This week’s Courier Herald column:
The Georgia General Assembly adjourned Sine Die the Thursday before Easter, after passing a controversial religious freedom bill the week before. It was a final week filled with threats of boycotts and political reprisals. After a brief break for Easter weekend, the Governor emerged last Monday with a veto.
It was not an easy decision for the lifelong Georgia Baptist. He’s been a deacon in his church and for many years wore political titles with that of “Sunday School teacher”. He remains in the same bible study group that he’s been a member of for decades. He does not exactly have a profile that is hostile to religion. Quite the contrary. His private life record is one of leadership in one of Christianity’s most conservative denominations.
The public record of Nathan Deal is one of goal oriented pragmatism. Though campaign rhetoric has often included traditional red meat conservatism, his term plus a half as Governor has been one of building coalitions to tackle specific agenda items. His legacy will be of one who reinvented Georgia’s economic base following the financial collapse of 2008 while reforming areas of government such as criminal justice and education with results oriented metrics.
The now vetoed House Bill 757 put Deal, like many Georgians, somewhat at odds between their private beliefs and economic interests. For the Governor, the bill also threatened several key areas that are currently policy successes.
A Governor who has often eschewed short term perception in favor of longer term accomplishments was forced to decide between warring factions. Each was more than willing to hold Georgia’s business community and economy hostage. Both seemed to have itchy trigger fingers. Governor Deal, with his signature or veto, was asked to decide the fate Solomon’s baby which was presented to him in the form of his own legacy.
When Governor Deal assumed office Georgia’s tax revenues were declining. The financial collapse closed one quarter of Georgia’s banks. Georgia’s population growth plateaued with spiraling unemployment numbers, and the growth industries of real estate, construction, and others took major steps backwards. Georgia had to rethink its approach to economic growth.
Instead of waiting for traditional industries to return to normal, the Governor sought some new paths for Georgia. He and his office of Economic Development have been one of the greatest champions of Georgia’s film tax credit. Georgia is now third in U.S. film production, and is adding physical infrastructure to continue to expand the industry.
Pinewood Studios now stands on what was Fayette County farmland. Tyler Perry is repurposing most of Ft McPherson for film and TV production. Shannon Mall has been razed to make way for a studio. Much of an old Lucent/OFS plant in Gwinnett County is being converted to indoor sound stages. Other projects stretch from the Atlanta exurbs to Savannah.
The program is more than film tax credits and in order to have a lasting effect, must incorporate Georgians into the employment base of the industry. Thus Governor Deal has created a program that pays the tuition for those seeking degrees in high demand fields for Georgia employers.
That same program also targets several fields in information technology and the emerging Finance Technology, or FinTech area. Georgia companies now process over 70% of all U.S. credit card transactions. Many other high tech and bio science companies have relocated to be near Georgia Tech. Baxter/Baxalta has opened with close proximity to UGA and its bioscience center.
But luring creative and high tech companies and their employees from Hollywood and Silicon Valley requires more than low costs of living and a competitive business climate. It also requires an environment where the employees will feel they are welcome. The campaign against HB 757 made southern hospitality seem anything but hospitable. Rhetoric from some of the bill’s supporters made Georgia’s welcome mat appear to apply to a select few.
In his statement announcing his veto, Governor Deal outlined the concerns on both sides, then systematically noted that the bill he was presented did not match or address the concerns raised by those who supported the bill. In effect, the bill would have changed little that is not already covered under the US Constitution or Federal Law.
He stated “I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith based community in Georgia of which I and my family have been a part of for all of our lives,”. With a nod to the implications on areas he’s seen critical progress he noted “Our actions on House Bill 757 are not just about protecting the faith based community. or providing a business friendly climate for job growth in Georgia. I believe it is about the character of our state and the character of our people.”
Governor Deal is term limited and thus will not have to face the voters again. His only burden in deciding the fate of HB 757, like all other legislation that reaches his desk, is to do what is best for the people of Georgia – All the people of Georgia.
The cost to the Governor may be some short term capital within the legislature or even a few more items on his agenda during the next legislative session. The longer term effect, however, will be that the policies he has enacted to date will continue to bear fruit well into the future and that Georgia, and her economy, will continue to grow and thrive.
These are the things that legacies are made of. Governor Deal secured much of his with the veto of HB 757.