Trying to woo educators, Nathan Deal invokes teacher pension fears

Gov. Nathan Deal is endorsed by Educators First, a conservative leaning teacher group.
Gov. Nathan Deal is endorsed by Educators First, a conservative leaning teacher group.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Gov. Nathan Deal intensified his efforts to woo educators by celebrating Thursday's endorsement of a conservative-leaning teachers group - and attacking his Democratic rival's willingness to invest pension funds in venture capital.

The Republican's campaign is hoping to make headway with the powerful teacher voting bloc by targeting Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter's proposal to give the nearly $59 billion fund more leeway to invest in Georgia's start-ups.

Deal said Georgia could jeopardize its AAA bond rating should its teacher pension invest in "speculative" investments in startup firms, and said venture capital experts have urged him to steer clear.

"It's a subject that I would have thought that he understood that educators are soundly against. He was there two years ago when this discussion came up in the General Assembly," said Deal. "He should have known and should have heard, should have had an ear out to educators as to what their sentiments were."

Deal's comments came at a ceremony outside a Marietta elementary school trumpeting the endorsement of Educators First, a group of about 5,000 whose organizers are closely tied to state Republican leaders.

"We are most strongly behind the governor for refusing to invest teacher retirement money in venture capital," said Tana Page, the group's executive director. "I understand his opponent has come out in favor of that, and we are strongly opposed to that."

Carter told a group of entrepreneurs last month that he wants teacher pensions to be able to pump funds into local startups "so long as we're making sure that we can manage the risk in ways that make sense." He said he saw it as a way to boost the troubled state-backed effort to invest in venture capital firms.

He told members of the Georgia State Retirees Association this week there was a "misunderstanding" about his comments.

"Let me tell you, I will never, as I said before, act without your input to do anything with that pension fund," he said. "And I would never want to do anything to make it less safe, less reliable, and to weaken it in any way. You can rest assured that when I’m the governor I won’t be playing politics with the retirement fund.”

It came amid the backdrop of a heated debate over education. Carter, who has put a vow to significantly boost education funding as the cornerstone of his campaign, celebrated the endorsement in August of the Georgia Association of Educators, a far larger group with a long track record of backing Democrats.

Georgia lawmakers cleared the way for pension funds to invest up to 5 percent of their assets in alternative investments, such as venture capital firms, that had at least $100 million on the books. But the law excluded the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, by far the state's largest public pension.

Deal and other critics say that allowing pension investments to pump more money into local startups also amplifies the risk, and they point to pensions in other states that have struggled after making similar changes. Watchdog groups say it would be impossible to keep politics out of investment choices.

Carter told the retirees this week he understands why they would be concerned with the change.

"You all have every reason to be skeptical of politicians who say that they’re going to do something with the pension fund," said the Democrat. "I get it. Y’all have every reason to be skeptical because of the way you have been treated over the years."

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