Gov. Nathan Deal, center, shakes hands with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle as House Speaker David Ralston watches after the governor outlined his agenda in his final State of the State speech before a joint session of Georgia’s General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia governor’s final State of the State looks back — and forward

Deep into Gov. Nathan Deal’s final State of the State speech, he broke up a wistful address with a joke about the I-85 bridge collapsing in flames the last time he addressed lawmakers. His plea to the hundreds of lawmakers arrayed before him: “Please don’t start any fires.”

It was a lighthearted moment in a valedictory address that focused more on the governor’s past achievements than his final policy initiatives. But it might as well have been a mission statement for his last year in public office.

His speech was an extended metaphor comparing lawmakers to gardeners and policies to seedlings that need love and care to take root. And that quip was his version of the Farmer’s Almanac to lawmakers: Don’t burn down the forest on my watch, and try not to do it afterward, either.

At times overcome with emotion, the Republican used a speech normally reserved for unveiling agenda items instead to offer an unflinchingly positive look back at his past seven years.

The state of the state, he said, was “exceptional” in part because of the criminal justice overhaul he engineered, education initiatives he embraced and economic development wins he helped orchestrate. To those who would upset the apple cart, he had a note of caution.

“I urge you not to neglect the trees and orchards we have planted over these past seven years,” he said. “What we do in this historic building, the actions we take in these chambers of service, the choices we make while in positions of elected authority must be for the betterment of all Georgians.”

Gone unmentioned were some of the most contentious moments of his tenure, such as his “religious liberty” veto and the defeat of his proposed constitutional amendment to empower the state to take control of struggling schools. And his harshest critics on Thursday seized on another divisive decision: Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act because he said it would be too costly in the long run.

“This simple remedy would provide half a million Georgians with coverage, cutting our uninsured rate in half. Medicaid expansion represents a $3 billion annual investment of federal dollars into Georgia and its people,” House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said. “It’s time to act. It is time to expand Medicaid here in Georgia.”

‘Orchards of opportunity’

Fighting back tears throughout his address, Deal talked about the changes in Georgia politics since his first address in 2011, when fewer than half of the legislators in Thursday’s audience were in office.

He urged the crowd of 236 lawmakers — and dozens of judges, elected officials and administrators crammed on the state House floor or watching from the balcony — to reflect on “just how far we have come.”

“Over the past seven years, we have endeavored to plant whole orchards of opportunity, some of which will not bear their largest fruits until those who come after us are sitting where you sit now,” he said.

As seven leading contenders jockey for his office, the term-limited Deal also wanted to prove he is no lame-duck governor to be cast aside or overlooked. He evoked memories of how he weathered threatened Republican revolts over controversial vetoes and Democratic opposition over his two terms in office.

“This is neither an obituary nor a farewell address, but it is the last time I will have the opportunity to address all of you in this formal setting. We have much work to do during this session,” he said. “I will work vigorously with you during this year to continue to polish the apples we are harvesting.”

‘Careful attention’

The governor didn’t seed any sweeping new initiatives or barn-burning proposals in his address. Instead, Deal focused his final annual speech on cementing his accomplishments.

He talked about his criminal and civil justice overhauls, part of a broader remake of the judiciary that has diverted more low-level offenders from costly prison beds and spawned a wave of accountability courts.

He touted his role in rewriting eligibility rules that cut deeply into funding for the state’s HOPE scholarship but that he said saved a popular program “on the cusp of bankruptcy.”

He nodded to the tens of millions of dollars in his spending plan to speed the deepening of Savannah’s harbor, expand a new cybersecurity complex in Augusta and improve rural airports.

He trumpeted boosts in education spending and fostering a growing film industry and cultivating an environment he said has made Georgia the “No. 1 place to do business.”

And he urged lawmakers to embrace his $26 billion budget, a proposal that will touch the lives of millions of Georgians.

“We must adopt the same mind-set and gaze as the pecan farmer in South Georgia who plants a tree and knows that its growth is well worth the decades of careful attention it will take to nurture it to its greatest heights,” he said. “Just as a parent does the same for a child.”

‘Running the state’

Georgia Democrats came armed with ready responses to many of those highlights.

A needs-based scholarship to boost HOPE’s benefits is essential to counter the aftermath of the cuts to the program, Trammell said. And Deal’s budget proposal has again failed to fully fund k-12 education under the state’s formula, state Sen. Elena Parent said.

“We’re still operating at a deficit,” she said. “Money isn’t the only answer, but I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we are not fully funding our education system.”

Deal steered clear of a fight over education funding, instead saying that he’s increased education spending by $3.6 billion over the past seven years. “No other administration in Georgia history has planted so many trees of knowledge,” he said.

And he spiced his speech with a touch of humor, including a crayon-scrawled letter his wife, Sandra, received from a student she visited. In it was the student’s gratitude “for visiting my school and thank you for running the state of Georgia.”

“My wife made certain that I saw that letter,” Deal said with a wink. “She said she wanted me to know of that student’s appreciation for her real job.”

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