ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal’s shooting down the notion before the question is fully formed, his distinct Southern gentleman’s voice taking on a tone that hints at aggravation that such a thing would even be hinted at.
“Those people who concentrate on their legacy are the kind of people who actually think they deserve one,” Deal says, leaving no doubt that he’s not among those who’d consider such a thing.
But if anybody in Georgia politics — no, in politics, period — has carved out a legacy that will long outlive his years of service, it’s Nathan Deal. The Millen native moved into the governor’s mansion in the thick of a crippling recession that not only hit Georgia hard, it left devastation nationwide.
In his eight years, Deal and the Georgia Legislature implemented policies that not only stopped the economic downturn in the state, it propelled Georgia into the lofty position of being recognized five-times-running as the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business. During his tenure, Deal has seen Georgia:
— Add more than 700,000 private-sector jobs;
— Invest more than $9 billion in K-12 education and provide full funding this year for Quality Basic Education for the first time since the state implemented it in 1985;
— Increase access to rural broadband in schools through the allocation of more than $100 million;
— Selected to host multiple sports championships and tournaments, including the SEC Championship, the Chick fil-A Bowl, the Chick fil-A Kickoff Classic, the Celebration Bowl, the NCAA Men’s Final Four, events that collectively generated more than $130 million in economic impact to the state. Oh, and Atlanta has also been selected to host the Super Bowl in 2019 with an estimated economic impact of $125 million.
— Add to the state budget $127.4 million in Child Welfare Reform initiatives;
— Enact criminal justice reform that has left the state with 8,000 less prisoners in the system;
— Create HOPE Career Grants that incentivize technical education in areas of need;
— Incentivize a film industry that had a $9.5 billion economic impact on the state last year alone;
— Expand the Port of Savannah to increase its capacity and also create “inland ports” that will centralize the shipping of Georgia commodities and goods;
— More than double the state’s “rainy day fund balance” to $2.5 billion;
— Enact a historic $5 billion tax cut.
And that’s just a microcosm. To list the state’s accomplishments under Deal would take up more space than available in this publication. So, no, Nathan Deal doesn’t need to speak of any kind of legacy. His accomplishments speak for him.
Deal, who will leave office in January as one of the state’s most successful and popular top officials, took a few minutes out of his busy day Wednesday to talk with The Albany Herald about economic development in Georgia — including the announcement Tuesday that Georgia-Pacific would build a $150 million plant in Albany — about the state’s future and about what he will do now that he’s served eight years in the governor’s mansion.
ALBANY HERALD: We got some good news here in Albany yesterday with the announcement of the Georgia-Pacific plant. You’ve been involved in a lot of those throughout Georgia. What do announcements like that mean to you?
NATHAN DEAL: That announcement was very good news for the people of southwest Georgia, but it’s great news for the entire state. We love it when we make an announcement like that outside the metro (Atlanta) area, especially one that’s going to bring 130 jobs and a $5 million payroll to an area that really needs it.
AH: Your point is well-taken. People have long talked about the “two Georgias: Atlanta and everybody else.” How important is it for you as governor to see these announcements in rural or less-populated sectors of the state?
ND: It’s always important to try and achieve economic balance across the state. Georgia is the largest state in land mass east of the Mississippi River, and it’s a geographically diverse state. The metro area gets a lot of attention, and it should. It’s very important to our state: It’s the capital city, has the world’s busiest airport and is a transportation hub throughout the South and for the rest of the nation. But the good news is that, as far as global commerce goes, just about 80 percent of the new jobs announced in the state this fiscal year are outside the metro area.
AH: Obviously, commerce never stops. But the Legislature is not in session and you only have around five months left in your term. Do you coast in, or are there more things coming?
ND: The people in the state — and the people on my staff, like (Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications) Jen (Ryan) — keep my calendar full. We have a lot more excellent prospects for economic development in the works. Companies, of course, like to keep things as quiet as possible, but we’re expecting more growth in diverse parts of the state. The Port of Savannah is one area where we expect to see lots of growth, and the entire coastal area will benefit. Another interesting thing I think we’re going to see are more what we call “inland ports” like the one in Cordele and another in extreme northern Georgia’s Murray County. The one in Cordele deals mostly with ag products, while the one in Murray County will serve a five-state region.
AH: People in office often talk of legacies. Have you thought about what you’d like your legacy to be?
ND: Those people who concentrate on their legacy are the kind of people who actually think they deserve one. But there have been some good things that have happened in Georgia over the past eight years. We’ve charted a new path for criminal justice reform. And today we swore in one of your Superior Court Judges — Stephen Goss — to a position on the Georgia Court of Appeals. He’s had a tremendous impact on the court system in the state, and I hope y’all find a real good replacement. (Victoria Darrisaw was appointed to fill Goss’ position.) We’ve done things to try and attract jobs to critical areas of the work force, and we’ve put more than $100 million into broadband in rural areas to overcome a lack of access. We have a wonderful airport in Atlanta, and we’ve put $26 million into improving smaller airports in the state. At the height of the recession, when unemployment was at 10.4 percent, we asked employers if they had jobs. They did, but they didn’t have qualified personnel to fill them. So we came up with a plan for HOPE Career Grants that paid 100 percent of the costs for individuals in specific career areas. We started with four categories — like CDL licenses was an immediate need — and we’ve expanded to 17, including our film academy. We’ve also had a rebound in construction, so we’ve made that one of the categories. We did a survey to find out what good the program was doing, and we found that 99.2 percent of participants had taken advantage of the training to get jobs.
AH: Were you surprised with the outcome of the GOP runoff? I know you endorsed Lt. Gov. (Casey) Cagle (who lost to Brian Kemp).
ND: It was a much more bitter primary than I would have hoped. And much longer, too. I registered a complaint with the Justice Department, and their reasoning for the long election process didn’t hold water. Because we’re a “runoff state,” they said we needed to give military personnel more time to cast their ballots. I asked them how many did not get counted in the last election, and they said that it “doesn’t matter” but that there were none. I hope they’ll take a look at the process because it makes it far too expensive for candidates. And, like we had this time, the Republican candidates beat up on each other for weeks in the runoff, while the other side just got to sit back and watch.
AH: Are you confident the progress Georgia has made will continue under Brian Kemp or even Stacey Abrams?
ND: I think so. Most of the reforms we put into place have to be replaced by the General Assembly. I think both candidates recognize how successful those reforms have been. Hopefully, we’re going to see a continuation of the programs in the state that have worked.
AH: Can you see a scenario in Georgia — if Medicaid expansion remains off the table — in which health care becomes affordable for more Georgians?
ND: There are several things in play here. I think the Obama administration tried to force (Medicaid expansion) on the states, and subsidies at the state level just did not appear to be the kind of thing we could afford over the long-term. What most people don’t realize is that the biggest category for Medicaid is aged, blind and disabled. That’s over half of the state’s expenditures. If you get beyond them, though, you start talking about childless adults that are not blind, aged or disabled. Providing free health care for people like that is problematic: We’re essentially incentivizing people who are able not to go to work. That’s difficult, especially for the people who do work. And one of the things we’re seeing now is that states that voted to expand Medicaid are wanting to make work requirements part of the process. That’s contradictory. Why do it in the first place if that becomes one of your end goals?
AH: No disrespect, but you came into office as something of an unknown, at least at that level. But your success has been historic. Did you take office with a plan in place?
ND: I actually think I had an advantage because I’d spent 12 years in the state Senate and 17 years in the U.S. Congress, many of them as part of the Health Subcommittee. I was not by any means a novice when I came into the position of governor, but this office does have a level of circumstances over which you have no control. We were one of the states hardest hit in the recession, and when I came into office our rainy day fund had only enough money to cover us for about two days. I’m pleased now that we have a healthy $2.5 billion fund balance.
AH: Is there anything on your to-do list that you didn’t quite get done?
ND: With the legislature no longer in session, there’s not a lot of things we can do in these next five months or so. But I was pleased to sign an executive order this week to exempt jet fuel sales taxes. That was in the tax relief package that was passed this year, but then you had that NRA issue (with Cagle) and we didn’t want to jeopardize our tax cuts so we eliminated it from the package. It’s like when we rolled back and eliminated energy taxes for manufacturers. This is the same kind of tax on our airlines. Our tax rate was higher than all but about three states — California, Michigan and Illinois … we’re higher even than New York — and those taxes were reflected in ticket prices and where flights originated and returned. I’m also proud that we initiated a tax cut for the first time in Georgia since personal income tax was instated in 1934.
AH: When Dec. 31 rolls around, do you ride off into the sunset? Does politics remain in your future?
ND: Well, I’ll be around ‘til the second Monday in January, when the new governor is sworn in, but who knows what I’ll be doing after that? Sandra and I finally got our house built in rural Habersham County, so we’ll be getting settled there. I am looking forward to the future, though.
AH: Last one. Any advice for the person who follows you in office?
ND: There’s always danger in one politician telling another what they should do. Hopefully, we’ve put things in place that we did incrementally that will be allowed to continue. I’d say you have to remember that you can’t do everything. You just have to set the right template.