Sharply divergent visions of Georgia’s future emerged Wednesday in advance of a likely bruising campaign between Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s optimistic stay-the-course message and a surprisingly brutal rebuttal by Democrat Jason Carter.
Deal’s sunny forecast in his State of the State address was more of a stump speech than a sober outline of the next steps for Georgia’s recovering economy, and a crowd of partisans from both parties treated it just so. As Democrats sat silently, Republicans lustily applauded his only overt mention of the coming campaign: “Just imagine what we can do in another five years.”
With a $547 million increase in education funding, the governor is hoping to blunt jabs from three opponents who contend he’s ignored a growing crisis in Georgia’s schools. Yet he must face charges that the election-year shift falls well short of closing the multiyear funding gap that has led to teacher furloughs, stagnant pay and shorter school calendars.
Carter, a state senator from Atlanta whose bid to oust Deal has already attracted heaps of national attention, struck a contrast. He accused the Republican of a “moral failure” in protecting children and claimed the governor’s policies are aimed at the business elite at the expense of the middle class.
In his first concrete policy proposal since launching his bid for governor in November, Carter proposed creating a separate education budget that would be walled off from legislative interference. He said Deal’s reluctance to further increase public spending threatens the state’s long-term economic revival.
“The farmers in our family would say we’re eating our seed corn,” Carter said in a nod to his peanut-farming grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter. “And I was raised to believe that we reap what we sow.”
It was the first speech and rebuttal between an incumbent governor and his likely challenger during a State of the State in recent memory. And it made for a memorable contrast. The 71-year-old governor’s speech on the House floor was preceded by all the pomp afforded a governor, while his 38-year-old rival’s rebuttal came from a cramped office across the street overflowing with media.
Deal’s two GOP rivals, Superintendent John Barge and Dalton Mayor David Pennington, both responded with skepticism to the State of the State. Barge questioned the governor’s timing for the education increase and said it wasn’t enough to fix stubborn problems. And Pennington said the surge in spending amounts to “throwing money at a problem with no real intention of fixing it.”
The governor’s fourth-year agenda is not overly ambitious or aggressive, but instead is tailor-made for the long campaign trail ahead. Embedded throughout his $20.8 billion spending plan are proposals that would deprive his rivals of some of their most salient arguments.
There’s a new scholarship that would provide full tuition for high-achieving tech college students that seeks to address one of the biggest missteps in Deal’s first three years in office — the move requiring technical college students to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average to keep HOPE scholarship money.
And his proposal to spend nearly $45 million on the biggest Internet expansion in Georgia school history — an idea that first came from a Barge staffer — deprives the superintendent of a campaign push to bolster the state’s lagging technology infrastructure.
But there’s no major tax overhaul and no appetite for more contentious proposals, such as a first-in-the-nation overhaul of the state’s medical malpractice system. He will press for a third round of criminal justice changes, but even this effort is significantly less expansive than his pushes over the past two years.
Deal instead doubled down on base-pleasing initiatives by repeating his refusal to use federal money to expand Medicaid and rejecting calls by some Democrats to raise money to fund infrastructure or education improvements.
“We must resist those temptations,” Deal said. “Just as individuals cannot borrow their way out of debt, governments cannot tax their way out of a recession.”
The governor can expect more attacks from the right, the left and the center as he asks voters for a second term. And perhaps the loudest will come from Carter, who has already raised more than $1.3 million to amplify his megaphone. He’s worked to sharpen his attacks on Deal since joining the race in November, and Wednesday’s speech was a chance to showcase.
“If you’re a big business, if you’re a political deal maker or if you’re one of the governor’s friends, chances are things are going well for you in Georgia today,” Carter said. “But if you’re a small business or a regular middle-class family, chances are you’re feeling forgotten.”
Deal rejected that notion and said he’s directed funding toward the state’s greatest needs. With a broad smile, he unleashed a metaphor that could become a stump speech fixture and compared Georgia’s economy to a dawning sunrise after a long winter slumber.
“And now our efforts are being rewarded,” he said. “The early rays of recovery are cresting the skyline.”