Some of the Legislature’s work could put Deal on defensive

The legislative session delivered Gov. Nathan Deal some of the red meat he hoped would sustain him on the campaign trail. But he also got a side of indigestion as he’s forced to take stands on contentious proposals that passed and grapple with fallout from those that didn’t.

An anti-Obamacare measure raises vexing legal questions that spurred Deal to intervene. A sweeping firearms overhaul that he's widely expected to sign earned national attention from critics who call it the "guns everywhere" bill. And he must decide whether to approve tax breaks from lawmakers who skirted his efforts to rein in costly election-year giveaways.

Even Deal's top priority, a $20.8 billion spending plan that boosts k-12 funding, poses a challenge. Tea party groups and a political rival are pressing him to cut a surprise addition he supported for a parking deck near where the new Falcons stadium will be built.

The bills that don’t reach his desk could also haunt him as he hurtles toward a competitive May 20 primary and a well-financed Democratic opponent in November. Even some fellow Republicans mused that the failure to pass efforts to legalize medical marijuana, overhaul the foster care system and require autism coverage for children could hurt the GOP with women and independent voters.

“We passed the gun bill, but unfortunately we didn’t do the children’s bills and that’s just too bad,” said state Sen. Frank Millar, a Dunwoody Republican who blamed House leaders for the failures. “These items are very emotional, and I don’t think it helps if you haven’t put forth a positive approach.”

For Deal, whose aides worked behind the scenes to influence some of the most contentious legislation, the bill-signing period also presents an opportunity. His camp is hopeful that the anti-Obamacare legislation wins over more die-hard conservatives who may question his ideological purity.

Deal has also already made the spending plan, which includes more than $300 million in additional funding for k-12 education, a staple of his campaign stump speech. He told lawmakers Thursday that the windfall is leading local school boards to cut furlough days and boost pay for educators.

“We should be particularly proud that it included the largest sum for k-12 education that we have had in the last seven years, since the downturn of the economy,” he said. “And that is money that will be well spent.”

Over the next 40 days, Deal and his aides will vet dozens of pieces of legislation cobbled together by legislators, lawyers and lobbyists. They will test his political acumen — and his legal counsel’s wherewithal — as he faces the most scrutinized bill-signing period during his term as governor. Anything he doesn’t sign or veto in that window automatically becomes law.

His critics and political rivals are watching every stroke of his pen. He faces primary challenges from former Dalton Mayor David Pennington and state School Superintendent John Barge, who are hammering at him from either side of the GOP spectrum. State Sen. Jason Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, awaits the victor in the general election.

“The infighting that resulted in a lot of that inaction can only be resolved by a governor that’s willing to lead,” Carter said shortly after the gavel banged the session to an end Thursday night. “At the end of the day, on the major issues facing the state, it was pretty visionless. And I think that starts from the top.”

Deal rejected that notion and told lawmakers they should be proud of their work this session. He praised them for adopting a budget that he said would spur more job growth and boost education initiatives while avoiding tax increases.

Like most governors before him, Deal tried to blunt some of the most controversial legislation long before it reached his desk. In one telling example, soon after the governor said in an interview Thursday that he opposed a bid to legalize the carrying of guns on college campuses, House proponents abandoned that push.

His staff also removed language from an anti-Obamacare bill that Deal feared could have blocked the state from receiving Medicaid funding, which he said would have been"disastrous." Still, critics say the rest of the bill is unconstitutional, including a ban on state and local officials from helping consumers sign up for insurance offered under the Affordable Care Act.

The more than $250 million in tax breaks approved by lawmakers this year poses a different problem. Deal tapped a panel of business executives and lobbyists last year to vet tax proposals, and the group set two priorities: restoring a sales tax exemption for food banks and extending a sales tax break on construction materials for massive projects.

Both measures were tacked to a bill that also includes several other breaks not approved by the panel, including a campaign-friendly sales tax holiday for back-to-school crowds that Deal supports and a $25 million tax break for the video game industry. Another bill that would make permanent a multimillion-dollar tax break for jetmaker Gulfstream also awaits his signature.

Deal, who vetoed the food bank credit last year on grounds that it wasn’t vetted by the panel, now must weigh a new round of tax proposals that also haven’t been endorsed by the group.

The parking deck also presents him with a headache. Tucked into the budget is $17 million in bonds to expand a parking deck near the site of the new Falcons stadium. Deal indicated he was unlikely to cut it from the budget, calling it a "justified" proposal because it could support other downtown attractions.

His critics, though, view it as a lucrative giveaway to the NFL franchise’s billionaire owner, Arthur Blank, and are sure to remind him about it on the campaign trail. Pennington, who hopes to ride a wave of tea party support to an upset victory, is already haranguing the governor over the issue.

“This isn’t about the Dirty Birds,” Pennington said, invoking the nickname for the NFL team. “This is about a dirty deal for the taxpayers.”