By Louis Mayeux –
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal begins his second term next year with the opportunity to take bold action to complete his historical legacy.
Deal, 72, won 53 percent of the vote last week to gain re-election in his final campaign. Not having to run again gives him “free rein” to offer far-reaching legislation, said Kerwin Swint, chair of Kennesaw State University’s Department of Political Science and International Affairs.
“He still wants to do some things on jobs and transportation,” said Swint, a former Republican consultant. He expects Deal to offer “a fairly ambitious agenda for his second term,” with fully restoring Georgia’s economy a major priority. A key question, though, is whether Deal with his “lame-duck status” can generate legislative support for controversial proposals.
With that in mind, Deal likely will target his plans. “He’d like do do some things, but there’s only going to be support for so many initiatives. He’ll focus on a couple of new things and not try to do too much.”
With metro Atlanta’s traffic gridlock the top concern of residents polled in an Atlanta Regional Commission survey released Friday, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, freeing the roads gains force as a defining issue for Deal and the Legislature.
The 16-member Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding for Georgia is required to release its recommendations by Nov. 30. With Georgia facing a $74 billion gap in transportation funding through 2035 from the state’s 4 percent gasoline sales tax, the panel has held hearings throughout the state on new revenue sources.
Raising the gasoline tax is one possibility, but Deal in August said that proposing a tax increase would be “premature” and questioned Legislature support for such a proposal. A fourth of the fuel tax, $180 million a year, goes into the state’s regular budget, and the committee is also considering recommending shifting those funds to transportation. But with education already underfunded in the budget, taking away budget money also will draw opposition.
The committee could also offer a regional transportation plan to replace the transportation tax program rejected by metro Atlanta voters in 2012. Possibilities include a 1 percent state sales tax dedicated to transportation or allowing several countries to share transportation funding.
That plan likely would have little popularity beyond DeKalb and Fulton counties, where support for the transportation tax, or TSPLOST, was strongest. Clayton County, which last week approved a referendum to join MARTA by increasing its sales tax to 8 percent, likely would reject any additional levy. Cobb County on election day narrowly approved renewal of its local tax for roads and other infrastructure and also would lack much appetite for paying more.
MARTA officials see the Clayton approval as a spearhead for increased metro area and legislative support. Transportation planning remains weighted toward roads, but acceptance of mass transit appears rising. Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee recently floated the possibility of including a bond referendum for rapid bus transit on the county’s 2016 general election ballot.
Eduction will be another major concern for Deal and the Legislature. During the campaign, Deal said he’d propose setting up an education reform panel to study issues such as changing the underfunded Quality Basic Education formula and initiating a state charter school district similar to Louisiana’s under Gov. Bobby Jindal.
With Republican Richard Woods winning the school superintendent’s race, ending the state’s Common Core program is another possibility, along with testing changes.
The legislative session will play out with outlines of the 2018 governor’s race starting to form. With Deal leaving, a deep lineup of GOP office holders will be laying campaign groundwork. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle now appears the leading candidate, with ads during his successful re-election campaign touting his education initiatives.
On the Democratic side, Jason Carter after mounting a spirited campaign against Deal might decide to run again. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s lukewarm support for Carter might erode his Democratic backing, but he looks like a formidable candidate. State Rep. Stacey Abrams gained recognition with her voter-registration efforts and battles with Secretary of State Brian Kemp over the issue.
Before that, 2016 will arrive quickly in our perpetual political climate. Georgia’s Republican senior Sen. Johnny Isakson is building his re-election war chest and will be strongly favored against any Democrat. But the presidential election will raise excitement among those theoretical new Democratic voters always on the verge of changing Georgia – someday.