This week’s Courier Herald column:
Last week Governor Nathan Deal issued his State of the State address, the annual speech to Georgia’s legislature spelling out his priorities for the upcoming legislative session and beyond. It stands in contrast to the President’s usual State of the Union address in that the Governor, unlike a President, must eventually sign a balanced budget. As such, platitudes must be tempered by realism if there is any hope of his goals will become law.
Striking in the Governor’s speech was a tone of optimism. Georgia has been through some tough times recently, which are readily acknowledged with respect to many of the fiscal issues. Adding funds to education – over one billion dollars in the last two years if the Governor’s proposed budget is accepted – led the list of items that a stable and growing economy will allow. Additional caseworkers for the Department of Family and Children Services are being added. Transportation remains a clear need, with funding options remaining open to debate.
The optimism was paired with a sense of pragmatic realism. While the increase in the budget for education was highlighted, it was also tempered with the blunt assessment that Georgia needs changes in order to ensure that the money being spent is actually educating students to the maximum of their abilities.
Our high school dropout rate remains too high, and almost a quarter of Georgia’s schools are rated “D” or “F”. We don’t ensure alignment with K-12 curriculum (or that of higher education) to skills needed for employment or what the student will next undertake. As such, the Governor has asked Georgians to amend the state’s constitution to allow for intervention in chronically failing schools. There will also be significant effort placed on the area of workforce development – ensuring that each student in a public education institution is on a pathway to earning skills needed for employment at an appropriate level.
On transportation, the needs were highlighted but the solution remains in the hands of the legislature. Consider this a balance between leading from the top and the tacit understanding that the Governor will never again have to face a partisan primary to explain a potential tax increase – unlike the legislators to whom the address was delivered.
Governor Deal also challenged Georgia to understand that the needs of the future may not be served by the outdated policies of the past. Direct references to parachute pants and Commodore 64 computers highlighted the era when Georgia’s K-12 funding formula was set – with goals that were never met by either Democratic or Republican Governors. Georgia’s current excise tax on gasoline was noted to have been set a decade earlier.
Perhaps the greatest message for Georgians was in the title itself: Great challenges require great cooperation. We are now a rapidly growing state of ten million Georgians. In just the last election cycle we’ve moved from the tenth to the eighth largest state in the country. We have a government that must meet the needs of a citizen of the City of Atlanta, suburban Cherokee County, rural Laurens county, and all our other cities and towns all at the same time.
The governor acknowledged that one of the road blocks that must be overcome are those who “focus only on the negative (and are) zeroed in on areas where we should do better.” Perhaps he was referring to those of the party who challenged him this past November. But equally likely is the fact that this is a reference to members of his own GOP who seek to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
The emergence of the TEA Party as a staple of state politics has presented an opportunity and a great challenge for those who govern at the state and local level. Anger at Washington has amassed a sizable contingent of activists who wish to restore the federal framework to a size and scope more closely aligned with the original founding fathers.
Those fathers, of course, wished to have the majority of their problems solved under state authority, with decisions being made as locally as practical. And yet, many within the movement wish to make the state as much as the object of anger as the feds.
Republicans nationally continue to bear the burden of demonstrating they can transcend the “party of no” label by delivering governance. Several of the GOP’s hopefuls for 2016 include Scott Walker, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and a host of other Governors who have demonstrated they can govern effectively.
Georgia Republicans have the same opportunity, but with our own set of unique challenges. We are a rapidly growing state. Half of our population lives in a concentrated growing area that requires investment to remain competitive. A large portion of our people remains in rural areas where economies of scale present new challenges for delivery of basic services such as health care.
And yet, we are one state. We are all Georgians. We have great challenges. We need the help of all Georgians to find the right balance and the right solutions.