will examine state spending to look for ways to streamline operations without jeopardizing services.

"Our vision is, by 2007, for Georgia to be the best-managed state in the nation," Mr. Perdue said at a news conference announcing the initiative. "I believe that's an achievable goal."

The governor and the General Assembly struggled throughout the lengthy legislative session that ended last month to balance a budget hamstrung by months of declining tax revenues.

They were able to make ends meet only by raising tobacco taxes by $180 million and drawing down the state's reserves by $142 million. The $16.2 billion 2004 budget also includes a $132 million acceleration of the timetable for businesses to send the state the income taxes they withhold from their employees' paychecks.

Even those measures might not be enough, given the growing gap between the governor's revenue projections and actual tax collections. Mr. Perdue could call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session this summer to look for more spending cuts.

The budget outlook promises to be even grimmer by January, when the General Assembly convenes its next regular session. Such one-shot measures as the payroll-tax acceleration won't be available next year.

Mr. Perdue said the commission will include about 18 core members, who will lead task forces that will focus on specific policy areas, such as health care, education, transportation and the state's office-space needs.

He said each task force will act like a "surgical strike team," recommending creative ways to make state agencies more efficient with tax dollars.

"You won't get one big book coming out of this," said Bob Hatcher, the Georgia chairman of Branch Banking and Trust, chosen by Mr. Perdue as a co-chairman for the commission. "It will be a series of ideas and innovations that we will be feeding to the governor over a period of time - really taking a hard look at how we can do things better."

Mr. Perdue chose as the commission's other co-chairman Joe Rogers Jr., the president and CEO of Georgia-based Waffle House Inc.

The commission will be primarily a private-sector effort. Along with the two chairmen, all of the task force heads are expected to come from the business community, said Shane Hix, a spokesman for the governor.

But Rep. Tom Buck, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the new initiative should get at least some input from experienced legislators who have seen how the ups and downs of economic cycles affect the public sector.

"You don't run state government like a business," said Mr. Buck, D-Columbus.

He said participation by elected officials in the commission's work also would make its recommendations easier to sell to state policy-makers.

Mr. Perdue said he hopes to have the commission in place by the end of next month.

GROUP LEADERS

Here are the backgrounds of the two business executives named by Gov. Sonny Perdue as co-chairmen for The Commission for a New Georgia:

BOB HATCHER

POSITION: Georgia chairman, Branch Banking and Trust

FORMER JOBS: President and CEO of First Liberty Financial Corp. and First Liberty Bank

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, University of Georgia, 1974; graduated from School of Banking of the South, 1975

JOE ROGERS JR.

POSITION: Chairman, president and CEO of Waffle House Inc.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, Georgia Tech, 1968; Masters in business administration, Harvard University, 1971

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 681-1701 or davemns@mindspring.com.