Defining legacy a big part of Deal’s strategy for legislative session

Gov. Nathan Deal devoted much of his political capital in his first term toward an ambitious overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system. He’s building his second around fundamental changes to how the state operates and pays for its school system.

They seem like an incompatible mix for a governor who will be inevitably pulled toward building legacy projects as his final term in public office draws closer to an end. But Deal’s insistence that the two are inextricably linked will shape his last years in the Governor’s Mansion.

“Education reform is the ultimate criminal justice reform,” Deal said. “It’s all tied together. They all have a common thread. Because if someone isn’t qualified, they are not going to do well in school, in the jobs market or in life.”

Deal enters the second year of his final term in January with an agenda that seems to scream to legislators that he’s not yet a lame duck. He wants to rewrite how the state funds schools, ensure Georgia has a conservative judiciary for decades to come and give his office new powers to take control of failing classrooms.

And while it won’t be a part of any speech he will give, he is seeking to consolidate new powers in his office that will become an indelible part of his record in Georgia.

He faces roadblocks on that journey, including whether the General Assembly, fully aware that his time in office is waning, will go along with his agenda. His immediate predecessor, Gov. Sonny Perdue, ended his second term feuding so bitterly with lawmakers that many were more than happy to see him leave the Capitol.

Deal has zealously fought to keep warm relations with the other branches of government. The warring between the governor’s office and the judicial branch that dominated the last years of Perdue’s term has been replaced by glowing talk about the importance of the judiciary laced with reminders of Deal’s legal background.

As for the 236 lawmakers who make the Capitol their home each winter, Deal and his aides often talk of the open-door policy with the legislative branch and the warm relationship with legislative leaders that helped them unify behind, say, the $1 billion push for new transportation funds or the need to defeat Democrat Jason Carter.

“He’s as energized as ever,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican who has been one of the governor’s closest allies in the Legislature. “He’s got some big things on his plate. And a priority will be to make sure he’s significantly reformed education and made lives better.”

Those cozy relationships will be put to the test. Deal’s expiring term could unearth the age-old tension between the governor’s ambitions and the fierce desire for independence of the other two branches. The inevitable jockeying for the Governor’s Mansion — expected to be in full swing by this time next year — could complicate matters.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said the theatrics of election-year politicking, the presidential primary and the jockeying to succeed Deal combine to create a toxic political stew that won’t make it easy for the governor to get his way.

“Time isn’t on the governor’s side. He’s run his last campaign, and his fellow Republicans are lining up to take his job,” Holcomb said. “Some are already measuring the drapes in his office.”

Looking to centralize power

The governor’s first term, though it featured efforts to bolster Georgia’s flagging HOPE scholarship and rebuild the state’s financial health, is most known for a criminal justice package that won national attention and praise from both parties.

The changes pushed more nonviolent offenders toward treatment programs rather than prison sentences, helping to rein in a growing corrections budget. The legislation met overwhelming support in the Legislature and was so popular that his Democratic opponent in 2014, who attacked him for virtually every other policy initiative, dared not criticize it.

His second term has begun with attempts to centralize the power of his office to solidify his priorities.

He quietly won approval this year to create a new state agency to oversee pardons and parole supervision that was once held by three separate agencies. And he backed legislation that gave his office more leeway to streamline a state environmental commission’s regulations.

He got lawmakers to go along with expanding the State Court of Appeals from 12 to 15 judges by slipping the money to fund the increase into the $22 billion state budget in the final few days of the session, when legislators had little choice but to approve it.

He is being more open about his next move, to enlarge the Georgia Supreme Court from seven justices to nine — a move that could give him the potential to tap the majority of the high court’s members.

“Right now what’s happening is the state is in the process under Governor Deal of transitioning out of the Old South and into the New South,” said Randy Evans, Deal’s campaign lawyer and a co-chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission. “And to do that, you’ve got to improve the quantity of the judiciary.”

The governor is also looking at his judicial legacy — what kind of court he will leave his successor. That’s true in many areas Deal will seek to address over the next three years.

“It is typical for all governors. They reach a point when they start looking around and say, ‘What’s my legacy going to be?’ ” said George Hooks, a legislative historian who served with Deal in the Georgia Senate.

Democrats see a different sort of legacy forming. State Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said the governor will be most remembered for “missteps” on education policy, his refusal to expand Medicaid and ethics problems.

“He has continued the Republican cuts in education, and now he wants to memorialize them with new legislation. He pandered to the extreme right wing of his party by demonizing Medicaid,” Fort said. “He had an opportunity to reinvigorate the state. But his legacy will be that he didn’t.”

Tying education, criminal justice

The governor hopes his imprint on education policy may yet be his most enduring legacy.

Already, Deal has expanded the scope of the Office of Student Achievement, which reports to him, and has formed a panel that recommends dramatic changes that could shape how teachers are paid, how frequently students are tested and how the state divvies up money among its 180 school districts.

He’s also set to push legislation to encourage “quality teachers,” perhaps with pay raises and other incentives, to stay in front of the students.

“We need to have a situation where we can reward good teachers to stay in the classroom and not have to move into the administration to get a pay raise,” he said.

Whatever changes that Deal will embrace will form the backbone of his second-term education overhaul.

So will the Opportunity School District that Deal and his aides muscled through the legislative session in 2015. His office dangled plenty of carrots — and shook many sticks — to secure the two-thirds majority needed to create a statewide school district to give his office new powers to take over persistently failing schools.

The governor now wants to make sure that effort is not for nothing. His former campaign manager heads an issue advocacy group called Georgia Leads that is laying the groundwork for the school takeover ballot initiative in November. The effort’s critics fear it gives Deal too much power to intervene in sacred, local education matters.

In speeches and at policy conferences, he says that program is just as essential to Georgia’s long-term success as the criminal justice package that has changed the ways prisons operate. Those who are stuck at Georgia’s failing schools, he says, are the ones most likely to graduate to its prisons.

“Education is the surest solution to breaking the cycle of crime,” Deal said. “If you don’t think there’s a link between crime and a lack of education, think again.”