Georgia’s Legacies, Past And Future

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The last week of Georgia’s 2018 meeting of the General Assembly featured even more symbolism and ceremony than usual. There were the customary farewell speeches by members who won’t be returning after this year’s election. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there was also a casket in the middle of the rotunda.

Respects were paid to a former Governor and Senator. With those respects were brief moments to reflect on the State, those who lead, and the legacies they leave behind.

When he was first elected, Governor Zell Miller wasn’t a lock to go down as one of Georgia’s most popular and effective leaders. Quite the contrary, he wasn’t even popular with many of his own party’s leaders. This writer may have even voted against him – twice – in the Democratic primary and runoff because he was viewed as the “liberal” choice in 1990. Voters, unlike columnists, do not have the benefit of hindsight to judge their leaders.

Zell brought to Georgia legalized gambling in the form of a lottery. At the time, that was not only controversial but to some even unthinkable. With the lottery of course, came HOPE. Georgia’s University System has since greatly improved on both quantity and quality of students. Georgia’s youngest have also benefited due to pre-K programs funded by the same voluntary tax.

When the legislature convened on March 29th for Sine Die, there was no casket but the focus on legacy was present. Instead of a former occupant of the Governor’s office, the review was on the current Governor, who is very much alive and well. Governor Deal made farewell addresses to the legislature and kept them short and sweet. He was very well aware that there was work being done. The work of the state, after all, is never finished, even though terms are coming to an end.

Governor Deal, like Governor Miller, was not a shoe-in to be a transformative figure in Georgia politics when he was elected. Seven and a half years and eight legislative sessions into his term, there were those in the capitol on the final days of the General Assembly openly questioning if we will ever see another like him.

Governor Deal’s own customary stump speech these days focuses on Georgia’s “number one state to do business” mantra. He’s our state’s top sales person, and his remarks are often boosterism that is well backed and hard earned.

A state that was two days from being broke when he took the reins now has $2.5 Billion or so in the bank. A state that had record unemployment at 10.5% now has only 4.5% of its citizens unemployed. Along the way schools have been fully funded according to the state’s QBE formula for the first time in decades, transportation projects are expanding from the Port of Savannah to transit in Atlanta and many of the state’s highways in between and beyond.

A generation from now, historians will likely focus on Governor Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform measures as his transformational project, and one that will seal his legacy.

The idea of backing away from a “tough on crime” posture would have been as controversial in 2010 as a lottery was two decades earlier. As such, it wasn’t the centerpiece of Deal’s original campaign, and was rarely mentioned during his 2014 re-elect. Yet every year, Governor Deal brought to the legislature a package of reforms to modernize our criminal justice system with an eye toward keeping non-violent criminals from becoming permanent wards of the state.

The early results are encouraging. The number of Georgians have grown, but those in Georgia prisons have not. The state will save $1 Billion over the next decade in direct costs for those who aren’t incarcerated. The human costs – and savings – are measured in those who are able to return to normal life and be producers rather than wards of the state.

The third legacy in focus is the one yet to be determined. Georgians will decide this year who will be next in leading our state. The choice isn’t who will be the next Zell Miller or the next Nathan Deal. It should be on who has the vision and skill set to be the right person at the right time, with the right set of issues to make Georgia the best state it can be.

Unfortunately, we won’t have the benefit of hindsight to help us make this choice either. We instead have the weeks and months ahead to listen, engage, evaluate, and ultimately, to vote.

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