Why Nathan Deal is letting lawmakers take the lead on transportation

Gov. Nathan Deal's school-rescue plan surfaces at nearly every public speech he makes. It animates his meetings, led him to take a legislative delegation to Louisiana last week and is considered his top legislative priority this session.

But the other pivotal debate this year, the fight to raise more cash for transportation, hasn't earned nearly as much public attention from the governor. He's advocated for additional revenue, and offered some guidelines for lawmakers, but otherwise he's been far more quiet on the topic than he is on education.

In an interview Friday, he seemed intent on playing a behind-the-scenes role. For now. He praised the House for an overwhelming vote that "goes a long way in the right direction," but said he wants legislative leaders who grappled with the debate throughout the last year in a joint study committee to spearhead the push.

"It would be presumptive at the part of the governor to step in and try to undercut what that committee has done and the recommendations they produced," he said. "I'm not the kind of governor that will do that. I recognize the role of the legislative branch, and I think they're showing they can live up to their responsibilities."

It's a strategy that carries risks, as Thursday's dramatic transportation vote showed. An amendment to cut the excise tax by five cents, slashing roughly $300 million in revenue from the plan, was presented by House Majority Leader Larry O'Neal. And even minutes before the vote on the overall plan, some supporters feared a revolt from rank-and-file Republicans.

If either would have happened, the Chamber of Commerce crowd would have beaten a hasty path to Deal's door, and there would have been louder calls for more forceful intervention from the governor, the rare politician who doesn't have to worry about another election.

The amendment did not pass, though, and the overall plan was overwhelmingly approved by the House despite a rift in the GOP.

Deal, for his part, signaled he's planning to maintain his hands-off approach as the transportation plan takes its first steps through the Senate, where he said he's hopeful "progress will continue." When asked if there was a minimum to how much money the proposal raised, he said he would not set any firm guideposts.

"I'm not going to set any arbitrary numbers," he said. "But I believe the number they arrived at in their formula yesterday - between $900 million and a $1 billion - is a reasonable area."

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.