Deal faced many highs, lows in his first six months

Gov. Nathan Deal recently sat through a luncheon in Savannah, Ga., put on by state Sen. Lester Jack­son.


He got an earful from about 30 people, mostly Jackson's constituents.

They peppered him with comments and questions about teacher pay, jobs, gambling, health care, solar power and more.

"I'd say 90 percent of them didn't vote for him," said Jackson, a Savannah Democrat. "But they were surprised by his willingness to engage them in conversation and listen to different ways of solving problems."

Others say much the same of the governor, who was sworn in six months ago.

"I expect that Governor Deal is pleased," said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. "He and the Legislature had a love affair."

Deal nearly allows as much, saying, "the General Assembly session went extremely well."

The governor, many say, still shines in comparison to what they describe as the aloofness of his predecessor, Sonny Perdue.

"All of the comments I have heard from legislators praise Deal for his openness, willingness to meet with them, to consider their ideas and to treat them as equals," Bullock said.

He apparently didn't hear from Senate Democratic Whip Vincent Fort of Atlanta, who calls Deal "a captive of the right-wing ideas of the tea party."

But, like Jackson and Gordon, many Democrats seem to echo the sentiments of House minority leader Stacy Abrams.

"Gov. Deal recognizes that politics and policy are much more complex than the party letter after your name," said Abrams, of Atlanta.

Not that dark clouds don't loom on the horizon. Ethics complaints, mostly stemming from Deal's 2010 campaign, are still pending. And if a new immigration law he signed sours Georgia's economy as some predict, many could blame him.

Pressing issues

Even before he was sworn in, Deal's campaign agenda yielded to the demands of his inbox.

He had proposed almost $1.6 billion in tax cuts and making sure third-graders read at grade level, but other priorities pressed him. Sagging revenue and the end of federal stimulus funds posed the likelihood of a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

Moreover, Perdue and the Legislature had agreed to give a tax reform panel's proposal the inside track for consideration. So much for Deal's tax-cut plans.

And the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship and prekindergarten program faced bankruptcy.

As state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, put it, "We had a champagne appetite and a beer budget."

Deal also inherited the issue of finding funds to deepen Savan­nah's port in time to float ships soon due along the East Coast. The stakes: keeping Georgia competitive in world commerce.

So Deal focused mostly on the budget and HOPE, with the port sometimes a close third.

The Legislature approved his $18.3 billion budget with minor changes. It imposed cuts in most areas, especially state universities, but mostly spared K-12 education outlays, which had been slashed deeply in recent years.

HOPE was tougher.

Taking charge

"We had 15 or so solutions being talked about and maybe headed into bill form," said Sen­ate President Pro Tem
Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. "That wasn't going to work.

"We needed one guy to take the bull by the horns, lead the discussions and help us work our way through it. That was the governor. He did a great job."

The push began with Deal's call to cut scholarship benefits for all but the top students and to slash deeply into pre-K.

Counterproposals led to major changes. One kept pre-K - which Deal initially wanted cut almost in half - a day-long program.

Some still were appalled.

"Deal basically dismantled HOPE," said Fort, who noted it's funded mostly by lower-income people who buy lottery tickets. Originally a need-based program, it's now skewed toward upper-income people, he said.

Deal puts the HOPE pact "at the top of the list" of what's he's accomplished so far.

"It was a tough situation," he said, "but I think we got positive results. ... I hope it shows I'm willing to listen to people and don't just make up my mind and think that's the last answer."

Ethics complaints

Like many politicians, Deal has learned campaign money can be a two-edged sword. Most of the ethics issues that dog him stem from the use of funds he raised last year.
One complaint questions payment of legal fees related to an ethics charge against him while he was in the U.S. House. He quit to run for governor before that matter was resolved. Another targets outlays for travel provided by a firm to which he had financial ties; the third challenges paying his daughter-in-law to raise money.

After six months on the job, Deal says he's pleased by the way the public has received him. But he hesitates when asked to assign himself a letter grade.

"It's sort of like being asked in school to grade your own paper," he said. " ... We've had a very successful several months. ... So I suppose somewhere around a B-plus.

"But B-pluses are not good enough. I want an A or A-plus."




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