Gov. Nathan Deal is likely to be re-elected governor in 2014, political analysts say.
But with the state unable to fully fund critical programs in education and health care and again facing a large budget shortfall, 2013 likely will be another year of spending cuts and difficult choices.
Deal has received a lot of credit for the way he’s handled his first two years in office from state and local officials in his party and the business community, although some Democratic lawmakers question his effectiveness. Accomplishments some have highlighted include keeping taxes low, protecting education and pushing economic development.
The Gainesville Republican has a strong base of support and is well-positioned to win re-election, said Douglas Young, a political science professor at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
“It’s rare for a political leader to have experience on the local, state and federal level,” Young said.
Though the number of more conservative tea party legislators has swelled, pundits see it unlikely that Deal will face a GOP challenge from the right in 2014. They say he’s been an effective leader because he’s well-respected, pushes an agenda most Georgians like and listens to other opinions and views.
Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia, said Deal started building relationships in his first year of office and has remained popular with state lawmakers as well as the public.
“For the legislature, he’s been a breath of fresh air,” Bullock said. “He’s responsive to the legislature. When he goes to them and says difficult decisions have to be made, they listen to him.”
And those challenges start with the state budget.
“The state is not going to be in the best shape, in terms of having additional money to spend,” Deal said in an interview with The Times last week. “We are, quite frankly, in the final stages of preparing the budget we will submit to the legislature and it’s going to be a tight budget.”
The projected shortfall for the fiscal 2013-2014 budget is expected to be around $700 million, which doesn’t include the millions in revenue generated by a hospital provider tax that expires at the end of June. Georgia’s total budget is $39.5 billion, according to the independent Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Nearly $9.5 billion of that goes for education.
“This is a test of leadership,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. “Leadership is easy when there’s plenty of money. When people behind your back say you’re doing a good job, that’s a good thing.”
Deal is at the center of budget issues because state law gives him the power to set the official estimates used to write the budget. Fiscal year 2013 budget estimates appear to have been too high, Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, said.
“(Revenues) are looking short right now,” he said.
Deal said he wants to make improvements in kindergarten through 12th grade and he has said he wants to add 10 days to the pre-kindergarden class schedule and increase HOPE Scholarship funding by 3 percent.
“We’re working very hard with the Race to the Top program that we are a part of, and some of the programs that are provided funding through that will begin to become real and hope to see results,” the governor said.
Henson said schools are severely underfunded and cuts to the HOPE scholarship have already driven thousands of students out of technical colleges.
“He hasn’t been dynamic or that controversial, but he hasn’t tried to address the state’s problems,” the Democratic leader said.
One hard decision that’s pretty much guaranteed the state has to make is on health care, and specifically Medicaid. Medicaid and PeachCare provide health insurance coverage to more than 1.7 million low-income Georgians, including children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly. The projected shortfall for Medicaid in fiscal 2014 is expected to be more than $500 million.
“He really studies the issues,” said Rep.-elect Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. Hawkins and his father, B.L., knew Deal from his law practice in Gainesville and his rise to state senator and U.S. representative.
“My father had great admiration for Nathan Deal,” said Hawkins, a Gainesville dentist. “He has great knowledge in the field of health care.”
Deal said a major accomplishment last year was criminal justice reform and the addition of $10 million into the accountability courts. Hall County has Drug, DUI, Family Drug, Mental Health and Parental Accountability courts.
“We think those are going to pay dividends in terms of reducing our prison population, and that will save us money,” Deal said. “This year, one of their (the criminal justice reform commission) focuses is going to be on juvenile justice reform.”
Deal has also been a key player in bringing in new economic development and expanding existing businesses in Georgia, Clark said. The governor was instrumental in bringing in Baxter International in April, which plans to employ about 1,500 people, and Caterpillar Inc., which is building a new facility near Athens that plans to employ a similar amount of workers.
General Motors announced last week it will build a $26 million information technology center in metro Atlanta and expects to employ about 1,000 high-skilled workers.
“He’s done an incredible job,” Clark said. “He came in really focused on making Georgia more competitive.”