Recent legislation benefitting Georgia Health Sciences University could indicate strong backing from the state’s top leader.
Some elected officials representing Augusta agree that the city, especially GHSU, is faring much better under Gov. Nathan Deal than it did under his predecessor in office, Sonny Perdue. Legislation such as the $28 million bond funding in the 2013 fiscal budget, which the governor touted on a visit to GHSU on Tuesday, are signs of new support for the school, they said. “Without a doubt, Gov. Deal sees the state of Georgia as a whole. His predecessor looked only at the city of Perry, and that’s all he cared about,” Augusta’s Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said about initiatives and funding targeting GHSU.
Augusta officials criticized Perdue when the state, with his blessing, opened a satellite-medical campus at the University of Georgia in Athens, a decision many said created a second institution to compete for funding.
“Now we have a governor that doesn’t hold animosity to Augusta,” Bowles said.
A spokesman for Perdue said the former governor did not want to comment for the story, adding that it’s unfair to measure the two Republican governors’ support against one another.
Perdue was also criticized for a shortage of state board appointments representing Augusta. The Board of Regents, which governs higher education, still doesn’t have an Augusta member.
Earlier this month, a Deal staff member was appointed to a position at GHSU. Michael Shaffer, an Augusta native and deputy chief of staff for the governor, will become the vice president of government relations/chief advocacy officer for GHSU in May.
A statement from Deal said Shaffer would help GHSU President Ricardo Azziz work toward the state’s goal of moving GHSU into the top 50 academic health centers in the nation.
Azziz, pointing to funding for the Medical Education Commons Building, said the institution is receiving increased state support, matched by community support.
“We are being recognized by the state and the state representatives, executive branch for what we are,” Azziz said. “Eventually, we’ll be the state’s fourth, large research university. These are things they are beginning to recognize. We’re telling our story, they’re listening, and I think that’s a positive thing.”
Deal said he’s had a close connection to Augusta since growing up in nearby Washington County. His father received medical treatment in Augusta, and his first son was born at the old military hospital during a tour of duty at Fort Gordon.
“This institution represents a great capital investment for the citizens of our state,” Deal said. “Our goal is to make it one of the top 50 in the nation. It takes some extra effort to be able to achieve that goal. It takes some extra funding.”
Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta, who strongly opposed Perdue’s support of the Athens medical school branch, said Deal is building on existing investment at GHSU. She attributes recent funding and initiatives toward Augusta to the governor, Azziz’s leadership and enhanced community support.
“His commitment was to make MCG the premier and only medical school in Georgia,” Sims said.
Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, said that the number of visits Deal has made to Augusta show that he intends to build a closer relationship with Augusta than his predecessor.
Since being sworn into office, Deal has visited Augusta 21 times, and three of those visits were to GHSU, said the governor’s spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield.
Howard likened Deal’s backing of Georgia Health Sciences University to that of former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who helped bring funding for a cancer research center to Medical College of Georgia, Howard said.
“Barnes saw the value in it,” Howard said. “It fell through the cracks during the Perdue administration, and Gov. Deal has picked it up where it left off eight years ago,” he said.