The state's upcoming legislative session will be one big puzzle, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal told lawmakers this afternoon.
"Most of our campaigns were intense, and the theme throughout was this: What are we going to do about jobs in this state?" he said, echoing remarks made across the state by legislators and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the past few weeks. "All of us know that we are not in the business of employing everybody through state government. Our primary job is to create an environment where jobs will grow in our state."
Every other issue will be resolved by creating jobs, he noted, wrapping up a three-day legislative conference at the University of Georgia where lawmakers were updated on the tri-state water wars, health care reform, Georgia's ports and taxes.
Deal spoke broadly about hot topics set to come up this spring, noting that he wouldn't talk about the specifics so he wouldn't "ruin their Christmas."
"It truly is one of those interlocking puzzles," Deal said. "How do we make the pieces fit together? We all know that education is a key part of that puzzle that will grow jobs, and we also know that a big part is taxes. Whether or not we agree with this tax or another, the aggregate tax climate has an impact on whether or not this state is viewed as a place we can grows jobs."
Deal said he talked to a friend and businessman this week who is planning on expanding his business with 8,000 jobs but is deciding between Georgia and Tennessee based on the corporate tax structure.
"We've heard that businesses don't decide based on the corporate tax structure. Well, this one does," he said. "We can't overlook anything with preconceived notions about what is an important piece of the puzzle."
Legislators nodded in agreement, aware of the stringent budget cloud hanging over the three-day conference.
"I think he framed the issues for the session perfectly," Rep. Doug Collins said. "This climate can provide us the opportunity to show our leadership and take the state forward."
Deal also touched on the water wars, health care legislation and education.
He has met with the Alabama and Florida governors twice already and pledges to find a "fair and equitable" agreement between the states about the water question. However, Georgia must be prepared if U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson's ruling takes effect by July 2012, limiting water usage from Lake Lanier to 1975 levels.
"We need to be engaged in the process of determining new water reservoirs to serve future needs," Deal said. "We know that the expenditures are beyond the scope of local jurisdiction, so it is the responsibility of the state government in part. Now is the time to stop talking about it and start doing it."
The state must also address health care mandates passed down from the federal level and find a concrete solution for the HOPE scholarship, which could see an end to reserve funds by fiscal year 2013.
"The consequences are dire in the short-term, and we can't afford to wait much longer until we address it. We've made an obligation to our students − and we need to preserve it," Deal said as lawmakers applauded. "It's a shining example of innovation and good ideas, and we owe it to those who fought battles to establish it to make sure we can sustain it over the long haul."
He then turned philosophical, encouraging the leaders to remain upbeat as they head into a tough session.
"Don't be surprised, and don't be dejected," he said. "What better time to prove your leadership and shape state government than right now?"
Deal then created a mental image, posing the lawmakers at the convergence of two rivers − one is the cold current of the recession that requires government to scale back and the other is the hot political rhetoric of making the government efficient.
"In the good times, these two rarely come together, and politicians have the luxury of running back and forth in between the two," he said. "Folks, they've come together today, and what happens when the cold hits the hot? It creates steam. The steam was harnessed by groups across the country to generate electricity that changed the face of not only our state but our entire nation. The steam continues to rise, and I challenge you to be part of the team that will harness that steam."