Gov. Sonny Perdue may have struck gold in his search for at least one resonant re-election campaign issue. The governor vows to protect taxpayers from having to buy lifestyle drugs for welfare recipients. He also may have opened up a topic he didn't intend to: the use of public funds to buy Viagra for state employees.
When we returned from vacation, our e-mail box was stacked with notes regarding Perdue's order to stop low-income men from using Medicaid to buy anti-impotency medicine. The public has tuned in.
One reader, whose name we agreed to withhold, wrote:
"Gov. Perdue should be applauded for the strong stand in opposition to Medicaid paying for Viagra. The Schiavo case and the debate over stem-cell research taught us that some medical decisions are too important to be left up to doctors. Physicians too often fall under the spell of salesmen bearing gifts or buying high-priced dinners, unlike elected officials governed by ethics rules restricting such practices.
"Medicaid, by design, supplies essential services to people who do not have financial resources to obtain adequate health care. It is a safety net for people on the borderline who often can work but periodically go under financially - people who sort of bob on and off the dole. Medicaid money should never be used to provide recreational drugs. Georgians know this practice is wrong."
In an op-ed piece in the Marietta Daily Journal last week, 11th District Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Marietta, joined Gov. Perdue's crusade. "Our federal and state funds are better spent saving lives than increasing sexual performance, and our policies reflect this preference," wrote Gingrey, who practiced medicine before going to the House.
This could be just the beginning. The governor may be waiting for the right time to extend the ban on spending even more millions in public funds on sex-enhancing drugs.
Government employees' health insurance pays for Viagra, Cialis and Levitra and similar potions. The cost runs into the millions. The Medicaid expenditures in Georgia are peanuts by comparison. In addition to paying for Viagra, state health insurance also covers tubal ligations, vasectomies and other possibly unnecessary and often controversial medical procedures.
Georgia taxpayers pick up directly 75 percent of the cost of the state employees' health insurance premiums. (State taxpayers pay less than half the cost of Medicaid. The feds pay the lion's share.)
It will be instructive to see whether Perdue, Gingrey and other public officials expand their ban against taxpayer-paid Viagra to include its purchase by thousands of government employees. Usually reticent Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, has introduced a measure in Congress to prevent federal dollars from being spent on impotency drugs. Gingrey is a co-sponsor of the bill. Whether this is serious legislation or just another red herring remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, oil prices soar to $59 a barrel, military bases prepare to close, giant corporations eye bankruptcy, education continues to slide, prisons overflow and the Iraq war goes on and on and on.
There's not much that our federal and state officials can - or will - do about those complicated, high-risk issues. Still, Georgia has elected leaders in Atlanta and Washington eager to go to bat against paying for Viagra for welfare daddies.
There may have been some hesitancy about coming out against lynching. But not one of our lawmakers has flinched in the battle to stop public spending on sex medicines.
Seems like only yesterday that former Gov. Zell Miller, father of the Georgia lottery, traveled to Alabama to help Gov. Don Siegelman campaign for a lottery in that state. At the same time, Miller's former protege, Ralph Reed, also descended on Alabama to spearhead a full-time drive against Siegelman's "evil" lottery. Reed's side won. Alabamans voted against a state lottery and later voted Siegelman out of office.
Now Miller, 73, and Reed, who turns 44 Friday, are again best of buddies and enthusiastic political allies. Miller is helping Reed raise campaign funds to run for lieutenant governor in Georgia. Reed, of course, says he is completely in favor of Miller's Georgia lottery and wouldn't dream of trying to tamper with it if he wins next year's election. Reed also says he didn't know Indian casino money was used to underwrite his 1999 anti-lottery war in Alabama.
You have to wonder if any Alabama voters ever look enviously at Georgia's lottery-financed HOPE Scholarships and wonder whether pied-piper Reed once led them down the wrong path - for the wrong reasons.
State budget writers last spring deleted $1 million for overhauling the governor's mansion. The budget cut hasn't stopped heavy construction equipment from moving onto the mansion grounds and beginning a massive repaving job around the Georgia palace.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.