ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal is quietly celebrating a second successful year at the Legislature, with victories on tax and criminal justice reform.
While it helps that Deal, now halfway through a four-year term, heads a state government with a GOP-led General Assembly, observers paint a picture of a leader who prefers to work behind the scenes to get things done – and who isn’t concerned with getting the credit for his accomplishments.
“The governor’s extremely pleased with the way this session went,” said Chris Riley, his chief of staff, who has worked with Deal for two decades. “The Legislature passed an agenda that is pro-jobs, pro-family, and you’ll start hearing him talk about it coming up. But it’s not his style to take credit for that. That’s not very Deal-esque.”
Deal laid out his agenda early in the session.
On Day Two of the Legislature, he told lawmakers and business leaders gathered at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues Breakfast of his plans to focus on making the state more economically competitive. That included a call for a package of attractive tax incentives, including the elimination of the sales tax on energy for manufacturers. And the former judge also reiterated his commitment to overhaul the criminal justice system through sentencing reforms and alternative strategies for handling offenders with drug and mental health issues.
Lawmakers spent much of the session hashing out legislation to meet those goals. Deal was at the table for many of those conversations, and those present said he participated as a leader and a listener.
“He lets the process take its course, but he’s not disengaged,” said Georgia Budget and Policy Institute Executive Director Alan Essig. “That way, whatever he has gets listened to and acted upon. He may not be as publicly out there as some past governors were, but he seemed to have accomplished most of what he laid out.”
“A lot of governors have a tendency to use a stronger hand, whereas Gov. Deal is an individual who doesn’t lose sight of the greater good,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who has served in the Senate since 1994. “That sets him up to be a far better negotiator. Many times, you’ve had governors that basically drafted a bill and said, ‘This is my top priority,’ and did not allow the bill to be amended.”
House Speaker David Ralston described Deal as respectful, receptive and deliberate in his weekly meetings with legislative leadership.
“He doesn’t try to dominate by force or personality. He more tries to win you over by the merit of his idea. But he’s also willing to listen to those that maybe have better ideas,” Ralston said.
Deal didn’t get everything on his wish list. For example, a proposed jobs tax credit for existing and prospective Georgia companies failed to advance.
But his willingness to abandon proposals that were not viable has helped him build a reputation as someone who is flexible and open-minded, said Essig.
“It’s only been two sessions, but he’s getting a track record of adjusting his policy proposals to account for new information based on the conversations he’s had,” Essig said. “It shows that advocating to the governor can have an impact on a case-by-case basis. The word around the Capitol is that he’s someone whose door is always open.”
Not everyone has felt welcome or heard, but they also have seen Deal’s influence.
“He’s more engaged than Perdue was,” said Senate Democratic Whip Vincent Fort, referring to former Gov. Sonny Perdue, Deal’s predecessor. “Perdue was less hands-on, except for a few things. He let the Legislature function.”
With Deal, Fort said, “The core and fundamental issues, he wasn’t willing to budge on.”
By Day 40, lawmakers had worked out plans on both issues that passed the House and Senate with overwhelming, bi-partisan support.
“He never got out in front, but he was far enough out front to lead us,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. “He’s just got the skills to get it done and make everybody feel like they were a part.”