It’s high noon on the Capitol steps. About a hundred protestors have gathered around a podium in front of the statue of Georgia populist Tom Watson, his arm raised in a fist. Their placards read, “Stop Taxing and Spending our Grandkids’ Money!” and “Can you see us now?” One large, hand-lettered sign says simply, “NO!” As legislators inside work to reconcile shrinking revenues with growing demands — particularly for exploding education needs — these citizens want to know, as one T-shirt asks, “Where’s My Bailout???”
The “FairTax” group has already watched as a half-dozen legislators and political candidates have signed a pledge to oppose tax hikes of any kind, bringing total signees to roughly one-third of the Georgia House and Senate. Now the protestors wait to hear from one of their heroes, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. An influential conservative so opposed to government that he once said he’d like it reduced to a size that would allow him to “drown it in a bathtub,” Norquist rallies the crowd with his calls to meet reduced budgets by slashing funding. To achieve that, he emphasizes transparency, quoting a Texas official who said making state records public was akin to “turning on the lights and seeing the cockroaches scatter.”
After the rally, Norquist is asked what the University System Board of Regents, at that moment gathering just a short distance away, should focus on as they grapple with a requested $300 million budget cut for the state’s 35 colleges and universities, already strained by furloughs and staff cuts. Pressed to specify further than his reiteration of “make everything transparent,” Norquist responds, “Once they are able to see everything, the people of Georgia will be able to decide that for themselves.”
Regents chairman Robert Hatcher (BBA ’64) responds to Norquist’s statement with a weary, incredulous tone: “It’s already transparent!” (In fact, every university system salary, bid, and purchase is available online, including Hatcher’s yearly stipend of about $2,000— which he promptly donates back to the University of Georgia Foundation.) Hatcher’s tone is familiar because it sounds a lot like his response to the student who, among the 30 surrounding him and Chancellor Erroll Davis at a February Regents board meeting to protest higher fees, suggested the budget be reduced by “cutting the military.”
“That’s the Congress of the United States,” Hatcher told the student. “We don’t have anything to do with that.” Afterwards, Hatcher said, “I welcome their participation, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed at their naivete.”
The agenda typically includes issues such as new degree programs and campus construction. But this year, that horseshoe-shaped table has seen some high-stakes poker being played between the regents board and the Georgia legislature. Fortunately, Hatcher, like Davis, has a deep background in business, which has prepared him for these kind of high-pressure, high-stakes financial situations. He is Macon’s best-known banker —and also one of its most successful — and he has ridden out the mortgage meltdown with his own firm, MidCountry Financial. Davis singles out Hatcher’s “inclusiveness and resolve,” as well as his sensitivities to others’ stances, as factors figuring in Hatcher’s effectiveness as regents chair.
“Bob is truly apolitical in a political environment,” says Davis. “He also has a high ‘say/do’ index. He finishes what he sets out to accomplish.”