ATLANTA — The opening quarter of Gov. Nathan Deal’s term of office has been spent trying to stay on top of the major issues he inherited.
His first year in the governor’s office included grappling with a cash-starved budget, congested transportation networks, federal health reform and a large influx of illegal immigrants. Even his first day on the job featured a blizzard that virtually shut down the state’s largest metro area.
Observers give mixed reviews on how he has handled his job so far.
On one hand, they credit him with repairing the rifts that plagued his immediate predecessor and fellow Republican. .
“His biggest success is in continuing not to be Sonny Perdue,” said veteran lobbyist Neill Herring, of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
Where Perdue gained a reputation for determined leadership that sometimes rankled others, Deal showed that his style allowed for more input from legislators of both parties and special-interest groups. Even Democratic lawmakers said they have spent more time in the governor’s office under Deal’s GOP administration than all of Perdue’s eight years or preceding Democratic administrations.
“Gov. Deal’s greatest success in his first year was the establishment of a good working relationship with the General Assembly,” said Charles Bullock, a history professor at the University of Georgia. “The goodwill he has earned with legislators has earned him a degree of trust and will secure some additional support for his initiatives when the going gets tough in the future.”
That goodwill became evident when he announced his spending recommendations for the fiscal year that was to start last July. Even though the tax collections continued to suffer from the lingering effects of the recession, his proposal sparked no protests or public howls from any advocacy groups because the cuts were evenly distributed without any tax increases.
A second controversy was minimized in his approach to curbing deficit spending on the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship and pre-kindergarten program. His willingness to negotiate with leaders from both parties resulted in the House minority leader’s joining him at the announcement to endorse his revisions. Then, when preschool supporters raised new concerns, he modified his plan to suit them.
That program is dear to Democrats, but he used the same approach on issues close to conservative Republicans, such as health reform, tax reform and transportation taxes. In all three, he made tactical changes after hearing static.
In the case of health reform, he halted a bill that would have created a commission to implement some provisions of the federal law, which conservatives oppose.
“It was legislation he had originally supported as per the information he was given, but he stopped and pulled the legislation when we the citizens voiced strong objection,” said Julianne Thompson, the state director of Tea Party Patriots and the governor’s appointee to the Health Care Insurance Exchange Advisory Committee. “He formed an advisory committee with the task of finding a solution based on free-market principles and gave us freedom to work without interference.”
Another instance of collaboration resulted in a package of legislation recommended this fall by a task force that Deal appointed to look at alternatives to incarceration for addicts and the mentally ill who break the law. Though it will be considered by the General Assembly next month, it has already won accolades from conservatives and liberals.
“Gov. Deal also showed leadership in supporting the bipartisan effort to reform Georgia’s criminal-justice system,” said Kelly McCutcheon, the president of the conservative think tank Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “These commonsense proposals are designed to make Georgians safer and save taxpayer dollars,.”
One of his most notable bipartisan initiatives has yet to bear fruit. He and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, are jointly lobbying Washington for federal funding for the $600 million deepening of the ship channel in the Savannah River.
“The governor used his personal influence with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former colleague in Congress, to get him to come down here to Savannah, where he got a statement about the national significance of expanding the port there,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. “That was the first time anyone in the Obama administration weighed in on that publicly.”
Deal also persuaded his GOP counterpart in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, for reconsideration of Georgia’s proposal before the state board that grants environmental permits needed for the deepening. The reconsideration yielded a permit that is being challenged in court, and the federal funding has yet to be approved.
Also still lingering are allegations of ethical lapses. Many were related to his personal finances that were damaged by the failure of his daughter’s store.
He took over the store property and sold it and restructured his debt, but some questions remain. By midyear, the staff of the State Ethics Commission was preparing subpoenas for his financial documents when the commission laid off the chief lawyer and cut the pay of the chief of staff, prompting her to quit while alleging the cuts were aimed at protecting Deal.
Commission members denied her allegations, saying that the Legislature had cut the appropriations before she drafted the subpoenas.
Such ethical concerns were one reason the Georgia Christian Coalition didn’t endorse him, according to its president, Jerry Luquire.
“Mr. Deal’s anti-family stands in supporting Sunday alcohol sales, and marble-mouthed answers on his stand about expanded gambling, plus refusal to explain charges by his opponent about absence of personal integrity, does not provide the leadership major employers are seeking when they consider a state for expansion and the voters the confidence that they, and not the lobbyists, are getting from the government they are paying for,” Luquire said.
Despite the Christian Coalition’s efforts, Deal’s signing into law of the Sunday alcohol-sales bill led to more than 100 communities voting on whether to allow package sales on Sunday afternoons. It enjoyed support from most Georgians even if some conservative religious groups opposed it.
Another bill he signed into law drew opposition from liberal groups. It imposed new state mechanisms for enforcing federal immigration law.
Although some provisions aren’t being implemented pending a court challenge, critics said it so threatened immigrants that they fled the state in droves, leaving farmers, restaurants and food processors hurting for unskilled laborers.
“Disregarding the warnings about legal-challenge costs, damage to Georgia’s reputation, the economic losses and the divisiveness created among Georgians, will be an unfortunate blot on Deal’s legacy,” said Larry Pellegrini, the executive director of the pro-immigrant Georgia Rural Urban Summit. “It shows how he was not very farsighted from either a practical or political perspective.”
On the other hand, the immigration bill Deal signed was hugely popular with the public, especially in suburban Atlanta.
Water also divided public opinion by geography. Metro Atlanta’s need for new sources led Deal to commit $300 million over four years to building reservoirs.
His administration’s Natural Resources Board voted to approve regulations on interbasin transfers of water designed to ensure Atlanta won’t go dry even though downstream communities such as Augusta, Savannah and Rome objected to them.
“Deal should have taken a stand on IBTs and strengthened the language in the rule to protect downstream neighbors from water grabs,” said April Ingle, the executive director of the environmental advocacy Georgia River Network.
She also criticized him for lax enforcement of polluters that resulted in three major fish kills, including the state’s largest in the Ogeechee River. The $1 million fine imposed in the Ogeechee case drew ire from environmentalists who said it should have been higher.