Georgia governor starts to focus on jobs

Nathan Deal to try his hand at business incentives

AP
In this April 14, 2011 photo, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, congratulates members of the House on the final day of the legislative session, in Atlanta. With his first legislative session behind him, Deal prepares to hit the 100-day milestone as Georgia's new governor.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011 8:39 AM
Last updated 8:46 AM
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ATLANTA -- Gov. Nathan Deal has launched his own effort at making the state more conducive for employers to create jobs.

Last week he held the first meeting of his Georgia Competitiveness Initiative at the Governor's Mansion, just weeks after the Legislature's attempt fizzled.

Legislative leaders had created their own citizen council that met for months before delivering recommendations for sweeping tax reform. Too sweeping, apparently, because those same legislative leaders decided not to bring the recommendations to a vote for lack of support. Even after picking and choosing the recommendations they liked, the leaders still couldn't get a bill they were comfortable with.

When the legislature minted its council, Deal was just one of many gubernatorial candidates last year -- and not even the front runner. He ran on his own, general platform for job stimulation and had no real attachment to the legislature's plan.

So, now he's doubled the number of members to 23 and chairmen, two, and broadened the panel's scope beyond just tax law to all of state policy as it affects businesses.

"The growth and stability of our job base must come from private businesses," he said. "This initiative will create an environment that helps Georgia businesses thrive, expand and attract new companies."

The overriding question is whether Deal's commission will amount to anything.

The list of commissions with stillborn recommendations is so long that it's become a truism that politicians who want to appear active while doing nothing appoint commissions. The tax-reform commission is just the most recent misfire.

Legislative leaders thought they had a good strategy by appointing university economists to one-fourth of the tax-reform council's membership. Other members were also not the usual political appointees. The outcome was a proposal that had no political support.

Deal took the more common route by picking people like Charles Tarbutton of the Sandersville Railroad who already serves on the board of the Department of Economic Development. Allen Rice of Savannah Luggage Works is already on the State Board of Education. Craig Lesser is a former commissioner of economic development, and Steve Green of Savannah sits on the board of the Georgia Ports Authority.

One member, Atlanta Gas Light President Suzanne Sitherwood, even served on the tax-reform council while she was chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

The president of the chamber, Chris Clark is the panel's co-chairman along with Chris Cummiskey, current commissioner of economic development.

Cummiskey said the Deal commission may draw on the research compiled by the tax-reform council but won't duplicate its work. Instead, the main focus of the new panel will be looking at what are called "incentives," tax breaks, low-interest loans, grants and other freebies that governments use to convince companies to build in one location versus another.

He compared the Deal mission to what then-Gov. Zell Miller did with a commission in 1994 that resulted in the Business Expansion and Support Act and its BEST goodie bag.

"We get companies that come into our board room and ... they put down a number, and that's what another state offers," Cummiskey said. "It's a driving force when we get to that deciding point."

The recent recession, like the one Miller faced, made states hungry enough for jobs to enhance their incentive packages. Georgia could be left in the dust by not sweetening its own.

"We would be wrong to not at least look around at the other states," Cummiskey said.

Deal's bunch won't just be devising novel giveaways, it will also examine work force development, infrastructure and government red tape.

A series of meetings around the state, starting in June, will seek public input and the unique challenges of each region.

Non-voting members like State School Superintendent John Barge and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler other officials could translate the ideas straight into policy for executive agencies that don't answer to the governor.
The final recommendations, though, go to Deal this fall who'll decide what to do with them. Some he could enact with executive orders, some through legislative proposals and some simply ignored.

Cummiskey is certain most won't fall on fallow soil although he isn't certain if Deal will borrow a page from Sonny Perdue.

When Perdue was governor, his Commission for a New Georgia had a long-term appointment and a dedicated staff to oversee enactment of recommendations. That commission wound up getting dozens of recommendations in place.

As governor, Roy Barnes created a commission to look at education reform. To ensure its relevance, he chaired it himself. The result was a bill that altered the state's education law and set in motion many accountability mechanisms replicated in federal initiatives.

In the end, the impact of any commission depends on the governor's leadership. Miller, Barnes and Perdue were responsible for making their commissions successful. The answer to whether Deal's commission amounts to anything largely depends on Deal.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.


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