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Deal reflects on first 100 days in office

First three months behind him, Gov. gets high marks for style, accomplishments

POSTED: April 19, 2011 12:03 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Then Gov.-elect Nathan Deal talks about plans for his administration during a news conference at the state Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 3, 2010.

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The morning after the 2011 legislative session ended, Gov. Nathan Deal was busy.

He phoned into an Atlanta morning radio show at 8 a.m. to wish a local radio host farewell after her 10 years with the station.

Then he gave his thoughts about the completed session, immigration legislation and Sunday alcohol sales in separate interviews with The Times, Associated Press and Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

Then he began planning how to address more than 200 bills that landed on his desk for a signature that morning.

As Deal decides what to sign in the next 40 days, he's looking back at the journey the bills have already taken during his first 100 days in office.

"It's rather astounding what was accomplished, quite frankly," Gainesville's native son told The Times. "We were able to lay the groundwork on some important issues."

Today marks Day 100 for Deal, who stuck to a limited agenda during the session but delivered what he promised.

He has already approved an overhaul of the state's struggling HOPE scholarship. In addition, the $18.3 billion budget passed without much controversy.

"So far it's been very successful," Deal said. "My first day was the first day of the General Assembly going in, so I was sworn in and was in the mix of the legislative session ever since."

After 12 years in the state Senate and 18 years in the U.S. House, being in the mix is exactly what he wanted. It's the openness to conversation, compromise and collaboration that has won Deal high marks during the first few months in Georgia's top post.

"If you did a survey of the members of the legislature, he'd come out with good scores," said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia. "He's been accessible, and they appreciate that. He's also respectful of their positions, and they like that."

Deal's open door policy stretched from one end of the spectrum to the other, said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville.

"Nathan Deal has been a breath of fresh air in the governor's office," Miller said. "He has been accessible and accommodating to all concerned. In fact, he is well-liked by both parties, which speaks to his character."

Deal's emphasis on respect won him a warm reception around the Capitol, noted Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. Deal holds regular legislative office hours to sit and listen.

"During the last eight years, nothing against Gov. Sonny Perdue, but the door was more closed than open," Rogers said. "Keeping a relationship with the legislative body is very important to Nathan. He listens and isn't a very reactionary person."

Rogers scheduled four meetings in the governor's office during the session - once with Deal and three times with Deal's chief of staff Chris Riley.

"I called and scheduled and went right in," Rogers said. "I purposely stayed away for the most part because I knew other folks wanted to get in and see him, and it takes a while for a governor to get in and get his arms around everything."

Deal's attitude helped others under the Gold Dome to get their jobs done, too, said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

"He's a thoughtful, considerate person who made people feel at ease, which made my job as floor leader tremendously easy," Collins said. "During the first month or two, members would come to me all the time and ask, ‘Is this real? Is he always like this?'"

It's probably this temperament that helped the big items move through both chambers quickly, Collins added.

"He's authentically interested and caring," Collins said. "He may not agree with you, but he will hear you out. Everyone knew they could give input, and the ease of the budget process was probably a direct result of this."

It's also Deal's willingness to let bills work their way through the legislative process, Bullock added.

"He resolved to extend HOPE and did that but essentially took a hands-off position," he said. "If the legislators wanted to do something with Sunday alcohol sales or immigration, he had no dog in the fight but conceded to what they wanted to do."

Not everyone is proud of the state's top Republican.

Some continue to voice their concerns about the HOPE scholarship overhaul, and others criticize his wait-and-see approach to addressing immigration.

But Deal is staying out of the drama and sticking to his priorities. Among the accomplishments, Deal adds water to the list. The budget adopted $32 million in bond money for water infrastructure projects, with some dollars helping to deepen the Savannah port.

"That's important for everyone, and it's important for the poultry companies in Northeast Georgia," Deal said. "Frozen chicken is a major export, if not the top export, out of the port."

Deal hasn't yet noted any major disappointments.

"Looking back over the legislation we needed to have passed for the various state agencies to do what they needed to do, we got all those passed," he said. "From that standpoint, we were successful."

But he has encountered a few surprises, including the overwhelming size of state government.

"We have a lot of boards and a lot of agencies and lot of people working for the state, and that doesn't include the many more who are volunteers serving on boards and committees without pay," he said. "To see how many people are actually involved to make various functions of government work is very enlightening."

As Deal signs legislation during his next 100 days, he's looking at the next items to tackle. A former prosecutor, he hopes to revamp the state's tough sentencing laws and scale back prison costs.

Tax reform, which halted during the last week of the session, could be back on the agenda, and Deal plans to push for a reduction in the state's corporate income tax.

But up next for sure is redistricting, which Deal has slated for a special session starting Aug. 15.

As legislators come to the table with their remapping ideas, Deal suggests the very principle that won him points in the first place — respect.

"Respecting municipal boundaries and county boundaries and avoiding the unduly division of communities should be a priority," he said. "I feel sure it will be."



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