Piggybacking on his State of the State address earlier in the week, Gov. Nathan Deal met with members of the Hall County Republican Party on Saturday in Gainesville to discuss his budgetary and legislative priorities for this year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly.
“It’s always nice to be able to come home,” Deal, a longtime Hall County resident and former state and U.S. representative, told a rapt audience of more than 100 attendees at the Holiday Inn Gainesville-Lanier Centre on E.E. Butler Parkway. “This has been a busy week for me.”
During a 40-minute speech, followed by a short question-and-answer session, Deal touched on past successes and the core issues facing the state this year, including education, economic growth and criminal justice reform.
Increasing funding for public education is priority No. 1 in Deal’s proposed budget. Education spending accounts for more than 50 percent of state expenditures in any given year. Though it has risen during Deal’s tenure from a low experienced during the throes of the recession, it hasn’t been enough to offset population growth and the demands presented by a changing job market. That’s why Deal wants to pump an additional $547 million into public education in the next fiscal year.
“It will be the largest single infusion of new money into the system in seven years,” he said, adding that K-12 school districts, for example, will have discretion and flexibility in terms of how the money is spent. “It is long overdue.”
Deal said he also wants the General Assembly to better fund HOPE grants, similar to the HOPE scholarship, to help cover tuition costs for technical college students who maintain a 3.5 grade-point average or better.
“So we’re trying to focus our dollars in education as best we can to make sure they produce the kind of graduates that will ensure a great future for our state,” he added.
Education was a hot topic following Deal’s speech, with several attendees inquiring about his thoughts on the controversial K-12 Common Core standards for math and English literacy.
Dr. Traci Lawson McBride, who is running for Post son the Hall County school board, questioned whether the uniform standards adopted by Georgia and 44 other states were having their intended impact or represented a kind of federal intrusion into state affairs. Deal responded by acknowledging the controversy and said he has asked the state school board to undertake a review of the standards.
Skipping from subject to subject, Deal next focused his attention on the health of the local economy.
“What is the most fundamental and important thing that government can do to improve the quality of life in Georgia?” Deal asked the audience. “I believe the answer to that question is provide more and better jobs for our citizens.”
Deal touted the fact that about 217,000 jobs have been added in the state since he took office three years ago, even while government payrolls have shrunk.
“Our efforts, applying what I consider to be conservative Republican principles, have actually produced positive results,” he added, pointing out the fact that the state government, under his leadership, has resisted tax increases and presided over modest job growth despite a nearly 20 percent drop in revenues and increased demands for public financing since the recession struck. “Unlike some states, when they saw their revenue dropping ... their decision was to raise taxes on their people. I think that’s sort of like throwing a drowning man an anvil. ...”
Turning his attention to an endeavor of personal importance, Deal spoke emotionally about the changes and reforms brought to the state’s criminal justice system, particularly as it pertains to nonviolent drug offenders. He said he wants to fund accountability courts by an additional $20 million so that people with substance abuse and mental health problems can get a second chance, adding that recidivism rates are low for those who enter these specialized courts.
“It tears me up to hear the stories of people whose lives have absolutely been destroyed by drugs and alcohol,” said Deal, an attorney and former prosecutor and judge. His son, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, heads the Hall County Drug Court, a two-year counseling and accountability program.
One of the first orders of business undertaken by the General Assembly this session was to change the state’s primary schedule to align with federal standards. Deal said he would sign a bill Monday that was passed by the House and Senate to move the state’s primary elections to May 20. The change means that the 40-day legislative session will likely end earlier than normal, perhaps sometime in March, so that incumbent candidates can hit the campaign trail and begin raising money, which they are prohibited from doing while the General Assembly is convened.
With election season in mind, Deal wasn’t shy about jump-starting his own re-election campaign.
“Since this is a Republican gathering,” he said, “I can simply add the last line that I don’t normally have the opportunity to add, and that is, I would appreciate your support in the re-election effort.”
After a gracious applause, attendees had the opportunity to meet-and-greet with the governor.
Bill and Laurie Morrison, members of the Hall County GOP, expressed their admiration for Deal and said his speech was extremely informative.
“I think he’s right on top of everything,” said Bill Morrison, a Gainesville optometrist.
Laurie Morrison, meanwhile, said she connected with Deal when he got choked up talking about criminal justice reform, an issue close to her own heart.
State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he was happy that the governor addressed the core issues of the budget and education for the local community.
Ken Cochran, first vice chairman of the Hall County GOP and a candidate in the District 1 race for the Hall County Board of Commissioners, said the governor’s speech reflected his roots in Hall County.
“What you saw today was the personal side of the governor,” Cochran said. “You don’t see that. He can be himself with this group of people.”