Can you spare a billion?

Published 9:25 pm Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gov. Sonny Perdue deserves a round of applause for seeing the light.

Just weeks after warning that Georgians can’t borrow their way out of debt, the governor announced in general terms that he now favors increasing the state debt. Perdue wants state government to borrow an unspecified sum to stimulate the economy and wipe out a looming $1.6 billion state deficit.

The governor reasons that Georgia government enjoys excellent credit and interest rates are low. If we plan to borrow big bucks, now is the time to do it, according to the current thinking in the Gold Dome.

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Perdue also met with President-elect Obama to discuss federal bailout help for states like Georgia. Now that’s what you call chutzpah. Georgia opposed Obama’s election, but immediately after the election, Gov. Perdue stands at the front of the line with his palm turned up.

Whether one agrees with the governor’s new red-ink strategy or not, one has to be pleased that the governor is showing signs of life at last, this time to stem an economic crisis of major proportions.

We can only hope that some of Perdue’s newfound get-up-and-go will rub off on the Georgia Legislature. Although the General Assembly granted every item on big business’ wish list in its 2008 session, the Legislature achieved next to nothing as far as aiding the commonweal. In fact, the ’08 session may have been one of the worst in recent memory, even as every sign pointed to a major recession headed our way.

Perdue, along with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, engaged in a running war of words with Speaker Glenn “Romeo” Richardson. Richardson’s No. 1 agenda item—abolishing all property taxes in favor of a state-run sales tax—fell flat on its face. Local governments breathed a collective sigh of relief. If Romeo’s bill had passed, Atlanta would have been in full control of the entire state and all its 159 counties.

On the dark side of the ledger, the General Assembly refused to fund an expansion of trauma centers even as it moved to make it OK to carry concealed firearms in more public places. The next legislative session may consider an already perfected bill to allow adults to pack loaded pistols in college classrooms. How have we survived so long without guns in the lecture hall? It’s hard to figure.

Coming back to Perdue’s apparent conversion to a Keynesian rescue scheme, the governor seems to have recognized that the recession is a worse problem than the recent drought or the gasoline shortage. So it is unlikely that he will hop another plane for Beijing just as his borrowing bill comes up in the Legislature.

Our state needs to issue bonds to launch a series of public works projects ranging from building new schools and libraries to moving a big part of state government to central Georgia to occupy an abandoned private college. It also needs to balance its budget and address some of the following issues:

•  Unemployment in our state has zoomed past the national figure and is headed toward 8 percent.

•  The Peach State is among the top five states in home foreclosures.

•  We lead the nation in per-capita personal bankruptcies.

•  Dozens of our community banks are in trouble, with bad loans left over from the real estate boom that went bust.

•  Several large cities, including Atlanta, are in serious financial trouble and are having difficulty meeting their obligations. Atlanta officials have received a cool reception—meaning no buyers seem interested—to a bond issue to complete the big international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

•  Georgia continues to face significant water-supply and pollution problems. Rival Florida’s water troubles seem to get most of the attention.

The late Speaker Tom Murphy warned against excessive borrowing, and indeed the state maintains a mandated ceiling for bonded indebtedness. That ceiling may have to be adjusted if the Perdue plan receives serious consideration.

Therein lies still another problem. The Legislature is often a year or so behind the curve on addressing Georgia’s real needs, to the extent it addresses them at all these days.

Some of our lawmakers still rail against illegal immigrants. Don’t they know that the jobs-killing recession has sent immigrants scurrying back home? Jobs, once filled by migrants to the United States, have dried up.

These are the same lawmakers who waged an expensive campaign to ban gay marriages in Georgia, when such unions were already against the law.

While Perdue is waiting in line at the bailout window, our governor might use his cell phone to check on another budding program: the one in which certain officials can buy and sell legislative seats. We need a plan like that in Georgia, which might raise the quality of General Assembly members. A pilot program is already under way in Illinois.