Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told a former rival in a secretly recorded conversation that he engineered the passage of a bill he described as bad “a thousand different ways” because it would deprive another opponent in the race for governor of millions of dollars in support.
Cagle told Clay Tippins in the recording that he circumvented the state Senate’s top education leader and swallowed his own misgivings over the bill, which raised the cap on tax credits for private school scholarships to $100 million, purely to prevent Hunter Hill from receiving financial help from a super PAC.
“They wanted that $100 million SSO,” Cagle told Tippins in the recording, referring to the abbreviation for the tax credit program, Student Scholarship Organizations. “And, you know, I was the only guy standing in the way. Is it bad public policy? Between you and me, it is. I can tell you how it is a thousand different ways.”
Tippins, who came in fourth place in the Republican primary for governor, recorded his conversation at Cagle’s DeKalb County headquarters two days after the May 22 vote. He provided the audio, recorded by an iPhone in his coat, exclusively to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.
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Cagle, who faces a July 24 runoff against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said in a statement that he “openly and honestly” answered Tippins’ questions and that voters should have no doubt where he stands on education policy.
“Every bill of import has political implications, but my record shows that throughout my career I’ve fought to give parents and children options so they can find what’s best for their family,” he said, adding: “As governor, I’ll advocate for and sign legislation that expands education options and opportunity.”
In an interview, Tippins said he disclosed the private conversation because he wanted to provide voters a “window into Casey Cagle’s character.”
“We all complain about these things happening, and no one thinks that anything can be done about it. I just hit a point where I decided I’d do whatever it takes to bring transparency,” said Tippins, who hasn’t endorsed either candidate.
“I hope voters are furious. I was,” he said. “That’s why I did this.”
‘It ain’t about public policy’
Cagle presides over the state Senate and has vast influence over which measures reach a vote in his chamber, and he’s been preparing to run for governor for roughly a decade. The winner of next month’s runoff faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.
The conversation involved a measure, House Bill 217, that raised the cap on tax credits from $58 million to $100 million. Senate leaders, including Cagle, had previously insisted on a lower limit pushed by state Sen. Lindsey Tippins — the uncle of Clay Tippins and at the time the head of the Senate Education Committee.
The tax credits have helped thousands of children attend private schools by allowing donors to pledge money to an organization that provides scholarships and then receive a tax credit in that amount. The program is fiercely opposed by critics who say it drains money from the public school system.
The measure passed the House last year but stalled in Lindsey Tippins’ committee. Cagle even boasted in the recording that he and the senator had “beat it to a pulp” in previous years. Clay Tippins wanted to know what led Cagle to “hurt” his uncle this year by pushing the bill through despite his opposition.
“Why? You turned on him,” Tippins said. “And there are reasons for that. Why did you have to have it?”
“Exactly the reason I told Lindsey, that you need to listen to,” Cagle said. “It ain’t about public policy. It’s about (expletive) politics. There’s a group that was getting ready to put $3 million behind Hunter Hill.”
Pressed by Tippins, Cagle identified the group as the Walton Family Foundation, which backs charter school initiatives across the nation. Hill, a former state senator who finished in third in the primary, is an outspoken supporter of school choice efforts.
“Oh, no. If he got $3 million from the Walton Foundation, he’d have been money,” Tippins said. “That makes him formidable.”
Cagle quickly agreed.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah. He ran out of money in his own campaign. He had nothing to spend down the finish line,” Cagle said. “But had he had $3 million behind him, against me?”
The Walton Education Coalition, the foundation’s political arm, said it has not spent any money on the race. It declined to comment on the recording.
Lindsey Tippins resigned as chairman of the Education Committee in March, telling the AJC he didn’t “see a fruitful future if the vast majority” of Republicans disagree with him on issues such as public school funding.
The measure was assigned to another committee led by a Cagle ally, and it passed the Senate on the last day of the legislative session. Lindsey Tippins was one of only three Senate Republicans to vote against it.
Reached Thursday evening, Lindsey Tippins said he preferred to comment when the “smoke in the air cleared.”
“It sounds to me like this thing is a long way from being over,” he said.
‘I was playing defense’
Both Cagle and Kemp have sought an endorsement from Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL and business executive who had never run for office before. He earned about 12 percent of the vote with an unconventional campaign focused on combating sex trafficking and expanding medical marijuana laws.
He was a relentless critic of Cagle throughout the primary, airing an ad featuring a hapless lookalike of the lieutenant governor flailing in a swimming pool and another slamming his role in approving a tax credit that helped the redevelopment of a strip club.
Cagle has made education policy a cornerstone of his campaign since entering the race last year. He touts his College and Career Academies initiative, which allows high school students to take vocational courses. And he wrote a book on education policy called “Education Unleashed.”
As Cagle’s poll numbers before the primary plateaued around 40 percent — short of the majority vote needed to avoid a runoff — he and his supporters stepped up their attacks on Hill. They saw Hill, a military veteran who pledged to eliminate the income tax, as a bigger threat than Kemp.
Hill said Thursday evening that Cagle's actions reveal the kind of behavior that "does nothing but hurt Georgians who benefit from honest representation and good conservative policy."
"I worked hard in the state Senate to advance conservative reforms like school choice with the intention of benefiting our citizens," Hill said. "It’s sad to see those same policies being sold to benefit a career politician’s political ambitions."
In his statement Thursday, Cagle said his main problem with the measure was that it didn’t focus more directly on children in financial need.
“When a school choice bill failed in 2017, I promised advocates I’d work to get a bill passed in 2018. That’s exactly what I did. I kept my word,” he said. “The bill wasn’t perfect — and I said that to Clay — but we reached a broad agreement while no side got everything it wanted.”
In their private meeting, Cagle told Tippins that he admired his uncle, whom he called a “man of principle.” But he said he told the senator: “I’ve got to have that bill out of committee, or I’m going to have to work around you. Because this is not about policy, this is about politics.’ ”
Cagle said he tried not to circumvent Lindsey Tippins by urging him to “give me a bill that you can live with and that I can live with — and I gave him some parameters he could never get comfortable with.”
“I said, ‘Lindsey, you need to understand this bill is going to happen. It’s going to happen.’”
Clay Tippins interjected: “Because it had to, to keep the money away from Hunter?”
“Yeah, I mean, I was playing defense,” Cagle answered. “I’m being honest with you.”