ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal reviewed the major bills passed during the recent General Assembly session on Wednesday at The Atlanta Press Club’s Newsmaker Luncheon, then added to that list by signing into law a bill inspired by a project from a quartet of Brenau University students.
The event, held at the Commerce Club in Atlanta, was sponsored by Brenau and attended by dozens of journalists and lawmakers from North Georgia.
In his remarks, Deal ticked off legislation passed in what he called “the most successful session since I’ve been governor.”
He then moved to a nearby table to sign House Bill 62, which allows active service members to seek state financial education aid for their special-needs children. Previously, the state required a one-year residency to be eligible for the Special Needs Scholarship Program; the new law waives that requirement for military personnel stationed in Georgia who might find themselves frequently uprooted.
The idea began as a project by four Brenau students in the Master of Occupational Therapy program. Their professor, Dr. David Miller, encouraged them to come up with a plan to alter an existing state policy and propose it. They did so to state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, and Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who then turned it into legislation that passed both houses.
“We came over (to Brenau) and when we heard their ideas, we said, ‘You really have got something here,’” Tanner said. “It’s great that they know their fellow students will benefit from this bill.”
Each of the students graduated last May. Three attended Wednesday’s event: Allison Guisasola of Braselton; Rachel Strazynski Sushner, formerly of Atlanta and now of Baltimore; and Shelby Wrenn of Clarkesville. The fourth, Ashley McCoy of Maysville, is on her honeymoon and was unable to attend.
“We’re so excited. We had no idea this could happen,” Sushner said beforehand.
“They got the ball rolling,” said Philip Wilheit Sr., Gainesville businessman and Board of Regents member, in his opening remarks.
Each smiled broadly and stood behind as Deal signed the bill. The governor then handed each a pen as a souvenir.
“This bill fits with the theme (of other legislation) of helping children,” Deal said.
Afterward, state Sen. Butch Miller, who introduced and sponsored the bill in the Senate where it passed 35-8, told the three he was proud of their efforts.
“You’re here in a room full of professionals in government, but you were able to get something done,” he said.
“It’s good to know someone was listening,” Wrenn said.
In the remainder of his remarks, Deal ticked off what he said was a successful legislative agenda. He credited both parties for their roles, including minority Democrats “for working with the other side and not just being obstructionists.”
“We have successfully climbed Mount Everest,” he said. “This session was historic and will be looked back on and celebrated.”
Earlier Wednesday, Deal signed legislation at the Capitol that includes an insurance coverage requirement for children 6 and younger who are diagnosed with autism. The governor’s voice cracked with emotion as he described the benefits of “Ava’s Law,” named for Ava Bullard of Lyons, a 10-year-old with the disorder.
Deal expressed pride in another piece of health legislation aimed at children he signed April 16. Haleigh’s Hope Act will allow legal use of cannabis oil for treatment of seizures caused by several illnesses. He expressed gratitude the law will allow Georgia families who moved out of the state seeking such treatment to return home.
“That’s the most cheers I’ve heard for the signing of a piece of legislation,” Deal said.
Deal advocated adoption of his opportunity district school plan, which would allow the state to take over failing schools and include them in a statewide district managed by a superintendent. The controversial measure passed the legislature, but will go before voters in November 2016 as a proposed amendment to the state constitution.
“We believe every child can learn,” Deal said. “We’re only going after those schools that are proven to be failing. We’re not going to do this with a machete but with a scalpel, with very precise attention to the most failing schools.”
Deal praised the revised fuel excise tax plan that legislators say will infuse the state with up to $900 million in additional funds to upgrade roads, bridges and transit. Deal blamed entitlement programs for siphoning off state dollars earmarked in the past for transit needs, and called the change a key to helping the state’s economy continue to grow.
During a question-and-answer session after the bill signing, Deal said he sought to double funding to boost staffing for the state ethics commission, though the legislature approved less, another $768,000.
Deal said he did not know newly-selected commission leader Stefan Ritter, a veteran lawyer with the attorney general’s office, but said he wouldn’t attempt further reform until Ritter has had a chance to get to work on the backlog of cases that has hamstrung the agency.
“Let’s let the new guy get in and unpack his boxes and see what’s needed,” Deal said. “We need to give him time with the new personnel to deal with issues.”
He then engaged in a testy exchange with William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. Though he applauded the governor for boosting ethics funding, Perry said, “I feel like I’m thanking the guy who is bringing a water bucket to a house fire.”
Deal snapped back: “If your house is on fire, you should be thankful for the water bucket.”
Under further probing from Perry, Deal said his staff had no part in interfering with the ethics board over past investigations into his campaign dealings.
“Those allegations are false,” he said, saying the agency “spent years investigating me and nothing was found.”
In another tense exchange, Deal expressed disappointment with charges by former Regents board member and newspaper publisher Dink NeSmith that he had been too meddlesome in school appointments, particularly in the selections of Regents Chairman Hank Huckaby and University of Georgia President Jere Morehead.
Deal claims he only made recommendation to the Regents.
“If he didn’t want my opinion on them, he shouldn’t have asked for it,” the governor said.
About a dozen people protested along Peachtree Street prior to the event over a bill that would allow the trapping of raccoons in North Georgia, matching similar rules elsewhere in the state. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville.
When asked about the bill, Deal sidestepped it with a smile, saying “I’ve got bigger animals to trap” as the crowd erupted in laughter.