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Perdue to tout 'cultural change' in office

ATLANTA - With Republicans in complete control of the General Assembly this year for the first time since the 19th century, GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue had his way with his legislative agenda.

All but one of his initiatives - a constitutional amendment allowing religious groups to use state funds for charitable activities - cleared the legislature.

With the same political dynamics set to play out during this winter's session, the governor can expect similar success.

Still, when Perdue hits the campaign trail next year in search of a second term, his message to voters is more likely to focus on his reforms of the inner workings of state government than on his legislative accomplishments.

Terms like "efficiency in government'' and "program-based budgeting" aren't sexy. But Perdue and his supporters say it's his businesslike approach to government that has steered the state through a recession and out the other side.

"What I think we'll be able to demonstrate to the voters is that we've taken the resources that they've entrusted us with (and) managed them very well as stewards,'' Perdue said during a recent interview in his Capitol office.

"There's been a cultural change ... We're managing the state for long-term, prosperous sustainability.''

But Perdue's critics say his reputation for running government like a business has come at the expense of quality education and health care.

They say his push for fiscal discipline at the state level is forcing local school districts to raise property taxes, children of the working poor to do without health insurance and state employees to absorb huge insurance premium increases.

"He balanced the budget last year by cutting 35,000 children from PeachCare and this year by cutting the State Health Benefit Plan,'' said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin. "He's clearly set his priorities as doing nothing in education except making cuts.''

Economy spurred changes

Perdue said the reforms he instituted upon taking office in 2003 - including creating a commission of business executives to look for greater efficiencies in government - were made easier by the

recession.

State tax revenues had declined for two straight years, and something had to be done to bring spending under control.

"Whenever we're flush, it's difficult to discipline yourself,'' he said. "The tight economy was a help in disciplining us to do the things that needed to be done from a management standpoint.''

Through the commission, Perdue generated millions of dollars in savings with such common-sense steps as jettisoning leases for space the state didn't need and tightening restrictions on use of the state's vehicles fleet.

"We didn't even know how many buildings we owned,'' House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said.

On the other hand, Perdue's cuts to education - nearly

$1 billion to public schools and $700 million to the state's university system in three years - have been more controversial.

Democrats have complained about his decision to delay planned reductions in class sizes that were contained in an education reform bill championed by former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes.

"(Perdue) hasn't delivered on a return in respect and dignity to the classroom,'' said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon. "If anything, it's less with failing to follow through on reducing classroom sizes.''

But Perdue cited statistics showing that Georgia school systems' budgets have been growing faster than overall state spending, despite the cuts in education funding.

"When we were down two years in a row in actual revenue, 180-some school systems had grown an average of 7.3 percent,'' he said. "Compare that to our state budget. Its growth from 2001 to '06 has been 2.3 percent.''

SAT link

In higher education, the governor will be reminded during the upcoming campaign that he supported reining in the costs of the popular HOPE Scholarship program by tying eligibility to SAT scores.

The proposal was part of a HOPE reform plan that emerged following projections that the program's expenses soon would begin outstripping its source of funding - the state lottery - unless something was done.

While lawmakers balked at the SAT link, they did pass a bill during the 2004 session that tweaked HOPE eligibility requirements and set up a system to reduce book allowances and student fees covered by the program if lottery revenues fell.

However, instead of slumping, lottery proceeds have been on the rise.

"We kept saying it wasn't a problem,'' Porter said. "(Republicans) created a problem so they could solve it.''

But Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said Perdue acted responsibly based upon the evidence available at the time.

"It's the recovering economy that has staved off the crisis,'' Johnson said. "We clearly had to make changes to make HOPE viable.''

The governor's detractors also have accused him of moving too quickly to overhaul Georgia's Medicaid program.

Perdue's plan to enroll most of its 1.5 million recipients in managed care is unfolding at the same time he is working with the federal government on a major reform that would give the state flexibility to increase costs to recipients

in exchange for a cap on the federal contribution to the program.

"Other states that have had (Medicaid) managed care ... have told us it's the worst thing we can do,'' Porter said. "But he is determined to adopt this Newt Gingrich approach to health care.''

Perdue said quick action is necessary because state spending on Medicaid has been growing at an unsustainable 10 percent to 14 percent per year.

"It was hurting the state because it was drawing dollars away from education, infrastructure, transportation, environment and every other category of state needs," he said. "There was a sense of urgency.''

Political toll

While taking the budget ax to Medicaid may not hurt Perdue politically, Democrats say the governor has much to fear from alienating teachers and state employees with cuts to the State Health Benefit Plan.

The state imposed a new premium surcharge this year on smokers and raised premiums for spouses.

More recently, teachers and state workers in some parts of Georgia were outraged to discover that the managed-care company hired to oversee their insurance plan was unable to sign up enough doctors and hospitals.

"People remember those things that have a direct impact on their lives,'' Brown said.

But the governor's supporters said the cost-cutting steps he has taken were needed for a health plan that has run chronic deficits.

"The state's going through the same issues with health care as the private sector,'' Johnson said. "We have to keep the system viable so that we have the program at all.''

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said he sees a silver lining in the economic clouds that have dominated Perdue's first three years in office.

The governor's budget reforms helped the state weather the recession, Keen said.

Now, with the improving economy, he said Georgia will be in a position to attract more business investment, which, in turn, should let Perdue take the lid off state spending.

"What this does now is prepare for ... an ability to do things aggressively, particularly with economic development,'' Keen said. "The ability we have to go out and attract businesses and jobs to Georgia produces revenue.''