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Bill Shipp - GOP chiefs brush off big-biz allies

Since last week's crashing finish of the 2008 session of the General Assembly, the media has been full of various state leaders lamenting the lack of productivity and the egotistical rancor of various Gold Dome politicians. Prominent among those quoted have been the business leaders of metro Atlanta, decrying the lost opportunity to deal with pressing issues like traffic, health care and water.

Before you feel too sorry for those corporate titans weeping while staring out the windows of their 50th-floor conference rooms, remember this - those same people gave us the state government we have today. Over the last several years, the metro Atlanta business community has gone all in with the state GOP, funding them at such a massive level that Republican bank accounts have been insurance against Georgia's beleaguered Democrats ever regaining power.

In 2001 our business friends knew they had a problem with Georgia's state flag: It prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem, a 1956 design inspired by Dixiecrat resistance to the budding civil rights movement. That issue was causing worsening heartburn for business leaders afraid their companies would be subject to an economic boycott similar to what was happening in South Carolina at the time.

That fear led the corporate boardroom boys, including then-banker and now Perdue administration chief operating Officer Jim Lientz, and then-Georgia Power executive and now Perdue chief of staff Ed Holcombe, down to the Gold Dome to convince Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and his Democrats in charge of the General Assembly to change the flag. The business crowd promised heavy support for Barnes and the legislative Democrats who walked the plank. Not surprisingly, the promises were empty. The rage among white voters was worse than expected and Barnes and the General Assembly's Democratic majority were gone.

The business boys couldn't have been happier. They got their flag change (something only the Democrats would have done), but the crowd they really wanted in charge took over. The Republicans promptly set about the business of pleasing their big business pals. They repealed Barnes' law cracking down on predatory lending practices and restricted the right to sue. Perdue even did the boardrooms' bidding when it came to his 2002 promise to let Georgians vote whether to put the Confederate emblem back on the state flag. He held the referendum, but he left out the chance to vote for the 1956 version featuring the relevant insignia.

The honeymoon, however, was quickly over. While Georgia companies have been dutifully pouring corporate cash into GOP coffers and starving the Democrats, the Republican masters of the Gold Dome have not returned the favor.

Take the crisis at Grady Hospital. The business community is rightly concerned that a Grady collapse would put health care in jeopardy across the metro region. Not only does Grady have an indispensable trauma center and burn unit, but its closure would also flood hospitals across Georgia with the indigent patients Grady now handles. A shuttered Grady is an unmitigated disaster.

The business community has essentially taken over Grady through its new nonprofit board, wresting control from the governments of Fulton and DeKalb counties. The new board is stacked with Republican business loyalists, including Joe Rogers of Waffle House and Jim Stephenson of Yancey Brothers. The board chair is retired Georgia Pacific CEO Pete Correll.

Even with a new board that is a who's who of Georgia's Republican business establishment, the General Assembly thumbed its nose at its obligation to provide state support to keep Grady afloat. The debate degenerated into a game of "gotcha" over abortion, and the Grady bill died.

On issue after issue, the business community came up short. Their plan to allow regional referendums on sales taxes to fund traffic relief projects was rejected. They failed to get trauma care funding to ensure an adequate statewide network of emergency rooms. Nothing that passed will seriously address the state's water supply crisis. And the GOP majority again shorted the funding formula for our schools and universities, further damaging an education system that once was Georgia's greatest asset in attracting new employers.

Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, was quoted a few months ago saying that the problem at the Capitol is that the state is "being governed through the prism of a Republican primary." He's right. Jockeying by ambitious pols to win Republican primary votes is the main event under the Gold Dome. That makes for ugly politics and worse policy.

Here's hoping that enough people are aware of this unworkable mess to start supporting two-party government again.

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net, or visit him on the Web at billshipponline.com.