Gov. Sonny Perdue, who for more than two months has declined to answer questions from reporters about his land deals and the $100,000 tax break he gave himself, was finally compelled to face the controversy Sunday evening in a gubernatorial debate with Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor.
Taylor has hammered Perdue over the governor’s $2 million purchase from a Georgia developer of property located near Disney World in Florida and the subsequent $100,000 personal tax exemption that Perdue signed into law after the 2005 legislative session.
Perdue has avoided answering hard questions until now about the land deals and tax break, but he was cornered during the debate on WSB-TV in Atlanta when moderator John Pruitt asked him about the issue directly during the live broadcast.
"I think the people of Georgia would like to know what your level of knowledge was" when signing the bill into law that gave himself the lucrative tax break, Pruitt said.
Perdue at first went off on a tangent, accusing Taylor of voting for "the largest tax increase in Georgia history" by voting for sales tax legislation when he was a state senator in the 1990s, but finally addressed Pruitt’s question.
"I became aware of that issue, John, when my accountant filed my taxes," Perdue said. Perdue signed the tax break bill into law in April 2005 just before the deadline for filing his own tax return with the state.
"As we review in the 40 days, we take the, uh, taxes, this was a department bill that came through and, uh, uh, reform, aligning ours," Perdue said confusingly. "I’ll tell you what I was focused on, I was focused on the $60 million small tax cut there for small businesses in that tax bill, that’s what I was focused on."
"John, John, the people of Georgia are being asked by Gov. Perdue to believe that he had forgotten that he had just purchased $2 million worth of land near Disney World at the intersection of Interstate 4 and a private toll road must a few months before he signed that bill," Taylor said.
"He’s trying to convince us that he didn’t know the connection between his secret land deal in Florida and this tax break engineered for him by his personal attorney and personal floor leader, Larry O’Neal," Taylor said. "I think it is amazing the governor would make a statement like that."
Perdue bought the Florida land in 2004 from developer Stan Thomas. A bill revising several sections of the state tax code was recommended in 2005 by the state revenue department. Perdue’s real estate attorney, Rep. Larry O’Neal (R-Warner Robins), added an amendment to the bill that enabled Perdue to take a $100,000 state tax exemption on the property deal. Perdue then signed the bill into law.
After weathering criticism from Taylor about his land deals, Perdue struck back at Taylor over the lieutenant governor’s past admissions that he used drugs and drank while driving with his young son in the car.
"I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do this, but it’s really about good parenting, it’s about being a good model for your children and not using drugs in front of them, not driving when your infant son is in the car," Perdue said in response to a question about drugs and law enforcement.
"That’s what protecting our kids from drugs is really all about, Lt. Gov. Taylor, as you have already admitted doing," Perdue said.
"That is really, really sad that you would bring up my son’s tragic car accident in the state of South Carolina," said Taylor, referring to a drunk driving incident involving his son Fletcher where a friend of the younger Taylor was killed.
"That wasn’t what I brought up," Perdue said.
"By bringing our families into this, Gov. Perdue," Taylor continued. "I’m simply asking you to answer to your conflicts of interest, the conflicts of interest that have allowed you to personally profit from your office as governor."
Taylor said Perdue "has made more money in the last four years as Gov. Perdue than he made in the first 54 years as Sonny Perdue. His net worth has doubled."
Pruitt then asked Perdue if he had changed his mind about not putting his personal assets into a blind trust when he became governor in the same manner as past governors like Zell Miller.
"I am a small business owner, I’m in the agri-business," Perdue said. "That’s about as blind a trust as you can get. We trust in the Lord for rain and many other things."
Operating businesses, Perdue said, "are not like a lawyer, they’re not like a stock investor . . . a blind trust is not functional for a small business person."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article in Saturday’s edition that detailed another major land purchase that Perdue made in middle Georgia without listing it on his personal financial disclosure report, as required by state law.
Perdue acquired 101 acres off Georgia 247 near his home in Houston County after he became governor. The land is located near forested property known as Oaky Woods that is being proposed for private development. The assessed value of Perdue’s 101 acres has more than doubled to $750,100 since Oaky Woods was sold to developers, the AJC reported.
Perdue refused to answer questions from the AJC about his purchase of the Houston County property.
The issue of secrecy among politicians also surfaced Sunday in a debate held several miles away from WSB in the Georgia Public Broadcasting studios among Sen. Casey Cagle, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Democratic nominee Jim Martin and Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley.
Cagle declared, as he has on several occasions during the campaign, that he does not support a bill (HB 218) that would allow local governments and economic development officials to negotiate secretly with businesses that might open a facility in Georgia.
HB 218 was passed by the House of Representatives last session but did not get through the state Senate. Perdue supported HB 218 and said he will try again to have it adopted in the upcoming legislative session.
"Until anyone can demonstrate a need for 218, I have no support for it," Cagle said in response to a question from the media panel. "It’s perfectly okay for me to disagree with the governor on this issue. I have a long history of being my own man."
"I don’t believe we should take away knowledge from individuals, citizens, voters without good justification that there needs to be some protection [of information about negotiations] and that doesn’t exist right now, and so I want to continue to be very steadfast in my opposition to 218," Cagle added.
Martin and Buckley said they also opposed the secrecy provisions in HB 218.
Cagle took some criticism from his opponents over the state law, now declared unconstitutional, that would have required voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls before being allowed to vote. Cagle and the Republican majority in the General Assembly voted to adopt the voter ID bill last session.
"That law was just pathetic because it was clearly designed to keep a large number of voters away from the polls, and most of these voters would be older and disabled people who in general would vote Democratic and to me, that is just definitely wrong," Buckley said. "I don’t think we really have a fraud problem."
"The truth is, you were part of a Republican administration that made an effort to reduce, to disenfranchise 750,000 Georgians by passing this voter ID bill that the courts have thrown out," Martin said.
Time ran out before Cagle could respond to the allegations.
An earlier debate Sunday afternoon between Republican insurance Commissioner John Oxendine and Democratic nominee Guy Drexinger featured cutting exchanges between the two candidates about their financial supporters.
Oxendine has raised millions of dollars throughout his 12 years in office from executives in the insurance industry, which his office regulates, a money source that has made him a frequent target of criticism by political opponents.
"My record is very good — I haven’t taken a single dollar from an insurance company," Oxendine said in response to a question from the media panel. "I’ve only accepted money from individuals. You know, I have fined HMOs more than any other insurance commissioner in America — more than $7 million."
Drexinger, the former chairman of the Cobb County Democratic Party, noted the large contributions Oxendine accepted from the Dan Amos family, which owns Aflac Insurance, and charged, "All your fines [of HMOs] seem to come in election years."
Oxendine alleged that "the trial bar is totally funding your campaign" during an exchange with Drexinger. Media panelist Bill Liss, a TV reporter, asked Drexinger about the large number of contributions he received from drugstore owners and pharmaceutical sources.
"Small businesses in Georgia need help," Drexinger said. "These are small businesses from all over the state." None of them, Drexinger noted, are regulated by the insurance commissioner’s office.
© 2006 by Capitolimpact.com