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After 1st year, Deal poised to make economy his priority

Governor gears up for another year leading the state

POSTED: January 9, 2012 12:11 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Gov. Nathan Deal talks with Brian Robinson, deputy chief of staff for communications, Wednesday inside Deal's office at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta.

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The first thing a legislator like Cuthbert Republican Gerald Greene notices about a new governor is how he interacts with the General Assembly.

Greene has watched governors in Georgia come and go since 1983. He's not the longest-serving legislator in the General Assembly, but working with governors since Joe Frank Harris, he knows what to look for.

"If we have access to the governor, if he listens to us, if he takes us into his confidence — that's a big thing," Greene said. "It is the three branches of government, but if it's going to work, you've got to have that interaction."

And it's not always like that, he admits.

"Sometimes, you have governors who are going to have it their way or no way, and you're sort of cut out in that respect, and I can remember in the past that some of those things happened to us," Greene said.

Greene declines to name the governor who he thinks didn't feel the need to listen to legislators, but one he says does is Nathan Deal, whom he calls a "great listener."

"I always considered that to be a mark of a great leader, when an individual is able to listen to you and see your side of the story," Greene said. "He may not go along with your side, but he's willing to listen to you and see your side of the story."

Deal, in his first year of office, said he made a point to form a "pleasant" relationship with Georgia lawmakers.

"This should not be an adversarial environment," said Deal, in an interview with The Times last week. "The people of the state of Georgia expect better than that."

University of Georgia political scientist and longtime observer of Georgia politics Charles Bullock said legislators had been unhappy with previous Gov. Sonny Perdue.

It was a change that Georgia political columnist Tom Crawford said bought Deal some credit.

Bullock said Deal's listening skills might have paid off when lawmakers redrew Georgia's congressional boundaries in August, because they created a congressional district that was based in Deal's home of Hall County — right where he wanted it.

"The legislature didn't have to do that," Bullock said. "They control redistricting, but because of the good relationships that they have with the governor, they were willing to do that for him."

Crawford, in his columns, doesn't always give glowing reviews of the governor's actions. But one thing he's willing to give Deal is credit.

While the sweeping immigration bill passed in 2011 was not authored by Deal, he signed it, and the impacts of it will become part of his legacy.

Crawford is of the opinion that the bill didn't turn out to be an especially good deal for Georgia's farmers. But as the law faces judicial scrutiny and outcry from farmers who are at a loss for workers, Deal has been steadfast in his stance to uphold the law, Crawford said.

"You do have to give the guy credit," Crawford said. "He hasn't tried to weasel out of it; he's been very consistent in his stands on that."

Outside of legislative policy, in his first year Deal garnered a reputation as a "friends and family" governor, appointing a number of state legislators and supporters from North Georgia to various state boards. At least 10 percent of Deal's appointments from his first year in office have come from Hall County, including the appointment of 18-year Georgia legislator James Mills to the state board of Pardons and Paroles.

Deal walked into office last January after a campaign dogged with allegations of unethical use of his federal resources as a Georgia congressman representing North Georgia's 9th District.

A report from the Office of Congressional Ethics calling for a formal investigation of Deal concluded that he "took active steps to preserve a purely state program, one that had generated financial benefit" for Deal personally. The investigation never happened, because Deal left the U.S. House to focus on his gubernatorial bid.

Later in his campaign, questions arose over Deal's use of congressional staff to help secure permits for a landfill project that Ken Cronan, his business partner, sought.

A group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) had dubbed him one of Congress' 15 most corrupt members.

And sporadically over the last 12 months, there have been other questions. In June, Stacey Kalberman, the former executive secretary of the state watchdog agency for government officials' ethics, Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, sought subpoenas for an investigation into whether Deal's use of an airplane during his campaign followed state ethics rules. She was informed that her salary was going to be cut from $120,000 to $85,000, according to reports in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

State officials said the decision was for budgetary reasons; Kalberman, who resigned, claimed it was because of her investigation of the governor.

Crawford says Deal's critics are always going to hold on to the allegations.

"But it doesn't really seem to resonate with the general public," he said. "I haven't seen a whole lot of local newspapers around the state really pick up on it and follow through on it, and to a certain extent, these are the sort of complaints you hear about every governor, one way or the other."

One of Deal's first actions in office was to command a committee to create a plan to fund future water supply projects in Georgia. The plan, approved in December, will allow local water providers to begin competing for the money early this year.

As one of his first major, tangible acts, Deal authored, for the most part, a major rewrite of the funding mechanism for Georgia's HOPE scholarship in the face of declining lottery revenues.

Crawford said the rewrite could be a "double-edged sword."

"Everybody agreed that the program needed to be revised so that it wouldn't run out of money. I don't think there was any disagreement about that," Crawford said. "Where there was disagreement was how you decide to allocate that pot of money."

In that decision, Crawford said Deal "left himself a little bit vulnerable." Bullock, too, said families with college-age children are likely "not terribly happy with" the rewrite since it requires more out-of-pocket college expenses.

"The system they came up with, I think, will probably wind up with more kids from suburban high school systems getting HOPE scholarships and probably kids from rural areas getting fewer HOPE scholarships," Crawford said. "That may become an issue in the election."

But Deal said he's "very satisfied" with the changes he made to HOPE in 2011, saying it left intact "the richest college scholarship program in the entire country" while dealing with the fiscal realities of the state lottery.

"I think we dealt with it in a very responsible fashion. It was something that you simply could not postpone dealing with," said Deal. "Even though it was fraught with political danger, it was something that was too valuable to allow to let go bankrupt and that was the direction that the program was headed in."

Greene, the Cuthbert legislator, says Deal was "very cautious" as a first-term governor.

"He didn't load up an agenda that he knew was unrealistic," Greene said. "He knew what he had to tackle."

As the legislative session opens today and Deal is set to unveil his list of priorities Tuesday, both Greene and Crawford are looking forward to what they say might be the hallmark of Deal's first term as governor: an attempt at reforming Georgia's criminal justice system that would reduce the sentences of nonviolent offenders and divert drug offenders to treatment programs.

Greene remembers the days of Gov. Zell Miller when the state's hard stance on criminal justice turned to stone, calling for mandatory minimum sentences and a "three strikes and you're out" policy for repeat offenders.

"Now we realize that locking them up sounds good for an election, but it doesn't do very much for the individual to make a difference in their lives," said Greene.

It also doesn't do much for state prison costs, Greene said. The Cuthbert Republican said he is looking forward to supporting a change in Georgia's criminal justice mindset that might free up more money from prisons to education and health.

"I've been watching our jail situation grow and grow and grow," Greene said. "We have the not-so-enviable distinction as being number four in the nation in lockups, and that's not good."

Though Deal has kept mum on the details of his plans, as he enters his second year as governor, the talk is all about attracting industry in Georgia. He's expected to make a series of announcements Tuesday relating to education, transportation, health care, criminal justice and government efficiency. All of those subjects are supposed to relate back to his desire to restart the state's economy.

Deal's recent decision to replace Warren Budd, the former vice chairman of the Department of Natural Resources board, after Budd criticized a plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build reservoirs in Georgia, sends a signal that Deal's administration is putting economic development higher on the priority list than preserving Georgia's environment.

"The thinking is that environment's not important," Crawford said. "Business development, economic development, is more important. And if we have to let a few streams get dirty or a little air become fouler or we have to mess with some waterways to get a reservoir built, then so be it. It's important to do these things for economic development."

"Whether you agree or disagree with it, that's the path that the state's going to be on for a while."

 



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