Deal agenda aims to help lawmakers avoid dicey votes

Gov. Nathan Deal is pushing a limited legislative agenda in the crucial third year of his term that’s more notable for what it doesn’t include than what it does.

He’s not backing a new funding scheme to unclog Atlanta’s roads or more major tinkering with Georgia’s tax code. He’s leaving a foray into contentious social issues to lawmakers and trying to avoid a legislative fight over loosening gun restrictions.

So far, his biggest legislative pushes are over issues he’s helping lawmakers avoid: a bid to renew a fee on hospitals that helps plug a Medicaid funding shortfall and an effort to route $300 million in public funds for a new Falcons stadium in downtown Atlanta through the city instead of the state.

“I’ve tried my best as you might have already gathered to relieve the members of the General Assembly from difficult decisions that they have to make because I understand the political consequences of it,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Because sometimes issues that are important to the state are not always easy to reconcile with their constituents back home.”

After Deal’s previous legislative sessions led to seismic changes that restructured the HOPE scholarship program and Georgia’s criminal justice system, the governor will focus this legislative term on tweaking existing law. He’s also endorsing measures that include tighter boating rules and cost-cutting changes to the juvenile justice system.

The tack allows him to focus much of his political muscle on a $19.8 billion budget steeped with sharp budget cuts. And it helps him hew to the promise of less government interference that he touted during his State of the State address: “Together, we will run a state — rather than its citizens’ lives.”

But the no-frills agenda risks creating a vacuum that could be filled with a flurry of other legislation that could complicate Deal’s duties in the months to come. It could also leave Deal, who enjoyed a favorable rating of about 51 percent in a recent AJC poll, vulnerable to accusations from critics of not doing enough to tackle Georgia’s most pressing problems.

Democrats have been quick to seize on a perceived lack of ambition in Deal’s agenda, expressing worry that the governor hasn’t come up with new ideas to fund infrastructure after a 1 percent transportation sales tax referendum failed in most of the state.

“I think it’s disappointing that the governor isn’t tackling the big issues out there for Georgians with anything more than cosmetic changes,” said state Sen. Steve Henson, the leader of the Democratic caucus. “We can’t continue not trying to look at the bigger picture that doesn’t keep the state in a positive direction moving forward.”

It also opens him to criticism from conservative critics who worry he’s sidestepping a larger debate. Anti-tax groups, including Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, have derided Deal’s plan to allow a state agency to levy the hospital fees as a “step in the wrong direction.” And others have called on Deal to set a more visionary course.

“Now is the time for comprehensive tax reform, not political gimmicks,” Dalton Mayor David Pennington said. “Georgians deserve better.”

For Deal’s strategists, though, the plan to allow the Department of Community Health to levy the so-called “bed tax” could eliminate one of his thorniest dilemmas in the session’s opening weeks. The Senate has already approved the measure, and the House could soon follow.

That’s left Deal to pursue less high-profile policies, such as changes to the juvenile justice system that could divert more young offenders from the adult prison system and an effort to lower the legal blood alcohol level for boaters from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent — the same level as automobile drivers.

He’s hinted at more ambitious legislative policy at speeches and events, but it’s unclear what level of support he’s prepared to give them. In one case, Deal noted that many school boards have been threatened with losing school accreditation based on governance issues instead of academic progress.

“Unless this is addressed by state legislation, we will continue to have thousands of Georgia’s children trapped in underperforming schools through no fault of their own,” Deal said.

House Speaker David Ralston, too, has said he’s open to legislation that addresses “education governance” but hasn’t elaborated.

Deal has also signaled support for ethics reform, with an important caveat: The changes should apply beyond the Legislature to all elected officials at the state and local levels.

“We can build the strongest foundations of frugality, efficiency and competitiveness upon which our state government will rest,” he said. “But if the citizens of Georgia don’t trust us, it will all be in vain, for the vibrations of distrust will crack even the strongest foundations.”

His biggest legislative headache may prove to be the Falcons stadium. In the face of public opposition and eroding legislative support, Deal has been in talks with Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to get the city, not the state, to issue $300 million in hotel/motel taxes toward the $1 billion retractable-roof stadium.

The swell of civic pride accompanying the team’s surge into the playoffs has now been replaced by what-ifs after a heart-wrenching defeat last week.

“It would have been nice if they were going to the Super Bowl,” the governor said of the Falcons. “But these kinds of things aren’t for this Super Bowl but for Super Bowls down the road.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.