Maybe governors should be kept to one term

Does Georgia need to take a step back if it is to ever move forward again? Perhaps the state should consider returning to the era of one-term governors.

Allowing governors to succeed themselves to a second four-year term was a bad idea from the beginning. With only one or two exceptions, our best governors have been those who served four years and left. Our weakest executives have been those bent on serving a second term.

No matter who is elected in November, the next governor ought to suggest that Georgia repeal the 1976 term-succession amendment. There are several reasons for going back, the best one being: A one-term governor doesn't have time to dawdle.

Upon inauguration, he or she could confront the state's major problems without having to ponder whether one's proposed solutions might hurt subsequent re-election chances.

A bit of history: Gov. Carl Sanders (1963-1967), rated by many as the greatest achiever among modern governors, asked the General Assembly for a constitutional amendment to allow a second consecutive term. The lawmakers said no. He irked too many legislators during his first term.

Ditto for Lester Maddox and Jimmy Carter. Then along came Gov. George Busbee (1975-1983). A popular former House leader, Busbee succeeded in gaining passage of the two-term amendment. A devastated Lt. Gov. Zell Miller saw his 1978 plan to run for governor crushed. Busbee was a conservative eight-year executive best remembered for his fiscal restraint.

Gov. Joe Frank Harris (1983-1991) succeeded Busbee and served a quiet eight years. Then Miller returned as a candidate for governor, promising to serve only one four-year term. Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a remarkably talented politician, prepared to go for governor in 1994 to succeed Miller.

Didn't happen. Miller reneged on his one-term pledge. Realizing that he could not hope to defeat a Democratic incumbent, Howard served a second term as lieutenant governor and vanished from the public scope.

During the rip-roaring 1990s, Georgia's population exploded and problems mounted. Medicaid costs soared. Student test scores continued to plummet. Traffic in metro areas turned nightmarish. The state lagged the nation in information technology.

However, Miller will be forever remembered for giving us the lottery and HOPE Scholarships. He was barely re-elected, in 1994, to a second term, running on a tough "two strikes and you're out" criminal justice platform. That part of the Miller legacy still haunts us, with prison overcrowding and under-the-radar early-release programs.

Gov. Roy Barnes (1999-2003) decided to break with tradition. Despite solid political counsel to the contrary, Barnes came charging out of the blocks with a fistful of grand and ambitious ideas for his first term.

He launched a sweeping education reform program. Many educators were infuriated. He sought more roads to reduce congestion. Affected landowners went berserk. He tackled Medicaid reform, and he changed the state flag - and Sonny Perdue beat him in the 2002 election.

While Barnes sought a second term, he governed as if re-election didn't concern him. Perdue learned from Barnes' lesson. He wasn't about to let hyperactivity spoil his second-term chances.

Perdue backed away from education reform. Congestion continued to grow unabated. He let Medicaid slide for two years until it became entangled in an unmanageable knot.

When he finally addressed Medicaid, physicians were furious. They couldn't get paid in a timely fashion. Children needing medical attention were assigned gynecologists instead of pediatricians. Quacks came out of the woodwork.

Nevertheless, Perdue played his politics smart, preparing for a second term from the day he won his first. He catered to his base. He harped on stopping gay marriages, of which there were none.

He gained passage of a law aimed at barring injured parties from suing hospitals and physicians. He said the measure would reduce docs' insurance premiums. Instead, premiums went up. Perdue signed a law aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants from moving to Georgia. More illegal immigrants came than ever before.

If he wins a second term, Perdue presumably will tackle substantive matters. Georgians will see more movement on the transportation front. Some education funds and reform may be restored. More attention will be paid to rescuing local infrastructures now strained to the breaking point by unbridled growth.

The governor's campaign commercials carry the catchphrase: "Why would we want to go back?" To which Perdue's political critics inevitably answer: "To try to fill in the blanks during four years of do-nothingness."

Looking back to his election in 2002, one can only wonder: What kind of governor would Sonny have been if he knew he could not seek a second term?

One also might consider the following: 150 years of historical evidence indicate that Georgians, more often than not, prefer underachievers in their Capitol, no matter how bad things get.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com.

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