ATLANTA — Gov. Sonny Perdue gave his final state-of-the-state speech Monday, sharing personal thoughts on his seven years in office and calling on state officials to make the hard choices now, as great Americans have done repeatedly in the country’s darker times.
Perdue’s speech, an annual one to the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives, contained very little new policy. Perdue made his pitch for changing the way teacher salaries are set, with a focus on student achievement instead of advanced degrees. And he put a number on his promise Tuesday to put more money into state mental health and disability programs: another $20 million in the coming budget year and more than $50 million more in 2011.
Those would amount to nearly 4 percent and 9 percent increases, respectively, according to the governor’s office. Federal regulators are forcing the state to improve its care for mentally ill and disabled patients, and Perdue said he was “frankly embarrassed” that it has come to that.
Beyond that, Perdue told legislators to work together for the state. He walked them through the American Revolution, World War II and the Great Depression, quoting some of the great writers on American democracy and hinting at the sparseness of a state budget proposal he’ll release Friday.
“I am for doing with a little less if it means a lighter burden and a brighter future for the next generation,” Perdue said.
The line won applause from the representatives, legislators and judges of state courts assembled at the Capitol for his speech.
State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond gave the Democratic response to Perdue’s address, and his speech also avoided specific policy discussion, save his mention of a Democratic effort last year to reform the way sales taxes are collected.
In a nutshell, Thurmond had two main points: He invited the Republican majority to work with Democrats to create jobs for the nearly 500,000 unemployed people in Georgia, and he urged voters to choose a Democratic governor in November’s elections.
Two-party leadership cuts down on the corruption inherent in absolute power, he said, and Republicans have made a mess of things in recent years, when they have controlled the governor’s office, the Senate and House of Representatives.
Republican response to the governor’s speech was positive, though there’s plenty of trepidation about what Perdue’s final budget proposals will look like. There are also plenty of details to work out on the governor’s plan to overhaul teacher pay by 2014, details that will have to mesh with the likelihood of cuts to the state’s current education budget.
State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said he likes the governor’s basic idea of tying teacher pay to student improvement. The state should embrace the mentality that “compensation should be tied to performance,” he said. But state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, was concerned that the change would hit poorer districts harder than rich ones, because families there can’t afford to help prepare their students as well.
The governor’s office responded to that contention, saying in an e-mail that the system may compare teachers from similar demographics when setting pay. The details have yet to be worked out, and teacher input will be sought, the governor’s communications director has said.
Perdue’s speech took on a very personal tone at times, and state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, said that was understandable as Perdue prepares to finish his two terms in office. But, “as far as substance and addressing the issues before us, I found it wanting,” Brown said.
During his remarks, Perdue thanked his family, telling his children that they never embarrassed him while in office. He said he loved them. But the most personal moment was reserved for his wife, Mary Perdue.
“Mary, I’m not sure I’ve ever told you this before, but you’re the person that I want to become,” the governor said, choking up. “And I thank you for all that you’ve done. My loving wife and the first lady of Georgia.”
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.