Lobbyists gather at the Georgia Capitol as the first day of the 2016 session gets underway on Jan. 11, 2016. 
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Some cracks appear in GOP leadership inside Georgia’s Capitol

Georgia Republicans have been able to rattle off a long list of achievements over the past five years at the state Capitol because of a near-lockstep embrace of their top priorities by GOP leaders.

But Republicans are showing signs of fissures six years into Gov. Nathan Deal’s tenure. And the extent of the governor’s divide with House Speaker David Ralston over key policies could sway some of the most divisive debates in the Legislature this year and for the rest of Deal’s term.

The speaker has taken up a call to expand Georgia’s medical marijuana program, despite Deal’s public misgivings. Ralston and Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, have called on Deal’s administration to reverse a controversial rule dealing with craft beer, and Ralston became the highest-profile critic of Deal’s ambitions to tie teacher pay to the performance of their students.

All three say they remain close and downplay any disagreements. And the friction pales in comparison with the vitriol between Deal’s and Ralston’s predecessors, Gov. Sonny Perdue and House Speaker Glenn Richardson, or the vicious infighting in the 1980s between Democrats Tom Murphy, who led the House for decades, and then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller.

“I don’t agree with anybody all the time, and I respect this governor. I support him,” Ralston said. “And we will have conversations where we may not agree all the time. But we’ll continue to work for it in a civil and respectful way.”

Shafer said it’s only natural that even the closest of allies disagree.

“The people who elect us expect us to disagree from time to time,” he said. “They want ideas fully considered.”

But the policy divides bring a new dynamic into play at a pivotal time for leaders under the Gold Dome.

Deal is pressing a scaled-down agenda this year to hoard his firepower to pursue more ambitious changes to the state’s education system in his final years in office.

Ralston is trying to shepherd his chamber’s 118 Republican members through a tangle of competing demands from the business community and other “establishment” forces on one side, and restless insurgents ready to threaten incumbents — Ralston included — with challenges on the other.

Shafer, who many expect to run for lieutenant governor in 2018, faces many of the same challenges in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is likely to launch a bid for governor next year and several other top lawmakers want to move up the political ladder.

Teacher angst

Perhaps the widest divide between Ralston and Deal revolves around the governor’s desire to push for “merit pay,” which would tie teachers’ pay to their performance in the classroom.

The governor’s revelation in December that he would push for a “significant” step toward those changes this year ignited teacher groups that have long opposed the policy and brought a sharp rebuke from Ralston.

“I support his efforts to move education forward in Georgia, and when you say merit-based pay or pay for performance, it sounds very good,” Ralston told teachers during a meeting in Gilmer County. “But I am going to have to become a lot more convinced than I am to support including that piece.”

Deal wants to restructure educators’ pay and give star teachers more incentive to stay in the classroom rather than move into better-paying administrative jobs. Teachers are currently paid in large part based on longevity and advanced degrees. Ralston’s concerns were likely among the reasons that Deal, in his annual State of the State address, delayed broad changes to education policy.

“It is important that we get this right,” Deal said. “It is also important that in the meantime, the debate be conducted in good faith and that your recommendations be based on facts and not rhetoric.”

The governor plans to appoint a teacher advisory panel to help draft and vet education policies — a move Ralston called a “really big deal” to allow teachers’ voices to be heard. But the debate isn’t going away, and a Ralston spokesman said his position remains unchanged.

Teacher groups, meanwhile, have made Ralston’s stand easier politically, savaging the governor over the idea and publicly praising the speaker.

A marijuana schism

The debate over medical marijuana expansion won’t touch as many lives, but it will likely be explosive.

Deal has raised repeated objections to the push this year by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, to expand the list of diseases and disorders that could be treated by the drug and also allow the cultivation of medical marijuana in Georgia. The governor cites concerns from law enforcement officials and what he sees as a lack of enthusiasm from the medical community.

“Look at the very small number of doctors who have signed up on our registry to say that we would even approve the use of what we have already authorized,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If the medical community has not embraced it more thoroughly, I don’t know how the expansion of maladies that are covered would help.”

Despite the governor’s warnings, Peake’s bill has gained more than 100 co-sponsors in the House, more than enough needed for passage in that chamber. House Bill 722 also has Ralston’s unabashed support.

He and other supporters say it’s needed to protect patients who must still travel to other states to get the drug after lawmakers approved landmark legislation last year allowing Georgians to use a limited form of cannabis oil to treat some illnesses.

“We’re going to move forward on that bill in the House,” Ralston said. “And I feel like we will be able to engage with the governor’s office and the Senate.”

Beer rules reveal division

Lawmakers and the governor last year agreed to change state law to allow small craft brewers to offer customers free beer if they paid for a tour of the brewery. Everyone appeared satisified: Brewers were given the chance to expand their customer base, and distributors maintained their status as the middlemen between brewers and consumers.

But months after the governor’s Department of Revenue issued rules to regulate the practice, the agency suddenly reversed course in September and placed new limits on how brewers can sell the tours.

Brewers and their supporters howled. The AJC reported that distributors had met and spoken with Revenue Department officials before and after the September rule change. Ralston told the newspaper in December that the Department of Revenue overstepped its bounds and needed to revisit the rule change. Shafer, in a letter to Revenue Commissioner Lynne Riley, said much the same thing.

Thus far, however, the agency has refused to budge, although all sides are negotiating a deal.

Veterans of Capitol politics have noticed the disagreements but don’t believe they will escalate.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who has served in the House more than four decades, has seen his share of feuds. He doesn’t want to call this one a full-fledged rift between the politicians, but he does see something else at play.

“I think that the governor has sort of passed the baton to the Legislature to do some of these issues,” he said, including the fight over “religious liberty” and other hot-button debates.

Chuck Clay, a former state lawmaker and state Republican Party chairman who is now a lobbyist at the Capitol, said current leadership might show signs of disagreement, but that it was bound to happen eventually.

With the effects of the Great Recession behind them, “lawmakers are wanting to spread their wings a little bit and bring a personal touch and personal priorities,” Clay said.

That will only continue as Deal’s time in office nears its end.

“There’s no question, and the governor will tell you this, certainly by the end of next year you’ll see more independence” from legislators, Clay said. “You won’t see out-and-out conflict, but more independence.”

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