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Atlanta, DeKalb fail to blow the whistle on dubious spending

Deal could try Perdue’s path, but the road now has more curves

Much like his predecessor eight years ago, Gov. Nathan Deal heads into his re-election summer and fall bolstered by an improving economy, extra money to spend on schools, campaign checks flowing in from big statehouse interests and an unquestioned dominance of state government and Republican politics.

But unlike his predecessor, Sonny Perdue, Deal goes into the final five months of the campaign battling ethics questions that have persisted for years, politically active teachers and retirees angered by costly changes to their health care, and a fresh-faced Democratic opponent with a famous name who can raise money from Georgia millionaires, D.C. lobbyists and Hollywood big shots.

While Perdue held a substantial lead going into his final campaign against the Democratic nominee he eventually routed on Election Day — Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor — polls suggest Deal faces a tighter race against state Sen. Jason Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

June to November can be a geological era in politics, so Carter may yet meet the same fate as Taylor, particularly in a Republican-leaning state. Or maybe not.

“This has the potential — the potential — to be a tight race,” said Steve Anthony, a Georgia State University political science lecturer and former aide to legendary Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy.

After last Tuesday’s primaries, both campaigns confront challenges on their road to the November election. Carter must win over minorities and other newcomers who are slowly changing the state’s electorate while enticing enough conservative-leaning independents to abandon Deal.

And Deal’s aides know he needs to solidify his standing with core conservative voters in the aftermath of last week’s primary, where about one in four supported his GOP rivals. They also hope to shore up his message to voters by presenting an agenda that goes beyond the stay-the-course mantra he’s plugged much of the year.

Both campaigns now begin in earnest as they craft their general election pitch to voters. The shape they take will resolve whether it’s indeed as close a race as polls show or a replay of the 2006 election.

Many Georgians have already made up their minds.

Jeni Johnson, an 18-year-old Americus student, said she liked Deal for pushing through changes to the HOPE scholarship program early in his tenure that helped make the program more financially sound.

“I am very grateful for the job he’s done so far,” Johnson said. “I think he’s doing a very good job, and I see no reason to change.”

Carolyn Burnett, a 42-year-old human resources specialist from Dunwoody, is going with Carter.

“I love his focus on education,” she said, “and I think it’s time to bring ethics back into government.”

A second-term opening

The governor has said little about what he would do given another four years in office. He spent much of the primary campaign trying to present an upbeat, pro-business message while working behind the scenes to try to spike growing controversies with executive action. Yet two of the most pressing problems could spiral beyond his control.

The first involves ethics complaints that have dogged Deal since well before his 2010 gubernatorial victory and are coming to a head at an inopportune time for the governor.

Stacey Kalberman, the former head of the state ethics agency, won her whistleblower lawsuit in April that claimed she was forced out because she was too aggressively investigating complaints about Deal’s 2010 campaign. A judge signed an order last week requiring the state to shell out more than $1.1 million for the case.

The governor has tried to sidestep the issue by saying his office had nothing to do with the agency’s troubles, although court documents show Deal’s executive attorney recruited a replacement for Kalberman before she knew she was leaving.

In a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, 71 percent of respondents thought Deal was involved in the case.

The governor has also sought to neutralize questions by endorsing a plan to remake the agency and boost its meager funding “to get the system working again.”

Yet the specter of more damaging news about the ethics agency’s problems — two more whistleblower lawsuits from ex-employees are set to go to trial before November — only emboldens Carter. The Democrat has seized on the issue, demanding last week that the agency reopen the 2010 complaints against Deal.

Perdue had his own ethics questions. Democrats hammered him over a Disney World-area land deal and tax legislation a close ally got passed that allowed him to defer paying state taxes on a property sale.

But Perdue’s problems only became news in the waning months of the campaign, after he’d built up a substantial lead. Deal’s have been lingering for years.

In trouble with teachers

When he was running for re-election in 2006, Perdue lavished money on schools, even giving teachers $100 gift cards to buy school supplies. Deal also loosened the purse strings after years of education spending cuts, pouring more than $300 million into k-12 schools to provide raises, eliminate furloughs and lengthen the school year.

At the same time, Deal angered many of the 650,000 members of the State Health Benefit Plan — teachers, state employees, retirees and their dependents. In an effort to save $200 million a year, Deal’s Department of Community Health changed their insurance coverage substantially starting in January, forcing members to pay much higher out-of-pocket costs.

Deal and the DCH tried to fix the problem, but the agency now faces a class-action lawsuit brought by members of the plan who say they have been overcharged on their premiums.

A group formed to fight the health coverage changes — the 15,000-member Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes, or TRAGIC — has turned heavily against Deal, saying he should be held accountable.

“We will not forget what we have experienced during the governor’s tenure come November,” said Ashley Cline, the wife of a Cherokee County teacher and founder of TRAGIC. “Our students, along with our own families, have suffered enough — and we plan to make our dissatisfaction clear with our votes.”

Critics of the governor have also repeatedly criticized Deal on another health care issue: his decision to not expand the Medicaid insurance program to more low-income Georgians under Obamcare. Deal has taken a stand popular with conservative activists, saying the expansion would be too expensive in the long run. Supporters of expansion say it would provide hundreds of thousands of Georgians with health coverage they currently lack.

Carter problems

But Carter may have some of his own problems.

He is relatively inexperienced, joining the General Assembly in mid-2010. Deal won his first state election — to the Georgia Senate — the year Carter’s grandfather lost his bid to win a second term in the White House.

Republicans have accused Carter of taking a walk on at least one controversial vote, and he likely dampened the enthusiasm of some Democrats by backing the so-called “guns everywhere” bill that expanded where permitted gun owners could take their weapons. Georgians responding to a recent AJC poll voiced opposition to the bill, which Deal signed into law last month during a North Georgia ceremony.

He criticizes spending cuts to education, but he voted against the fiscal 2015 budget, which was packed with the extra money for k-12 schools that Deal proposed. Carter said the budget didn’t reflect what should be the state’s priorities and that more should go toward education.

Then there is the grandfather issue. Jimmy Carter remains a polarizing figure — many either love him or lambaste his tenure as president.

The Carter name has certainly not hurt fundraising. The day before Tuesday’s primary, Carter’s campaign reported donations from Hollywood luminaries, including Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks SKG studios, and actress Kate Capshaw.

Fleshing out plans

Still, Deal has the advantage of incumbency, which means he can make changes without legislative approval and bolster his position in ways Carter can only daydream about.

For instance, a little more than a month ago, Deal’s administration announced teachers and retirees would get more choices in their health insurance program next year.

He blunted one of Carter’s chief criticisms — that he gutted the HOPE scholarship for technical college students — by adding money to create a scholarship program for top technical college students. With Carter and others complaining that rural health care had reached a crisis state, Deal announced changes to give rural hospitals and clinics more flexibility.

The governor will add meat to the bones of his second-term platform in the coming months. He expects to roll out recommendations to begin the privatization of the troubled child welfare system later this year, and he vows to turn the state’s schools into a “national model.” Specifics, though, remain murky.

Carter, too, has laid out few details about his policy platform beyond a desire to beef up the state’s watchdog agency and set up a separate education budget that would prevent tinkering from lawmakers and the governor.

As their plans take shape, the attacks are sharpening.

The governor has hewed to the national Republican playbook by saying Carter would inevitably raise taxes and dramatically increase spending. He’s also accused Carter of trading on the name of his “very famous grandfather” and tried to tie the Democrat to President Barack Obama’s policies.

“I know one thing: As the governor of the state, you are somewhat obligated to support your party when that party is in control of the White House. I don’t think you can avoid that,” Deal said in an interview with the AJC. That, he said, “will not necessarily sit well” with many voters.

Carter takes aim at Deal’s record by questioning the governor’s transparency and scoffing at his upbeat campaign advertisements. Carter says Georgia’s economy and education system have lost ground since Deal took office, and that four more years of GOP policies would be disastrous for the middle class.

“I know we can do a better job than the destruction that has taken place in our schools the last few years,” Carter said. “We’ve seen a tight race because people are dissatisfied with the status quo. People feel like their schools are underfunded, that the economy isn’t working for the middle class. And we’ve seen that response.”

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