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People cry politics if their side loses
Jones on Georgia

ATLANTA — The clash between government efficiency and parochial interest usually comes down to the vantage point of the political majority, and two recent initiatives hint at how a coming shift can have far-reaching reverberations.

Item No. 1 is Chancellor Hank Huckaby's initiative to consolidate Georgia's 35 public colleges and universities. He hasn't given many clues on how he aims to do that.

He hints that he'd like to take a page from the Technical College System of Georgia, which consolidated 13 colleges into six in 2009 to save an estimated 10 percent of the system's budget. There was relatively little complaint.

What he must know, though, as a native Georgian and someone who served half a term in the legislature, is that local communities have more of their identity tied up in colleges than they do in tech schools. Counting the three historically black colleges nearly in the same zip codes as historically white colleges that have been mentioned as consolidation candidates, the University System of Georgia would have to merge 15 colleges to match the scale of the tech-school consolidation.

In the abstract, who could oppose consolidation if it saved 10 percent of the University System's $1.85 billion budget?

That's where the parochial interests comes in from the towns that take pride in being the home to a campus. While the campus wouldn't disappear, the name would, and so would half of those college presidents who lend such gravitas to local civic functions.

The political opposition might be diffused by merging all of them down to just three schools, one for medicine, one for engineering and one general university.

Item No. 2 is a recommendation to reduce by half the 48 posts of the Georgia State Patrol. Doing so would save $1 million a year and put more than 100 more troopers on the road.

The Department of Public Safety's own consultant made the recommendation in 2005, and the Department of Audits & Accounts renewed the suggestion this month.

Saving money and putting more troopers on the road would seem like a great idea, but the commissioner of public safety isn't for it. "I don't think consolidation of posts is the right thing to do," said Col. Mark McDonough.

Instead, he likes having a physical presence close to the 159 sheriffs and 500 city councils he calls his customers. Those 48 counties that host a post like it, too, and not just for the civic pride.

That's because the counties get revenue from the tickets troopers write, not the State Patrol. That dispels notions that troopers have a ticket quota for the sake of revenue, but it also creates a financial incentive for having a post.

Speaking of counties, even they are a candidate for consolidation every now and then. The only reason for 159 was supposedly so no farmer lived more than a day's horseback ride from the county seat.

Considering government is the major employer in most rural counties, merging them would save plenty of money but put a lot of people out of work.

When the legislature was dominated by rural lawmakers, these parochial issues were held in check. As the population continues its steady march to the cities, the political power is consolidating there, too.

That kind of consolidation is hard to stop, and sooner or later, rural interests are going to fall prey to it. How soon is the question.

It all depends on how the majority of voters look at an issue. If they see it from the standpoint of taxpayers supporting services in another part of the state, they'll opt for the efficiency that comes from consolidation. When they lived in those towns instead of the city, they had no trouble justifying the opposite stance.

People on the losing side of the equation blame politics. The winners credit common sense.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, December 01, 2011

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