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Our Views: Second term solutions for Gov. Deal
Georgia's challenge: Fix schools, hospitals, roads without slowing a growing economy
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Second terms can be a dicey thing for executive officeholders. Though much desired — when was the last time we recall a president or governor who didn’t seek one? —­ ­they often slip into the dreaded “lame duck” limbo as heads start turning toward who’s next in line.

Gov. Nathan Deal, a favorite son of Hall County, will get his chance to make a second term relevant when he again takes the oath of office Monday at the state Capitol in Atlanta.

Deal enters the final term of his political career with more of a breeze at his back than the headwinds he faced in 2011. He entered office following a governor who couldn’t unite his own party, and facing an economy dragged down by the Great Recession.

Always the pragmatist, Deal set to work crafting an agenda that wasn’t overly innovative or ambitious but a fit for the times. He first got warring factions in the General Assembly to stop acting like children fighting over the playground swings and work together. The squabbling brats who had tried to kneecap Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Senate and turned the House into the former speaker’s own little fiefdom were sent into exile in favor of calmer adults.

That was particularly important when it came to paring the state budget to match dwindling revenues. Such decisions always are unpopular, and give election challengers plenty of ammo. Everyone wants to spend more and cut less, though someone eventually gets elected and has to make tough decisions when the money isn’t there and that magic golden money mint from fantasyland is still on order.

Georgia voters, though, seemed to realize unpopular choices are what true leaders have to make, and chose to give Deal four more years. Now a rebounding economy gives him a chance to address some key concerns that couldn’t be addressed when state coffers were bare, three in particular: transportation, education and health care.

Each of these topics is tied not only to the state’s quality of life but their ability to grow the economy and create jobs. But each also offers a delicate balancing act between finding the money to pay for them while not scuttling jobs or growth in the process.

We’ve discussed how money must be found to repair Georgia’s crumbling roads and bridges and ease metro gridlock. Without that, workers can’t get to their jobs on time and industries will locate elsewhere. Gimmicks like Atlanta’s streetcars won’t solve this problem. Mass transit has its place, but like it or not, most people drive cars, and cars need good roads.

Transportation funding has largely dried up, many blaming Georgia’s low sales tax on gasoline. Raising that tax is a tempting option while pump prices are so low. But there’s no guarantee they’ll stay there, and higher taxes on top of rising prices would slow the flow of goods, services and workers and undermine business growth.

The legislative committee working on solutions is floating different ideas to raise revenue, from taxes to user fees, with some combination likely. Whatever they settle on, the money targeted for transportation should go only to those needs and not back into the general fund to be spent on other concerns.

Money already has been put back into education after years of cuts when revenue slumped. That has restored teacher pay and calendar cuts public schools had to endure during the recession. That’s a good start. Now the state needs to get a handle on the cost of higher education so qualified high school graduates have a chance to attend college or technical school without incurring a lifetime of debt. The HOPE programs are vital to this and should be supported, yet costs also must be controlled to keep from depleting its funding.

Georgia also must embrace classroom innovation with charter schools and new methods of teaching and testing to measure success. When education professionals join politicians in the decision-making process, the state’s education rankings have a better chance of improving.

Leaders also must address the plight of rural hospitals struggling to stay open amid dwindling populations and their high percentage of uninsured and indigent patients. Eight in Georgia have shut their doors, forcing some patients to travel farther for critical care, a life-or-death issue.

Deal and state leaders rejected potential funding from the Affordable Care Act that would aid those hospitals by expanding Medicaid to more patients. Opponents of the ACA say it actually hurts rural hospitals by creating unwieldy and unfunded mandates they can’t meet, offering low reimbursement rates and discouraging private insurance. They also are concerned the state would be required to pick up the long-term bill for Medicaid expansion after a short-term infusion of federal money. The governor has appointed a committee to seek solutions for struggling hospitals, which likely will have to include some combination of taxes and user fees.

None of these problems have easy fixes, even with more money available. It’s the old chicken and egg dilemma: A growing economy and more jobs help fund public sector needs. Good schools, thriving hospitals and efficient roads all are key to helping the private sector expand. But taxes that are too high could slow that growth and lower revenue in the long run.

State lawmakers need to walk that line with creative ways to increase funding for important needs while curtailing spending on pork-barrel projects. The governor and his floor leaders need to keep lawmakers in line with a laser focus on the issues that effect Georgia’s future and prosperity. If they succeed, Deal’s second term should be remembered for what was accomplished and not what he left on the table.

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