Originally created 12/18/06

Perdue warns little cash left for initiatives



ATHENS, Ga. - This is the time of year when the chubby guy is making his list, checking it twice and deciding who's getting presents or a lump of coal - or perhaps "biofuel mass" these days.

All the legislators and lobbyists strive to get on his good side, but neither they nor any reporters have gotten clues as to what's on Gov. Sonny Perdue's list.

THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY convenes Jan. 8, just weeks away. The day after the celebrations, the entire government will be poised to react to what Mr. Perdue proposes.

There's just no rushing the big day, though. The governor, Legislature, capitol press corps and the well-heeled of the lobbyists all made the trip to Athens last week for three days of briefings and discussion on the topics expected to be the most complicated during the coming session of the General Assembly.

Topping all concerns is the budget.

Some leaders, such as House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin, of Columbia County, joined Mr. Perdue in the chorus of expectation lowering. Mr. Harbin admitted that even his fellow Republicans could be tempted by flush state coffers.

He grinned and accepted the comparison to legendary University of Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who spent many a fall in Athens lowering Bulldog fans' expectations by praising the meager talents of each week's opponent, no matter how feeble.

Mr. Perdue was a little more direct in talking with the legislators, lobbyists and media in town to hang on his every word.

"Special interests, when they hear 'surplus,' they say, 'That means we can get money now for our projects.'"

Calling someone a "special interest" is about as harsh as he gets in public putdowns.

MR. PERDUE AND Mr. Harbin warn that the costs of basic government services including education and health care have grown as fast or faster than the revenue, leaving no cash for new initiatives. At the same time, the state's reserves are dangerously low, at about two weeks' worth of operations as compared with the three months that the state requires cities and counties to maintain.

All that Mr. Perdue has said is that he favors the modest promises he made during his campaign to hire a handful of cops for meth, cyber stalkers and document forgeries by illegal immigrants. He wants to eliminate the tax on retirement income and try once more with two constitutional amendments that Democrats call unneeded and no doubt will block yet again - one to protect the HOPE scholarship, the other to allow the state to contract with charities for social services, which is already happening.

The governor was asked by reporters about a rumor that he planned to seek approval for cutbacks on health coverage for state workers to save taxpayers money.

Instead of shooting down the rumor, he said, "I don't think it's in anyone's best interest to make any kind of statements along those lines at this time."

Is that reassuring?

Asked if there were any nuisances in his speech to legislators, he said, "I didn't have anything in mind at all. I'm not trying to send any kind of signals that I haven't been transparent about."

IF Mr. Perdue wasn't delivering any early gifts, the lawmakers decided to give themselves one. The small committee that handles the administrative details of the House and Senate met privately for the gift exchange. They boosted the daily food-and-lodging compensation legislators get from $128 to $173, the first increase since 1999.

Democrats didn't object to the Republican proposal in the committee, and that settles it since the panel has the power to make it so without a vote in either chamber.

"It's reasonable," said Rep. Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, the House majority leader.

He argues the rate matches what the federal government permits its workers who travel to Atlanta in accord with the city's rising hotel and restaurant prices. The rest of us will have to wait to learn what's under the tree.

By now, the governor has finished drafting his budget plan and sent it to the printer to be turned into tomes the size of the Atlanta phone book.

Only when it's released after the inauguration will Georgians know which list Santa put them on this year.

Reach Walter Jones at walter.jones@morris.com.