Over the last several months, we've learned exactly how Georgia's elected officials perceive their mandate from the voters. Our leaders' view of where we want them to go is changed considerably from where we wanted to go in Georgia during the second half of the 20th century.
"Full speed ahead!" was the old mandate. "Don't rock the boat" is the new charge.
In the 1950s and 1960s, other Southern states chose inflammatory and often violent ways to resist racial integration. The Georgia establishment sought to avoid incidents that would have brought damaging news coverage to the state and hurt our growing economy.
We weren't like Alabama, which had Gov. George Wallace in the schoolhouse door, or Mississippi, where Gov. Ross Barnett fomented racial strife that culminated in a deadly pitched battle between federal marshals and protesters over the integration of Ole Miss. Georgia had Govs. Ernest Vandiver and Carl Sanders responsibly steering clear of such conduct. While Birmingham had Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor turning water hoses on civil rights activists, we had Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen working to peacefully integrate life in our capital city. Even accidental Gov. Lester Maddox, who ran in 1966 as a virulent segregationist, was kept largely in check by Georgia's business community.
Because Georgia avoided the racial scars that other Southern states earned in those days, we zoomed ahead in the last three decades of the past century. Scores of new corporate headquarters moved here. Atlanta's airport became the world's busiest. We even landed the 1996 Olympics. The university system rose to new heights of academic achievement, but still became more accessible to everyday Georgia families through Gov. Zell Miller's HOPE scholarship. Georgia's leaders believed they had a mandate from voters to make the state a better place for all our people.
Then came 2002, and everything changed. Our current governor, Sonny Perdue, won an upset victory on a wave of resentment created by the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag and an attempt to reform the state's embarrassingly poor public school system.
The flag issue was racial at its core, but it also was about class and how the people of Georgia view themselves and what they want others to think about the state. Education reform was about whether we would permit our teachers and our children to be pushed to perform at levels that would move Georgia out of the basement in scholastic achievement, even if the higher standards made them uncomfortable. The answer from the voters on that issue was a resounding no.
Perdue and his fellow Georgia Republicans believe they rose to power because Georgia voters withdrew their mandate for our elected leaders to continue their drive to make the state a world leader. That sentiment has informed everything they have done.
Look at Perdue's response to our water crisis. The drought has exposed the real problem with our water supply - the state's utter lack of planning. Perdue could have used the crisis to call a special session of the General Assembly to enact a plan to both increase supply through new reservoirs and require development planning and conservation.
Instead, Perdue viewed the problem as a public relations issue to be managed and capitalized upon. Instead of real initiatives to address the issue, we had our governor on the front page of newspapers across the nation leading a prayer vigil for rain. That came after he filed a baseless lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers that was quickly dismissed, and some misleading tirades about tree-hugging federal bureaucrats caring more about Florida mussels than drinking water for metro Atlantans. It was government by demagoging press conference rather than responsible planning and action.
In the same vein, House Speaker Glenn "Romeo" Richardson's push to repeal state and local property taxes and replace them with a sales tax has many scratching their heads. Romeo, however, believes his plan will be a political asset in a future statewide Republican primary. When economic experts warn of the foolishness of abolishing the most stable source of government revenue (property taxes) and replacing it with the most unstable (sales taxes), they don't realize that Georgia government is no longer about responsible policy decisions. It's about appealing to certain sentiments that manifest themselves as Republican primary politics. The voters Romeo is targeting believe sales taxes are "fair" because "everyone pays them," including illegal aliens and other minorities who rent rather than own a home (don't try explaining that renters pay property tax too because the landlord passes on the cost to tenants in rental rates - that's way too complicated).
If Georgia voters really wanted to end the drive to make Georgia a world leader, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Our leaders are symbols of resistance to, rather than catalysts of, a continuation of Georgia's progress. Our new state motto should be "Mississippi, here we come."
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.