Last year — back when Sonny Perdue was still the governor and Sen. Tim Golden of Valdosta was still a Democrat — Golden had this to say about filling a billion-dollar gap in the budget, the thorniest matter before the Legislature at that time:
“That takes a strong governor, quite frankly, to come in and lead that effort.”
In the just-ended 2011 legislative session, Golden’s year-old comment rang true once again.
On two of this year’s headline issues, repairing the HOPE scholarship and filling another budget hole, Gov. Nathan Deal engaged early and often, to strong effect. On others, less so — and it showed.
Regarding HOPE, Deal forced legislators’ hand by declaring from the outset that he would not use tax revenues to augment falling lottery receipts. Given that there wasn’t enough lottery money to fulfill the HOPE promises that have prevailed for nearly two decades, something had to be done.
While Deal was out front for much of the process of reforming HOPE, by all accounts he pursued a collaborative effort that included legislators from both parties. Ultimately, they produced as good a plan as Georgians could expect under the circumstances.
The budget wasn’t exactly a cinch this year: Although revenues stabilized, those gains were offset by the end of federal stimulus funding.
For months, Gold Dome watchers used words like “bad” to describe last year’s budget battle — and “bloodbath” to forecast what lay in store for this year. And “bad” was bad enough — because of a pitched battle over a cigarette tax hike that failed, and a hospital bed tax that later passed — to spawn the leadership squabbles that plagued the Senate this year.
Yet, the predicted fiscal carnage never arrived. Deal’s budget, devoid of tax hikes and despite a leaner package of the pet projects funded by state bonds that are popular with many legislators, sailed through with relative ease.
That’s the good news.
On the other side of the ledger are the session-long fights to reform both the tax code, which ended without a bill, and our illegal-immigration laws, which led to a contentious bill.
First, let’s stipulate that governors walk a fine line between taking an active role and intruding on the legislative branch. This year’s session indicated Deal is reluctant to be viewed as overly active.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing: In Georgia, the governor already holds sway over a wide range of matters and ought not try to micromanage legislators.
And let’s further stipulate that a contentious legislative process isn’t always a bad thing. Illegal immigration, in particular, is such a passionate issue for so many people that a short-circuited debate was not in the state’s best interests.
That said, tax reform and illegal immigration were issues that Deal championed as a candidate. Yes, on each issue there was a bill-drafting process already under way when Deal was inaugurated. But it would have been natural for him, by way of fulfilling campaign pledges, to inject himself into those processes.
He didn’t, and it was especially disappointing to see tax reform fall flat — for now; lawmakers pledge to revisit it later.
Leadership in the House, for both Republicans (Speaker David Ralston) and Democrats (Rep. Stacey Abrams), was solid this session. But if the Senate can’t get its act together between now and next year, Deal may have to reconsider just how often he can take a wait-and-see approach.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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