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Posted: February 10, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Don’t expect big changes

Gov. Sonny Perdue is nearing the end of his time as governor, but he had one more big idea to throw out for discussion.

Perdue said last week he will have a constitutional amendment introduced to eliminate four statewide elected officials: agriculture commissioner, labor commissioner, insurance commissioner and school superintendent.

The people filling these positions would be appointed by the governor and serve as part of his cabinet.

"This proposal will result in better government for Georgians," Perdue contended. "It will ensure that agency heads are focused on good policy and not bogged down with the politics of running for re-election."

This is an idea worth debating on the merits. You could make a valid argument that these offices are largely administrative functions that should not require voter approval. In a majority of the states, these positions are held by appointed bureaucrats and not by elected politicians.

But if you’re a governor who wants to make a change of this magnitude, your best strategy is to start working on it during your first year in office, because you will have to convince a lot of legislators and voters of the idea’s worthiness.

Jimmy Carter was the last governor who tried to reorganize state government to this extent, consolidating several departments and eliminating a constitutional elected office (state treasurer). He started working on it as soon as he was inaugurated in 1971, however, and devoted a large portion of his four years in office to the task.

When Perdue tosses out such a sweeping proposal one-third of the way through the last legislative session of his administration, it’s only natural to ask if he is really serious about this. After all, it’s not as if he and the Legislature don’t already have enough problems to deal with, starting with a budget deficit exceeding $1 billion and moving on to crises involving education, transportation, and water management.

Within hours after the proposal was first reported, opposition was already forming to Perdue’s big idea. The people who hold these elected positions, such as school Supt. Kathy Cox and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, didn’t like it. Candidates who want to run for these positions, such as Maria Sheffield in the race for insurance commissioner, spoke out against it.

"In a state where the right to vote was fought for and advanced, it is insulting to propose taking that right away from people, especially for critical policy making positions that affect so many lives," Attorney General Thurbert Baker said. "These offices exist to serve the people, not to be political trophies for the politicians who would like to control them."

More importantly, the conservative Tea Party faction that is an influential part of Georgia’s Republican base did not like the proposal.

"We are all for the idea of the governor and Legislature streamlining state government, but — with all due respect — giving the governor more power is not the way to do it," Julianne Thompson, state coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, told the Newnan Times-Herald.

She has hit upon the real reason why I think this proposal will ultimately be rejected. The governor’s office in Georgia already is one of the most powerful elected positions in the nation. The office would become much more powerful if it also incorporated the authority of four elected state offices.

If you’re a loyal Democrat, you would be appalled at the idea of giving more power to a Republican governor like John Oxendine. If you’re a committed Republican, you would be just as frightened at the prospect of a Democratic governor like Roy Barnes acquiring more power.

Perdue’s constitutional amendment would have to get a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate to pass, which does not seem likely because lawmakers from both parties are lining up against it.

If the amendment were somehow to be adopted by the Legislature, it would then be placed on the ballot in November for consideration by the voters. It is difficult to envision a majority of Georgians voting for this.

The governor may have a sensible proposal here, but this is not the best time to be bringing it forward.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net.

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