There's a saying among Zell Miller's staff, that whenever the Georgia governor leaves town on business, they hate to see him go. It's not so much that they miss having him around. It's that he usually comes back with so many ideas in his head — and so many questions about how Georgia does things — that they know they'll have tons of work to do when he returns.
Although this is meant as a joke — usually — it reflects the productive imagination of a governor who has a lifetime supply of light bulbs to shine over his head. And while many leaders tout innovative ideas, Zell Miller, who is retiring this year, has seen a stunning number of them become reality.
That's not by accident. Miller, a former Marine, is as persistent as he is creative. The lack of available funding is never an excuse. Good examples are his two proudest achievements, creating a college scholarship program known as HOPE and establishing pre-kindergarten education for Georgia's 4-year-olds. He began pushing both ideas soon after taking office in 1991, in the midst of a sour economy. "These things I wanted to do cost money," Miller says, "and I knew that nobody would want to raise taxes to pay for them. That's when I came up with the idea of a lottery."
Miller persuaded Georgia voters to support creating a state lottery, promising that all of its proceeds would go to specific education programs. In five years, the scholarship program has grown into a beloved Georgia institution that has paid full tuition for 300,000 students at public universities and technical schools. The pre-K program is the nation's most comprehensive, having sent 250,000 4-year-olds to school early.
But while most Georgians will remember Miller for education, in state government circles he is known for whipping the state bureaucracy into something that thinks and acts more like a business. In 1996, Georgia became the first state to begin phasing out its merit system, that antiquated set of civil service rules that made it all but impossible to fire bad workers. Miller also forced agencies into a process he called "budget redirection," meant to cut down the wish lists that agencies usually include in their budget requests. Now, agencies must find 5 percent reductions in their operating budgets, from which they can fund their wish lists themselves.
A 38-year veteran of state government, Miller admits that he couldn't have achieved so much without a long warm-up in the bullpen. In 16 years leading the Senate as lieutenant governor, he learned how to work the legislature and spun a web of contacts that helped him as governor. And as a Democrat in a state that is quickly becoming more Republican, he showed that pragmatism is more effective than partisanship. In 1996, for example, it became clear that the mostly Democratic state school board could not work effectively with the elected school superintendent, a Republican. Miller fired the board and appointed a Republican as chairman with the authority to choose his own board members. Miller's pick for chairman: Johnny Isakson, the governor's 1990 election opponent.
For Miller, a former history teacher, history will bend back on itself when he returns to his hometown of Young Harris next year to teach at Young Harris College, his alma matter. And for Georgia, the final historical judgment of Zell Miller lies further in the future. "I tried to take the long view, to ask, `What will this mean for my grandchildren?'" Miller says, citing the pre-K program as an example. "It'll be years before those kids graduate from high school and go on to college. I'll be dead and gone before we see the results of that."
Photo by Robin Nelson/Black Star