Up in smoke

What the governor can do to win next time

The blessing in disguise for Gov. Sonny Perdue is that he's already lost most of his hair.

Just try to imagine this rural Republican's reaction when he looked at the ledger of lawmakers who stood with him to adopt the tobacco tax that he believes will salve Georgia's budget woes: It was metro Atlanta Democrats as far as the eye could see.

Meanwhile, the group one anti-smoking lobbyist called "the northside Republican mafia" all line up in the "nay" category. That's just not the way it was supposed to happen.

The conventional wisdom, after all, says a Republican is supposed to have an easier time governing in Georgia. The ideological spectrum is so narrow squabbles are minimized.

But Perdue stumbled into one of the few areas where there's significant difference between the moderate and conservative wings of the party.

Sure, there's still a chance that when the General Assembly reconvenes April 7, it will reverse itself and do what the governor sees as "the right thing" and vote for the 46-cent per pack increase. Just don't bet on it happening as scripted. Conservative Democrats are fearful of going along with the governor without significant Republican support lest they be labeled tax-and-spenders. One Democratic House member, who occupies a conservative metro district, told Minority Leader Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg, he wouldn't be voting for the tax unless 80 percent to 90 percent of the Republican caucus did likewise. Westmoreland, who leads 72 Republicans, told him to rest easy. That will never happen.

"We just feel like there may be two different roads to get to the same place," Westmoreland says of the governor and House Republicans. "For the Republican caucus in the House to vote for any type of tax increase, there would have to be some things packaged with it to offset it ... some sort of shift."

Westmoreland added that by the time the Legislature reconvenes April 7 he expects it will have worked out a deal.

But how did the General Assembly get to this point, a 127-47 vote against the governor? The root cause may be Perdue's legislative philosophy.

In many ways, it is both admirable and idealistic. It has a strong component of morality. Perdue simply laid out his proposals — his vision as the state's CEO, as he likes to describe it — and waited for the Legislature to legislate. Meanwhile, he toured the state, holding town hall meetings to maximize the moral force of his argument and public pressure on the General Assembly. What a difference from the days of King Roy Barnes.

Sure, rumors of arm-twisting and intimidation surfaced before the vote, but few made sense. It's unlikely, for instance, that the administration would have explicitly threatened Republicans with recruiting a primary opponent to run against them if they didn't vote for a tax. Voting against a tax is Republican primary gold.

And Perdue's team vehemently denied such accusations. "I don't know where that came from," the governor said in a press conference last week. "I've been open-armed and open-handed with the House of Representatives."

One clearly vexed administration official, who asked to not be named, says that in one breath legislators complain that they want Perdue to give them the room they never had with Barnes and in the next say he's not doing enough to lead. Yet staffers Creative Loafing spoke with remain convinced that lawmakers will come around to Perdue's style.

In the near term, that doesn't seem likely, especially in light of how business was done in the past — a mix of horse-trading and arm-twisting, most of which went on behind the scenes.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle suggest Perdue needs to be more realistic. They laid out this blueprint: One, because Perdue lacks a majority in both houses, his success depends on the solidarity of the House Republican caucus, and they must have early input on every decision. Two, forget town halls. It makes you look sanctimonious. Instead, spend your time and your team's time massaging the lawmakers in Atlanta who are actually making the decisions. Finally, if there has to be conflict, make sure it's behind closed doors. Take every opportunity to avoid the appearance of weakness, especially with a divided Legislature.

Perdue violated all those rules when he rolled out his budget, and while he says he wants to change the culture of winners vs. losers under the Gold Dome, last week's vote was viewed by nearly everyone as a major defeat.