Perdue warns lawmakers to ‘do the hard thing now'

In his final State of the State address, Gov. Sonny Perdue set aside his legislative agenda to deliver a personal, sometimes emotional, plea that lawmakers "do the hard thing now."

The Republican Perdue leaves office early in 2011 after two terms as governor, and anyone hoping Wednesday to hear the man from Bonaire lay out his legacy was disappointed. But Perdue has never been eager or even willing to speak in those terms.

Instead, what the joint session of the House and Senate heard was a 30-minute admonition to protect future generations of Georgians from fiscal ruin. But that message came without specifics as the governor abandoned the usual practice of releasing his proposed state budget through the State of the State. Instead, he said he will reveal his budget Friday.

The speech included only two policy initiatives: his proposal, revealed Tuesday, to create a performance-based pay scale for teachers, and a promise to provide $70 million over the next two years in additional funding for the state's mental health hospitals, which face federal intervention.

"This year's message will be different, so let me apologize to you and the press corps in advance. ... But frankly, I think it is much bigger than a budget document," he said.

Perdue said he wanted to offer encouragement that "goes beyond numbers on a page, beyond line items in a bill and to the very core of why we are here and what we are called to do."

What they must all do, he said, is "carry a heavy load ... to do the hard thing now for the sake of our children and grandchildren."

The state's economy has suffered a tremendous blow, he said, and while he didn't offer details, lawmakers must soon begin cutting about $1.5 billion from the state's $18.5 billion budget. The danger, Perdue said, is in failing to make the difficult decisions now. That presumably means he wants lawmakers to make the necessary cuts this year and not try to piece together a budget that defers deeper cuts or more difficult decisions.

"I believe I stand with most Georgians when I say I am for doing with a little less if it means a lighter burden and a brighter future for the next generation," he said

Over and over Perdue hammered home this point, using the words of Revolutionary War author Thomas Paine, who said sacrifices belong to the fathers and mothers and not the sons and daughters.

Afterward, opinion was split among lawmakers as to whether Perdue's speech was inspirational or lacking in detail.

"It was his final speech and it was clearly meant to be inspirational, and it was," said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woostock). "The governor was trying to make the point [that] now is the time to stand up."

Longtime Democratic Rep. Alan Powell of Hartwell said the speech was “rich on oratorical skills and weak on substance."

He said he doesn’t understand why Perdue is pushing the change in teacher pay when he’s acknowledged that he’s a lame duck and that the changes he’s pitching won’t take place for a few more years. “It appears he wants to tie the next governor’s hands,” Powell said. “The task at hand is the budget.”

That thought was echoed by Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta), who said she appreciated Perdue's use of James Oglethorpe's  famous quote that became the state's motto: "Not for self, but for others." Still, she said, where were the details?

"It would have given us a better concept of where he wants us to start on the budget," she said. "We were hoping to have a little greater detail on his proposal. We usually use that as a starting point."

The top Democrats in the House, Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), said they were struck that Perdue did not mention the words transportation or water or ethics or job creation.

Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.