By Maria Saporta
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed are working together for the good of the Atlanta region and the state — both leaders affirmed at the Rotary Club of Atlanta lunch program Monday.
It was the first time that Rotary has brought together the governor and the mayor for a conversation about the future of Georgia and Atlanta as well as the ways that the two leaders can collaborate.
From the recent ground-breaking of the Porsche’s North American headquarters to their joint efforts to get federal support for the deepening of the Port of Savannah, both leaders spoke of the value of having a good relationship between the state and its capital city.
“It’s especially nice to be here with the mayor,” Deal said in his opening remarks, adding that someone had observed that “when you and the mayor get together, it’s to deal with fast cars or big boats.”
Despite the interdependence between the state and metro Atlanta, it has been rare for there to be a close working relationship between the governor and the capital city.
“What happens in Atlanta, especially in the greater Atlanta area, has a big impact on our state,” Deal said. “The majority of our population is in this greater Atlanta area.”
Later he went on to say that “there are things that are important to all of us” — such as the deepening of the Port of Savannah.
The governor is committing another $50 million in his budget for the $652 million project, bringing the state’s investment up to $231 million. Now the state, working with its Congressional delegation and Reed, is hoping to secure significant federal funding to be able to complete the project by 2016 (about one year after the Panama Canal will be able to handle the super freighters that the Port of Savannah would like to welcome). The federal government did give the project a “record of decision” — signifying that it had received all the necessary approvals.
“The mayor has been our greatest asset in making sure that we got that record of decision,” said Deal, who had been a colleague of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, when they were both in Congress. “Me knowing the Secretary of Transportation was not nearly as important as the mayor knowing the President. The mayor didn’t invite me to that (meeting).”
Despite joking about Reed’s relationship with President Barack Obama, Deal said the “tag team” approach between him and the mayor was not only good for the state but for the country as a whole — finding bi-partisan partnerships to solve the nation’s toughest problems.
As for metro Atlanta’s transportation issues, the governor said that they are still trying to figure out the best thing to do. “He and I both share concern about relieving congestion here in metro Atlanta,” Deal said.
In his opening remarks, Reed called the governor “a steady hand” who has shown the importance of “leadership in the moment.”
Both men have had to steer their respective governments through the worst economy in 80 years, a tough feat in itself.
“I saw a leader with a heart for people, and a city and a state that needed cooperation over conflict. The state is not strong enough, the city is not strong enough, for traditional bickering back-and-forth.”
That’s why it was essential for the two leaders to move forward on issues where there is consensus — adding that a strong city needs a strong state, and vice-versa.
“Georgia can’t be out of business depending on the party of the president,” Reed said. “What I see is that our nearest states competing against us got this memo faster than we did — North Carolina; South Carolina, for goodness sake. When they have issues of importance for the overall good, they work together.”
Reed, however, made it clear that he understood the pecking order after having learned at the knees of the late Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy.
“I know who the senior partner is and who the junior partner is in this deal,” Reed said. “That’s a valuable lesson folks.”
Reed also teased the crowd when he said: “transportation is not done yet, but almost no metro area has won their transportation referendum out of the gate. I wish we had. Our job fundamentally is to make sure that we guarantee that…the State of Georgia is the most dominant economy in the Southeast.”
During the question-and-answer session, which was moderated by Rotarian Joe Bankoff, the two answered questions about why the deepening of the Savannah port was important to the whole state and the need to improve the potential of trade opportunities for Georgia companies.
Both men expressed great concern when it came to Georgia’s K-12 education system and the recent news that only 67 percent of the state’s students graduate from high school in four years.
“If we are losing 33 percent of our young people, who don’t get a high school diploma, we are in trouble,” Deal said. “The greatest input into our prison system is our drop-out rate.”
Reed said the Atlanta Public Schools are in much better shape today than they were 24 months ago when the system was on probation and when the board was split. If the contract for Erroll Davis, the current interim APS Superintendent, is extended for two more years, Reed said it would give the community time to recruit a new superintendent in the same manner as the University of Georgia would seek a new coach.
After the program, both Deal and Reed were asked specifically what their plans were regarding transportation.
Deal said he was focused on improvements along I-75 and Georgia 400.
Asked his thoughts about bringing another transportation referendum before voters, Deal said: “I haven’t heard any talk in the General Assembly about that prospect.”
More specifically, Deal was asked if he would support the continuation of the Xpress buses that are operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, but will run out of operating funds if the state does not provide financial support for the suburban bus system.
“I think the issue of having a good and workable bus system is important,” he said. “I think it’s going to take some greater funding.”
Asked if he would include an appropriation in his budget, Deal said: “It’s one of the issues we are looking at.”
After the program, the mayor was asked if he had held any conversations with the governor about metro Atlanta’s transportation issues.
“We have not been talking about it at all. I’ve been working on other issues,” Reed said, adding that there are some critical issues related to the Savannah Port that has been his major area of focus. “We will probably talk in January.”
Meanwhile, Reed also hinted that he is pursuing ideas other than a regional referendum when it comes to transportation.
“Cities and states are giving much more attention to public-private partnerships — that does not involve a referendum,” he said. Then he went onto imply that he has some inside information of what might coming out of the Obama administration.
“There’s going to be a significant infrastructure deal within the next 12 to 18 months,” Reed said. “There’s going to be a mechanism to help cities and states fund infrastructure. There’s going to be a vehicle created that’s going to fund infrastructure projects in cities and states.”
Reed also pushed aside the thought that he would support another regional transportation referendum.
“I’m more focused on public-private partnerships,” he said. And I’m more focused on making sure than any infrastructure agreement allows cities and counties to participate.”