Barnes' First Year Praised Even Opponents Admit Governor's Success

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- Roy Barnes looked up from his prepared text during a ceremony inside the state Capitol earlier this month and began to repeat the words from memory.

He was swearing in members of the latest task force he had created to look for solutions to a problem facing Georgia, and he had the lengthy oath of office down pat.

"After you do it a few times, you find you know most of it," Barnes said last week, as he neared the end of his first year as governor.

And that's not the only skill in which Barnes has demonstrated mastery in the last 12 months. His supporters, and even some opponents, attribute what turned out to be a hugely successful 1999 for Barnes to his ability to work with varied interests.

The General Assembly enacted the new governor's entire 27-item legislative agenda, including a bill creating a regional transportation authority to come to grips with the Atlanta area's traffic congestion and dirty air and another bill giving managed-care patients more choice of doctors and the right to sue their health plan over medical decisions.

In part, Barnes' good working relationship with lawmakers comes from the fact that he is one of them. He served for 16 years in the state Senate and six more in the House before being elected governor.

But House Minority Whip Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said the Democratic governor's handling of legislators, including Republicans, also reflects his leadership style.

"Roy is extremely open to listening to what we have to say," Ehrhart said. "We don't get everything we want, but we at least sit at the table with Roy Barnes."

Barnes said his eagerness to hear all points of view goes back to his roots as a Democratic legislator in a Cobb County delegation dominated by the GOP.

"Even if the Republicans could decide local matters, I still liked to be heard," he said.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Barnes' success with the General Assembly also stems from the good will he built with the Democratic majority following the 1998 elections. With him at the top of the ticket, Democrats stemmed a decadelong tide of massive Republican gains by picking up a seat in the House and fighting the GOP to a draw in the Senate.

"He was seen as the person who stopped [the Republicans], as a savior," Bullock said. "That gave his ideas extra weight with the Democrats."

Among those ideas, what became Barnes' main priority this year was not of his making. The federal government had cut off highway aid to the Atlanta area for failing to meet clean-air standards, and something had to be done to get the region into compliance.

Barnes' solution was to create the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to find ways to reduce traffic congestion and, thus, improve air quality. It has powers that had been split among several transportation-related agencies.

GRTA has the potential to end long-running turf battles and steer the Department of Transportation toward alternatives like passenger rail service, said E.H. Culpepper of Athens, a member of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

"[Barnes'] stepping forward with GRTA and tying the rail passenger authority and DOT together is something people a couple of years ago didn't think would happen so quickly," Culpepper said.

While the transportation authority bill sailed through the General Assembly, Barnes encountered more resistance to his health-insurance reform package. It was here that he displayed a penchant for cutting deals with lawmakers and lobbyists to get results.

To pass the measures, the governor agreed to increase the amount premiums could rise for patients choosing a physician outside their managed-care network and require patients to submit complaints to an independent review board before filing a lawsuit. He also exempted Columbus-based AFLAC Insurance from a law creating an office of consumer insurance advocate. …