By Tom Baxter
There was a time when the governor’s annual State of the State speech drew such a crowd to the Capitol, you could hardly get off the elevator on the third floor. This year the House gallery was filled with invited guests, but the group which gathered under the hall monitors to listen to what Gov. Nathan Deal had to say was significantly smaller than the one which collected to watch Sen. Don Balfour’s post-trial remarks the week before.
The sparse crowd had less to do with the importance of the speech than the digitalization of the lobbying trade. There were perhaps more eyes than ever trained on Deal last week, but many of them were watching him on streaming video.
In his first three State of the State speeches, Deal declared that the state of the state was “strong.” This being an election year, our status was upgraded this time to “excellent.”
“This is what we have done in three years… imagine what we’ll do in the next five,” Deal said, sounding a tone you’ll hear from a lot of incumbent governors as they deliver their addresses over the next week or so.
Deal’s address and the Democratic response from state Sen. Jason Carter effectively marked the first cross-party debate of the season, and it’s clear that Carter, like Republican state School Superintendent John Barge, intends to base much of his campaign on Deal’s education record. He called the current system of funding public education a “shell game” and proposed a separate state budget for education.
The impact of the recession years has been felt in schools across the state, and turning up the faucet this year, as Deal proposed, won’t repair all the damage done. But tackling the governor on this issue may prove more difficult than it might seem. Though no panacea, the new money he proposes will win back some unhappy voters, and one shouldn’t underestimate the modifying effect of First Lady Sandra Deal, a former teacher. The Deal-Carter race, if that’s what comes out of this year’s primaries, is shaping up as a race of teacher’s husbands.
Like his Republican colleague Robert Bentley in Alabama, Deal spent a portion of his speech reiterating his steadfast opposition to accepting the Medicaid expansion. Not to say they are parallel in every respect, but back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, a lot of Southern governors voiced unbending opposition to segregation while working behind the scenes to deal with what most of them understood as inevitable. You’re likely to see much of the same this year.
While Deal is holding firm on accepting the federal money that comes with the expansion, he’s also in talks with the CEO at Grady Hospital about how to compensate for the roughly $45 million in federal funding which will disappear under the Affordable Care Act over four years. There are sure to be a lot more hospitals at his door as the phasing out of the old Medicaid system continues.
A lot of healthcare advocates believe it’s only a matter of time before circumstances force Deal to accept the expansion, if perhaps with some semantic tweaking. There’s no sign of that yet. Deal is between a rock and a hard place on this issue, but that’s no sure indication of the choice he’ll make. Just about every other controversy in the news this year, from medical marijuana to guns on campus, amounts to cultural noise, useful distractions from the most difficult problem.
It’s another race, but the Republican U.S. Senate primary may have a lot to do with how this plays out. If the Republican primary electorate swings hard to the right in that race, Deal might reason that he can’t give on Medicaid without damaging his base in the General Election.
On the other hand, every hospital closure widens the opening for the Democrats to make an issue of health care, a subject Carter didn’t mention in his response last week. When he gets around to that he might want to take note of Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s State of the State speech. Beshear, who has embraced what Deal has rejected, has been a frequent defender of ObamaCare on the cable shows, but his speech was notable for the total amount of time he spent on health care issues, much more than any of the Republican governors so far.
For all its problems, Georgia ranked 17th in K-12 achievement in Education Week’s annual report. But Site Selection magazine, whose ranking of Georgia as the No. 1 state in which to do business has been cited so frequently by the governor, recently ranked Georgia 38th in health. That suggests that no matter how sticky it is, health care will be a critical issue in this year’s governor’s race.