Georgia governor tones down agenda for this year

This time, Gov. Nathan Deal kicked off the session with no dramatic proposal, no controversial idea on the scale of the school takeover plan or the HOPE scholarship overhaul that dominated past legislative gatherings.

If anything, the second-term Republican’s State of the State address tempered expectations of what he can accomplish this year.

He delayed broad changes to education policy recommended by a task force he appointed, and he staved off a campaign promise to rewrite how schools are funded. And he avoided mention altogether of some of the biggest debates brewing in the statehouse, including the fight over “religious liberty” and an effort to legalize casino gambling.

It was a surprisingly defensive speech from a governor just 14 months removed from an election victory atop another GOP sweep of Georgia’s top offices.

And it was an indication that Deal and his aides want to hoard what political clout they have left by using the most powerful tool in his arsenal — the control of the state’s purse strings — to influence state policy without resorting to contentious legislative changes.

“It’s important that we take a bit of a (move) away from that very aggressive agenda we’ve had in past years, to make sure the reforms we’ve put in place are working,” he said after the speech. “But the big issue this year still remains education reform. We are doing it with the budget process.”

The governor has succeeded in virtually every major policy proposal he’s pushed since his 2010 election, from tighter rules on the HOPE scholarship awards to a revamp of the state criminal justice code meant to keep more nonviolent offenders out of prison.

This year’s toned-down agenda, though, seems to reflect a fear that his power to push policies through the Legislature is waning. With the race to succeed him already taking shape, and the increasing boldness of anti-establishment conservatives, “lame-duck” status is a very real threat.

The delay in a report by Deal’s education commission — initially due in August but pushed back until December — hurt his ability to lay the groundwork with lawmakers. Certainly, too, fierce pushback on his most controversial ideas also played a part.

The governor's support of merit pay for teachers was hit by a buzz saw of criticism from educators and others who say tying pay increases to the performance of students is doomed to fail. Any legislation pushing those changes would face a gauntlet in the House, whose leader, Speaker David Ralston, has made clear he's leery of the policy.

And an overhaul of the statewide education funding formula, which has been a thorn in the sides of governors since it was first passed in 1985, may become as elusive to Deal as it was his predecessors. He first vowed to rewrite that complex calculus in 2013, made it the centerpiece of his re-election bid – and has now postponed it twice.

“The governor is reading the tea leaves up here,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who has served in the House since 1974. “The political season is upon us. And the education changes probably need to be vetted more — and he’s reading that as well.”

The delays, however, don’t reflect a tactical retreat from Deal on either of these debates.

Of the funding formula, he warned of those who cling to a “status quo that may feel comfortable to certain adults but is a disservice to our students.” And, extending a metaphor about a ship sailing in uncertain waters he used throughout the speech, he said teachers should not be fearful of the changes he wants to complete.

“Just as a sailor should not be insulted when someone repairs a leak in his boat and replaces his oars with a motor, neither should our teachers take offense when we try to do the metaphorical equivalent for them,” Deal said.

Instead, he wants to try to soften their blow. He laid out plans to appoint a teacher advisory panel to help draft and vet education policies — and whose members also could become the public face for any controversial changes his administration proposes.

“He’s taking it slow, and we’re very happy with that,” said Sid Chapman, the head of the Georgia Association of Educators. “We want to make sure there’s a real teacher advisory committee to really study those recommendations before they start implementing them. We want to them to keep taking it slow and hear what’s really going on in the classrooms.”

Ralston, perhaps the greatest obstacle before the governor on teacher pay changes, said the appointment of the panel was a “really big deal” to him.

“What it says is that teachers have had their voices heard,” the House speaker said. “And I commend him for listening.”

Whether Deal can manage to hammer out a coalition of reluctant Republicans and skeptical Democrats to press these changes will help shape his final years in office. He made clear, though, that he remains committed to building his second term around rewriting Georgia’s education rules.

“It’s taken us four years to put all the ingredients together for the complete package of criminal justice reform,” he said. “I wouldn’t give us any less credence to the magnitude and complexity of reforming the way we fund education.”

And he’s willing to bet the rest of his time in the governor’s office on it.

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