For Gov. Deal, 2013 poses risks, rewards

This year is arguably the most important of Gov. Nathan Deal’s term.

A strong showing could discourage potential rivals from running against the Republican when he seeks another term in 2014. But the road to re-election is already lined with fiscal pitfalls and political traps that could complicate his agenda and echo beyond.

As lawmakers convene on Monday for the start of this year’s 40-day session, the governor faces a gantlet of pressing challenges that offer few easy solutions.

His role in the debate over the proposed new $1 billion Falcons stadium will be scrutinized. His relationship with the state’s growing tea party caucus will be watched. And his possible solution to a looming health-care budget shortfall could shape the state’s finances for years to come.

“I view it as an opportunity,” he said of the year in an interview, adding that he would focus his agenda this year on tweaking policy changes from previous years rather than making major new changes. “We want to make sure what we have done is working before we start tinkering with it.”

This is a crucial time for the governor. A poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows a narrow majority of voters - about 51 percent - give Deal a favorable approval rating. About 5 percent of those voters say they strongly approve of his first term in office. Twenty-one percent disapprove of his performance - 4 percent of them do so strongly - and the remaining respondents said they didn’t know.

Deal’s most solid support came from fellow Republicans, voters from his North Georgia base and, perhaps surprisingly, those between age 18 and 24. They gave him a 63 percent approval rating. The groups least impressed with the governor are black voters, Democrats and those who labeled their race as “other,” according to the poll conducted in December by Kennesaw State University’s Survey Research Laboratory.

Deal stressed that this session will focus largely on passing a new budget that reconciles the needs of Georgia’s growing population with a new round of spending cuts. He has already ordered state agencies to come up with $553 million in budget cuts this year and next.

Some of the debates lawmakers are likely to address this session are politically palatable. For one, Deal is putting his political muscle behind an overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice system, which costs $300 million a year and struggles to keep young offenders from landing in trouble again.

The future of the proposed $1 billion retractable-roof Falcons stadium, though, puts the governor in a more delicate position. The stadium would be partly funded by $300 million in Atlanta hotel and motel taxes, but that public funding would require a new vote this year by a strengthened GOP caucus, many members of which were elected on vows of fiscal conservatism.

Leading lawmakers have raised public and private concerns about giving a billionaire team owner public money while health-care programs are facing cuts, even as the Falcons suggest they could build a cheaper stadium in the suburbs if lawmakers balk.

Wary of being caught on the wrong side of a legislative revolt, Deal has treaded carefully on the subject of the new stadium, saying he’s open to the idea of a public-private partnership but not yet giving it full-throated support.

“I’ve told them it’s not my agenda item,” the governor said. “The Falcons have said they’re willing to carry that and deal with the Legislature.”

The tea party movement also could test Deal’s political capital. The governor has so far enjoyed a smoother relationship than his predecessor with the legislative branch, and many lawmakers praise his negotiating skills. While tea party leaders have yet to gain much traction under the Gold Dome, the growing band of lawmakers who identify with the fiscally conservative movement could prove to be an obstacle to Republican leaders who push for new taxes or fees.

“The tea party is emboldened and very engaged on the issues,” said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University. “They’re not going anywhere, and he and everyone else is going to have to deal with them.”

The biggest debate he could yet face is one that could be a headache for Deal: The fight over health-care funding. The governor is particularly passionate about health-care issues, and he’s expected to play a hands-on role.

It will revolve around Georgia’s two-year-old hospital provider fee, better known as the “bed tax,” which is set to expire in June. It requires hospitals to pay a percentage of their total revenue to shore up Medicaid, and the state leverages those funds to draw in more than $500 million in federal matching dollars.

Extending the program could incur the wrath of tea party adherents and test many Republican lawmakers who, like Deal, signed a pledge not to raise taxes. But the state’s budget for Medicaid and the PeachCare program already faces a $374 million shortfall this fiscal year and an even larger one next, and failing to renew the fee would only deepen that hole.

The AJC learned on Sunday the governor is backing legislation that gives the Department of Community Health the responsibility to levy the fees, allowing lawmakers to avoid the thorny issue of voting to hike a tax. Yet it could still face hurdles among lawmakers who are concerned it’s only a temporarily stopgap.

At least those are challenges Deal can prepare for. Each session typically features a surprise or two that can transform the debate, often in the form of legislation championed by powerful lawmakers or well-connected business interests.

And it will only get more hectic starting Monday, when lawmakers begin to consider the first of the thousands of proposals that will be filed over the next two years.

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