Stateline Story

GOP Rules Amid Bickering in Georgia Statehouse

Everything should be peachy for Georgia Republicans, who hold more power in Atlanta than at any time since just after the Civil War and who proved the rare exception to Democratic gains in statehouses elsewhere last year.

But Republican control of the governor's office, lieutenant governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature hasn't proven to be a recipe for historic lawmaking in the Peach State.

Driven largely by a Republican vs. Republican rift over tax relief, this year's legislative session degenerated into name-calling and tit for tats between the governor's office and the House speaker as well as a political rivalry between the speaker and lieutenant governor. Gov. Sonny Perdue failed to push through his top priorities, such as bills to protect lottery funds for state college scholarships and to overhaul the state's health-care regulations, and issued more vetoes than any governor in the past 17 years.

The tensions "are the natural growing pains of a party" that has not been in power for more than 130 years, said John Watson, Perdue's former chief of staff. Still, the squabbling lent a sour flavor to the GOP's rule of the Statehouse, which began when Perdue was elected in 2002, the same year Republicans gained a majority in the state Senate. The GOP won a majority in the House in 2004.

Georgia is one of only 10 states where the GOP - steamrolled in 2006 state and federal elections - control both the legislative and executive branches of state government, compared to 15 where Democrats call all the shots in the state capitol.

Conjuring parallels to the gridlock on Capitol Hill while Republicans controlled the White House and Congress until last November, Georgia isn't the only place where political parties are having trouble capitalizing on majorities.

South Carolina's GOP-controlled Legislature has clashed repeatedly with the famously frugal Gov. Mark Sanford (R), overriding all but 15 of 243 budget vetoes this session. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is forcing his Democratic-controlled Legislature to stay in special session to negotiate a new budget deal. Negotiations on state spending fell apart after lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected Blagojevich's plan to raise taxes to boost education and health spending.

In 2002, Perdue, a leading Democratic state senator who switched to the GOP in 1998, become the state's first Republican governor since 1872, and four Democratic state senators switched parties to give the GOP a majority in that chamber. Two years later Republicans gained a 19-seat majority in the state House and set off another flurry of Democrats switching parties. Last year, Perdue was re-elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote - the largest gubernatorial victory in 20 years, and Statehouse Republicans also gained two more seats - one of just five states where the party netted state legislative seats in November.

In 2005 and 2006, the Legislature appeared to work smoothly with Perdue, passing a boost to public classroom spending and teacher pay last year and approving a state ethics overhaul two years ago . But this year, legislators failed to revamp the state's health coverage for children in low-income working families and killed Perdue's centerpiece bills to protect lottery funds for state college scholarships and pre-kindergarten, raise traffic fines to pay for trauma centers and rewrite the state's health-care regulations. Legislators, however, bit on Perdue's $19 million plan to boost sport-fishing tourism, Go Fish.

The boiling point, though, came over the Legislature's plan to refund $142 million of a $700 million budget surplus on a one-time property-tax rebate. Perdue instead favored tax breaks for high-income senior citizens and vetoed the entire package the day before the session ended.

While the House swiftly voted to reverse Perdue's veto, Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the state Senate's presiding officer, took the governor's side and argued a veto override was unconstitutional. Cagle's move heightened his rivalry with House Speaker Glenn Richardson. Both are expected to square off in the 2010 gubernatorial race to replace the term-limited Perdue.

Adding fuel to the fire, Perdue's communications director accused House members of throwing a "temper tantrum," according to The Journal Constitution of Atlanta. The House speaker barred the governor's staff from the chamber floor and shot back: "Apparently, hunting season is over and [the governor has] got time to hang out at the state Capitol," he was quoted.

Although Perdue later rescinded his veto to avoid a costly special session to write a new budget, he got his way by using his line-item authority to slash the property-tax relief from the bill.

In addition, he cut $7 million in lawmakers' pet projects from the 2008 budget and vetoed 40 other bills, including 29 authored by leading members of the House Appropriations Committee, who had opposed his income tax cut - nearly twice as many bills as he vetoed in the previous four years, according to an article from a Georgia political newsletter, Insider Advantage .

Former Republican state Rep. Matt Towery, publisher of Insider Advantage , called the vetoes retribution against House members who had pushed through the property-tax cut instead of the governor's income-tax break.

Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said the vetoes were "not some nefarious plan to pull the rug from under legislators." He said the governor objected to bills overloaded with multiple tax breaks, which he claims should be proposed individually.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was disappointed by the vetoes but was more upset that Perdue inserted language in the budget to ignore some legislative guidelines on spending.

Although tempers have cooled since the session adjourned, the seeds of discord are waiting to sprout when the Legislature takes up work in 2008. Richardson, the House speaker, has vowed to take up veto overrides next year. And the gubernatorial aspirations of Richardson and Cagle could continue to cause sparks.

State GOP director Marty Klein said the potential gubernatorial competition between Cagle and Richardson is less a problem than an embarrassment of riches for the party. "We have a lot of strong leaders who would make great candidates. From the party's perspective, it's a great problem to have," he said