Georgia needs ambition

The era of small-ball government is over.

That is a lesson from this year’s election that Republicans and Democrats alike ought to take to heart. Doing so would end an era born from the 2002 election, from which they learned a very different lesson.

Whatever else one might say about Roy Barnes’ one term as governor, it was active: curbing teacher tenure and ending social promotion; creating the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and building the Northern Arc; cracking down on so-called predatory lenders; and, of course, changing the state flag.

Not all of those efforts succeeded but, agree or disagree with them, they were part of an ambitious agenda.

Barnes’ tenure followed eight years under Zell Miller, another ambitious governor. Miller created the lottery and the HOPE scholarship, signed tougher sentencing guidelines for repeat offenders, led the state through Atlanta’s pre-Olympic build-up and tried, unsuccessfully, to change the flag.

He also was nearly voted out of office in 1994. Eight years later, Barnes lost his own re-election bid.

Since then, both Republicans and Democrats in Georgia have acted as if they held a common belief: Ambition gets you beat.

There was a lot of pent-up ambition among GOP supporters soon after Sonny Perdue unseated Barnes. For a time, progress was made: tort reform, a charter schools commission, school vouchers for special-needs students, a streamlining of state agencies.

But momentum soon slowed. Twelve years later, much of that ambition remains unrealized.

The tax code remains antiquated and geared toward special-interest breaks. School choice has spread slowly and unevenly. Meaningful reform for public schools has ground to a halt. Significant transportation projects are teed up with agonizing infrequency. I could go on.

Yes, the state was still rebounding from one recession in 2003 and was walloped by another in 2008. But there was a time in between that was ripe for bigger changes — and there’s time now to pursue what so far has been put off.

Bigger changes need not result in bigger government. Closing tax loopholes and lowering marginal rates wouldn’t grow government. Giving more families alternatives to the public-school monopoly wouldn’t grow government. Spending existing gas-tax revenues on transportation wouldn’t grow government.

Ambition shouldn’t be a dirty word.

This year’s election wasn’t as close as many of us thought it would be, but there are reasons to believe Republicans aren’t quite as strong as their final margins made them out to be.

The growth in the electorate was in metro Atlanta, and it tilted heavily toward Democrats. Thousands of voters stayed home in the rest of the state, and only slightly more of the no-shows voted Democrat than Republican in 2010. Some suburbs — Douglas, Henry and Newton counties — flipped to the Democrats. Gwinnett inched a few points closer to doing so.

Imagine if Democrats had run on a real platform, instead of a gimmick and a barrage of negative ads.

Two ideas Gov. Nathan Deal promoted during the campaign, an overhaul of the state’s outdated school-funding formula and state intervention in low-performing school districts, have the potential to move the needle on education.

But Georgia’s future success requires some equally ambitious thinking about other pressing issues. So does the Georgia GOP’s.