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Economy guaranteed as fodder for '06 campaign

Gov. Sonny Perdue spent last week in Israel, fulfilling the role of No. 1 jobs ambassador that has been expected of Georgia governors since the days of the late George Busbee in the 1970s.

Since taking office in 2003, the Republican chief executive also has traveled to Japan, South Korea, Mexico and Canada.

But as Perdue prepares to run for re-election next year, Democrats point to statistics that they say paint a picture of the state's economy that belies the globe-trotting governor.

During the past year, Georgia was third in the nation in the increase of newly unemployed. Only hurricane-ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi posted higher numbers.

Georgia, which outperformed the nation during the booming 1990s, has an unemployment rate above the national average for the first time since 1989.

Republicans cite other statistics that produce a rosier image of Perdue's watch - more than 150,000 jobs created in the private sector in Georgia, including 30,000 as a direct result of government incentives.

While both sets of figures are undoubtedly correct, they shouldn't be read as either an indictment or vindication of Perdue's economic policies, said Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

"For better or worse, governors are always going to get the blame or credit for the economy," he said. "(But) governors can't dramatically affect the business cycle."

Humphreys argues that governors are significantly more limited than presidents in what they can do with the economy. For one thing, he said, balanced-budget requirements that apply to states but not the federal government mean governors can't throw money at a sagging economy by ratcheting up spending.

"They can't run deficits," he said. "That kind of limits your fiscal options. When a recession hits, their maneuverability is constrained."

But Humphreys said governors can offer a symbolic boost during difficult economic times by instilling confidence among their state's business leaders, and he gives Perdue kudos for doing that.

Part of that effort involves a willingness to go overseas to sell Georgia, and the governor hasn't been shy about taking on that task.

"I think that role has become more important for all governors," Humphreys said. "Because of the globalization of the world economy, governors have to travel to far-flung places. That's where the deals are being done."

But if a governor's handling of the economy is about results more than effort, Democrats say Perdue is falling short.

Besides the unemployment numbers cited above, the governor's critics say the nature of the jobs being lost is an issue. High-paying manufacturing jobs are leaving Georgia, notably the closing of the Brown & Williamson cigarette plant in Macon, and being replaced with lower paying service-industry jobs.

"The fact that we're shifting from high-tech jobs to burger-flipping jobs is a problem," said Emil Runge, spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party.

But Perdue spokesman Dan McLagan said a closer look at the economic picture shows that unemployment in Georgia is being driven by an influx of job seekers fleeing poorer performing economies in neighboring states.

He said more than 147,000 people have relocated to Georgia since 2002.

"We're victims of our own success," McLagan said. "We need to create new jobs fast enough to accommodate these new Georgians, too."

Expect both parties, armed with their dueling statistics, to make the economy a major campaign issue next year.

Perdue certainly did in 2002, when he chided Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes following the huge economic hit Georgia's airline and hospitality industries took following 9/11.

"There aren't enough jobs," then-candidate Perdue said in a late-October campaign ad that year.

With the stakes at least as high next year in Georgia, why should 2006 be any different?

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.