ATLANTA - Back when Sonny Perdue was a state senator, Republicans often complained that Democrats weren't opening up the entire budget to scrutiny.
Whether in the Governor's Mansion or in legislative budget committees, so the GOP argument went, Democratic leaders were content to look at what each state agency had spent the year before and make adjustments up or down.
"We only got to examine 10 percent of the budget, which usually leads to adds instead of deletions," Mr. Perdue said.
Now that Mr. Perdue, a Republican, is in the driver's seat as Georgia's governor, he's dumping the old way of determining how the state spends taxpayers' money.
He has ordered department heads to build budget requests from scratch, ranking each of their programs by priority.
"What we're trying to do is get each department to determine its core mission," the governor said during an interview with Morris News Service in his Capitol office last week. "To me, this is a common-sense way to make decisions."
People inside and outside government have objected to the governor's approach, calling his resulting across-the-board spending cuts arbitrary and cold-hearted.
David Moretz sees both sides of the debate. As a taxpayer, the commercial Realtor from Augusta praises Mr. Perdue for forcing state agency heads to think about which services are important.
But Mr. Moretz also worries when he sees cuts in services such as health care - he knows it's important because his son had a heart transplant nearly four years ago.
"Given the economy, I think (Mr. Perdue) is doing the best he can," Mr. Moretz said. "Someone's got to make the call."
Critics say Mr. Perdue's new approach lacks flexibility because agencies still are being required to make across-the-board spending cuts. The governor has ordered each department to reduce spending by 2.5 percent in this budget year and 5 percent in fiscal 2005.
"I take issue with each department being asked to make the same percentage of cuts," said Rep. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, the House majority whip. "It's a rigid sort of approach with blindfolds on."
A FIRM BELIEVER in the concept referred to as "zero-base budgeting," Mr. Perdue might have been expected to move away from the traditional budget process. But the governor's allies say his timing is particularly appropriate in light of growing shortfalls that are facing the state in the wake of the sluggish economy's effects on tax collections.
After plugging a $400 million gap in this year's budget, the General Assembly could be greeted in January with a deficit of $1 billion or more next year.
"The economic problems that we have now force the state to cut the size of government," Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said.
"The best way to do that is reforming the budget process, looking for overlap of services, the efficiency of service delivery or programs that may be out of date," he said.
In theory, zero-base budgeting has been in place since then-Gov. Jimmy Carter instituted the system in the early 1970s.
But Commissioner of Community Health Tim Burgess, who ran Gov. Zell Miller's budget office during the mid-1990s, said the practice has been allowed to lapse during the decades since Mr. Carter presided at the Capitol.
"It's one thing to simply have (zero-base budgeting) as a formal part of your process," Mr. Burgess said. "(Mr. Perdue) seems very serious about using it to make resource allocations."
MR. MILLER, now a U.S. senator, introduced a process known as "redirection" during his tenure, in which department heads were required to cut a portion of each year's budget and redirect that money toward programs they considered high priorities.
Mr. Burgess said that in "reintroducing" zero-base budgeting this year, Mr. Perdue is going well beyond redirection.
"We were only asking departments to prioritize the lowest 5 percent of their operations," Mr. Burgess said. 'The governor now is saying, 'I want everything prioritized."'
But to those who lobby on behalf of recipients of state services, the devil is in the details when it comes to the government's setting priorities.
Linda Lowe, a consumer-health advocate, questions how the Community Health Department can rank children in general as a higher priority for services covered by Medicaid than disabled children, or place the needs of disabled adults ahead of the elderly.
"It's ranking one group of citizens against another," she said.
Ms. Orrock said the across-the-board cuts ordered by the governor are being implemented without regard to which agencies are run completely on state dollars and which receive most of their money from the federal government.
She said some programs are being given short shrift on departmental priority lists despite the long-term consequences of failing to fund them.
"When we see more babies born with severe health issues that are going to be costing us for years, why are we discontinuing the prenatal care program?" she asked, referring to proposed cuts in the Human Resources Department.
WHILE CRITICS MIGHT fault the priorities set by agency heads, defenders of the budget approach say prioritizing is part of an overdue grafting of long-held business principles onto government.
In fact, Mr. Perdue looked to the private sector for some of his top aides, charging them with running the state in the same way as a business. Former bankers Jim Lientz and Tommy Hills are the government's chief operating officer and chief financial officer, respectively.
But Ms. Lowe said private-sector approaches don't work in government.
"The public sector is charged with a different job than the private sector, where profit is uppermost," she said. "The public sector does what others don't find profitable but is for the public good."
Mr. Lientz disagrees.
"Clearly, we're not trying to make a profit," he said of the government. "On the other hand, we're trying to deliver a quality service in the most efficient, effective manner within a balanced budget. It feels the same to me."
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 681-1701 or email@example.com.
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