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Governor on roll early in election year

Sonny Perdue delivered one of the most effective speeches of his life last week.

If you earn your living as a public school teacher, he made you wish that Georgia held gubernatorial elections every year, instead of every four years.

The governor promised you a big raise, a freeze of health insurance premiums, a $100 plastic gift card and smaller classes to teach. He attached no strings, certainly not any of that hateful accountability stuff.

He vowed simply that you would be the best-paid teacher in the Southeast. Perdue didn't say much about education in his first three years in office. Instead, he began his administration by lifting the lid off classroom sizes and whacking the education budget by $1 billion.

He says he didn't have the money to do otherwise, although the state provided a $1 billion tax cut for corporations last year - a sum that almost matched his education reductions.

Ah, but that was last year and the year before. Put the past aside. Let's talk about the future. Perdue, who is up for re-election this year, is on a roll.

His year began with an Atlanta newspaper poll showing soaring popularity. He wowed the audience at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce "Eggs and Issues" breakfast with a forecast so bright that it was blinding.

His 2006 State of the State address to the Legislature might have been delivered by a Democratic governor from the 1970s or 1980s. It was loaded with promises of cash for education. The governor said 72 percent of his spending would be funneled through schoolhouse doors.

Perdue's polling of issues has shown him the way. Georgians are interested in improving education, almost above all else. So what better way to upgrade schools than to give teachers whopping raises? It is a tried-and-true formula that guaranteed the election of generations of Democratic leaders. Why should it not work also for the state's first modern Republican governor? (Does it actually improve education? That's another story.)

The governor's potential Democratic challengers, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Secretary of State Cathy Cox, delivered tepid responses to the governor's addresses - a sure sign that Perdue has left them in a quandary. They are not quite sure how to stop his steamroller - or even if they can stop it.

Of course, several 800-pound gorillas - huge issues that no one, including the governor, wants to discuss - sat on the front row as Perdue addressed Georgia's lawmakers last week.

For instance:

•Illegal immigration. At least 250,000 illegal aliens have poured into our state, bending to the breaking point medical infrastructures, law enforcement and social services in several Georgia areas. Legislation is pending to prohibit illegals from using state services. Critics say the GOP-backed bills may be unconstitutional. A clash is sure to come.

•Health care. As many as 300,000 Georgia children lack health insurance coverage. In addition, cuts and changes are planned in Medicaid and state employees' insurance to effect savings that would finance the governor's other programs. When health care is shortchanged, a public outcry will follow. Count on it.

•Equalized school funding. During this election year, both the governor and the Legislature are determined to avoid the thorny issue of increasing taxes to equalize funding for school districts. A lawsuit is pending to force the issue. Other states have already been required to rewrite tax codes for school purposes. By the way, even in the throes of his generosity toward education, Gov. Perdue failed to mention that he is not restoring $170 million to cuts to basic education funding.

•Ethics. The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in Washington is already creating echoes in state capitals across the country. Statehouse lobbyists had better run for cover. Two identified former "team Abramoff" players operate on Georgia turf. Former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed is running for lieutenant governor. Padgett Wilson, identified by the Washington Post as part of Abramoff's inner circle, was hired by Gov. Perdue as a Washington lobbyist for the state. Meanwhile, Perdue's stalwarts have fired straitlaced Teddy Lee as director of the Georgia Ethics Commission. Someone is sure to start asking pointed questions about influence peddling in Atlanta.

•Predatory lending. Georgia already is the loan-shark capital of the universe, allowing stratospheric interest rates on car-title and check-stub loans. New legislative measures have been introduced to make sky-high lending even more lucrative in the Peach State.

There's more. However, raining gorillas down on Sonny Perdue's parade is not our purpose here today. Georgians are not noted for looking gift horses in the mouth, especially during such sunny times. The governor is off to a running start in this election season. He may finish in a breeze.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.