Gov. Nathan Deal greets lawmakers Wednesday before delivering his State of the State address. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A scaled-back Deal agenda focuses on Georgia’s failing schools

Stressing he will “accentuate the positive” in his final years in office, Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday called for a new effort to help persistently struggling schools and urged lawmakers to take a wait-and-see approach before making vast changes to health care law.

It was a toned-down State of the State address for Deal, tempering expectations for what he wants to accomplish this year. Typically a platform for governors to lay out sweeping ideas, Deal was short on specifics even on some of his top policy priorities.

He wants to give the state new powers to intervene in failing schools, but he didn’t outline to lawmakers how it should work. He made no mention of his campaign vow to overhaul the state’s 31-year-old school funding formula, a bruising fight he is now likely to postpone another year.

And he steered clear of the social legislation that dominated last year’s session, sending yet another signal that he has little appetite for the divisive debate over “religious liberty” legislation that he vetoed last year.

“The budget and the legislation I bring to you will continue to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” he said in his address, which quoted Johnny Mercer’s upbeat song throughout.

For Deal, that means marshaling much of his political clout behind a new failing schools plan, while effectively sidelining another bitter debate over the inner workings of how classrooms across the state are funded.

Even though voters resoundingly defeated his proposed constitutional amendment to create an Opportunity School District that would have given the state power to take over failing schools, Deal is confident there’s enough support in the Legislature for a plan that would allow more students to transfer from struggling schools. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle have already endorsed the idea in broad terms.

And by putting few sweeping agenda items on the table — and fewer specifics — his rivals may have less room to threaten his most cherished programs. Other Deal priorities, such as a $50 million state-owned cybersecurity center in Augusta, already have broad support from legislative leaders.

But the scaled-back agenda also poses danger for the governor, who is already wary of being depicted as a “lame duck” with diminishing power to push priorities through the Legislature. The race to succeed him is already taking shape, and his controversial vetoes last year may have emboldened some of his sharpest GOP critics.

A new schools test

This legislative session will be a new sort of test for the governor. He has succeeded in virtually every major policy proposal he’s pushed since his 2010 election, from tighter rules on HOPE scholarship awards to a broad rewrite of criminal justice laws that has kept more nonviolent offenders out of prison.

But the winning streak didn’t extend to the ballot box in 2016, when Georgia voters resoundingly defeated his Opportunity School District.

Reviving a form of that measure — this time through legislation that doesn’t need a referendum — risks stirring a hornet’s nest of opposition from lawmakers of both parties, including many who represent districts that defeated his last plan.

“The people told Governor Deal, the people told us, the people told you: We don’t want the state taking over our schools,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, who didn’t attend Deal’s speech. “Now here we are again and the will of the people is flouted.”

The governor said he wants the new measure to focus on elementary schools — about 70 percent of the 153 Georgia schools on the state’s “failing” list are k-5 — but he offered little more about what the measure should entail. Instead, he made a broader appeal for support.

“It should be abundantly clear to everyone, including those in the education community who so staunchly support the status quo, that this is unacceptable,” he said. “If this pattern of escalation in the number of failing schools does not change, its devastating effects on our state will grow with each passing school year.”

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, the Dawsonville Republican drafting one of the education measures, said it would create a five- to six-year process to help improve failing schools and give the state Board of Education new powers to allow students to transfer.

“We’re trying to attempt to build a level of consensus. Everyone believes there’s a problem. Everyone believes there are failing schools,” Tanner said. “We need to do something, but we’re working on what it should be.”

No ‘giant leaps’

With the Affordable Care Act in the cross hairs, Deal also told lawmakers to hold off on “giant leaps” in health care policy until the incoming Trump administration acts. That seemed a pointed message at some GOP leaders who are taking steps already to brace for a new health care landscape.

Cagle has formed a “repeal and replace” task force to start exploring state health care changes. Ralston said he wants to work this year on a solution “designed for Georgians, by Georgians.” And state Rep. Geoff Duncan said he hopes Georgia takes a more proactive approach rather than waiting for Congress to act.

“The entrepreneur in me wants to continue to innovate and bring good ideas forward,” said Duncan, a likely GOP candidate for higher office next year. “We have a great opportunity to develop ideas that we can offer up to the Trump administration to help and craft what the national health care plan will look like.”

The governor also called for the swift passage of an extension of a hospital fee to leverage more federal Medicaid dollars, a vote that could put some anti-tax conservatives in a tough spot. Not doing so would leave a $900 million hole in the budget, he said, casting its passage as a must.

“If we fail to act, we will not be eliminating the negative,” he said. “We will be inviting it.”

The note of caution was welcomed by some health care leaders, who said a delayed response is essential as Trump hones his policy.

“The most important thing we can do is maintain a certain level of stability for hospitals as they work to ensure access to the best possible care,” said Monty Veazey of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals. “Swift renewal of the provider fee and a cautious approach to heath care policy are exactly what is needed at this time.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were miffed that Deal didn’t address the plight of struggling rural hospitals. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said Georgia missed another chance to expand the Medicaid program, which Deal and other Republicans have long said is too costly.

“We are continuing to punt on what we’re going to do about health care in rural communities and the uninsured,” she said.

She was more optimistic, though, that some of the fights over Georgia’s most divisive social debates were in the rear-view mirror. Deal made no reference to the “religious liberty” and campus gun measures he vetoed last year, and he reinforced that it was no accident in remarks to reporters after his speech.

“I talked about my agenda today and my vision for the future,” he said. “And I think that’s where we should all focus.”

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Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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