Gov. Nathan Deal returned to his roots Monday, speaking to the Gainesville Rotary Club about his eight-year administration, which is coming to an end.
Deal, who spent most of his adult life in Gainesville, served as the president of Gainesville’s Rotary Club in 1976. Philip Wilheit of Wilheit Packaging, a longtime friend of Deal’s, introduced him Monday, reflecting on Deal’s involvement with the Rotary Club and his political career.
Several Rotarians contributed to Deal’s first State Senate campaign in 1979. Then, in 1995, he announced at the Rotary Club that he was switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
“Throughout the years, Rotary has played a significant role in Nathan’s political career,” Wilheit said. “… I’d like to thank him for everything he’s done for our state, the great state of Georgia, everything he’s done for Gainesville and Hall County. We take great pride in our relationship with Nathan and Sandra.”
Deal thanked the Rotarians for their support before reviewing the highlights of his administration.
“Many of you have been very vital players in this process,” he told the club Monday.
Recovering from the Great Recession
Deal said when he took office in 2011, the state was still recovering from the recession, with a rainy day fund that would only allow the state to operate for about two days. Boosting the economy became a focus of his administration, he said.
“We decided early on that we wanted to grow our way out of the Great Recession, not tax our way out of it. … We are a low tax state, we’re a low regulatory state, and we’re a great place to work, live and do business and raise a family,” Deal said.
Statewide unemployment is about a third of previous levels, he said, and now sits at about 3.6 percent. For the Gainesville-Hall metropolitan area, that number is 2.6 percent, the lowest of Georgia’s 14 statistical areas.
Deal said employers like Kubota and King’s Hawaiian help keep unemployment low in Hall. He said he is excited by new businesses like Fox, which is relocating its headquarters from California to Hall later this year and bringing 800 jobs.
New businesses are arriving statewide, he said — Georgia currently has about 20 prospects with an average of 850 jobs each.
Investing in education
Earlier this year, the state funded the Quality Basic Education formula — which allocates dollars for Georgia’s public schools — for the first time since the program started in 1985. Deal said over half the state’s budget has been set aside for education, which he named as a priority of his administration.
“I’m proud of the fact that we have spent so much money on education,” Deal said. “That is truly the future of our current situation and every future generation yet to come.”
He said the state’s budget includes $9.8 billion for K-12 education and $2.4 billion for universities. And Hall County has been a focus, too, he said — Georgia has contributed $130 million to Lanier Technical College.
“(Lanier Tech) is truly going to be the hallmark of technical college education in the state and probably in the country,” Deal said. The college is opening a new campus in January.
Deal said technical colleges are a key part of workforce development, and jobs in Georgia still sit unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers, a problem his administration worked to fix, he said.
“My common sense says that’s a good place to start,” Deal said. “Instead of going and spending all of your effort and going to get new jobs to come in, why don’t we try and fill the ones we already have with Georgians?”
The HOPE Career Grant provides tuition grants to students in fields where there is a shortage of skilled workers. About 88 percent of students in the program get a job in the field they were trained for, and 99 percent of them get a job, he said.
Reducing burden on state prisons
Deal said he decided early in his administration that taking on the challenge of criminal justice reform would be a priority for him.
Prison commitments dropped by about 20 percent between 2009 and 2017, and African-Americans have seen bigger drops in commitments, Deal said.
“That translates to, you have an overall lower prison population,” he said. “If you’re paying close to $20,000 per bed for keeping someone incarcerated in our system, and you reduce that by about 8,000 below what it was projected to be back in 2011, we’ve saved the state a lot of money.”
Accountability courts have helped keep people out of the prison system, Deal said. His son Judge Jason Deal’s Hall County courtroom has been used as a statewide model.
“What they are doing is giving people second chances. I tell my preacher friends that if you ever run out of sermon material, just to go to a graduation ceremony from one of these accountability courts,” Deal said.
Other programs have focused on training prisoners for the workforce and giving them an opportunity to get a GED or high school diploma.