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Walter Jones Columnist

Published Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Deal uses bipartisanship to keep legislators quiet

The news in Gov. Nathan Deal’s press conference wasn’t just that he was supporting a relaxing of HOPE Grant eligibility, it was also that he was adopting a position advocated a day earlier by Democrats in their own press event.

As reporters assembled in his ceremonial office waiting for his arrival, they were joined by House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams. They joked they would give her a clear shot in case she wanted to hurl a shoe or other jibes at the Republican governor.

A few other Democratic legislators filtered in the same door before an aide herded all of them around to the other side of the desk where they could join their GOP colleagues in flanking the governor, the ones who had come in by the unadorned doorway to the inner sanctum.

In the previous administration, Democrats weren’t used to entering the governor’s office from either door, much less the unmarked door reserved for those in the know.

But Deal has been open to the minority party, not just its leaders but the rank-and-file members as well. He even shared his microphone with sophomore Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, who had been in the middle of the bomb throwing the day before when the Democrats called for relaxing the HOPE Grant rules.

“The difference between having the grant and not having the grant is the difference between staying in the middle class or not,” she said Thursday while thanking the governor.

While Deal agreed with the Democrats on the grant that goes to technical college students, he didn’t buy their other demand to switch the HOPE Scholarship to an income-based award.

Still, people aren’t accustomed to seeing Republicans and Democrats agree on much of anything.

“What you see today before you is what Georgians want to see, and that is their elected leaders working across the aisle to focus on the things that matter to them, improving their lives through economic power, when we have the opportunity to do that,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Are Democrats sorry about being robbed of a political issue?

Rep. Craig Gordon, D-Savannah, was one of those standing on the governor’s side of the desk during the press conference. He said Friday he didn’t feel outmaneuvered by Deal.

“At the end of the day, he’s been involved in the conversation for the last two years and always had an open door,” Gordon said. “... To me, it’s less about who gets credit for it.”

In his first legislative session, Deal was faced with the hugely popular Pre-K and HOPE programs quickly going broke. He headed off a partisan firestorm then by accepting recommendations from members of both parties and presented a bipartisan proposal that ultimately passed easily.

Last year, his major initiative, sentencing reform, passed unanimously because of his bipartisan approach. He appears to be on his way to an encore in coming weeks with a juvenile-justice reform package that’s equally bold and equally supported universally.

He pulled another rabbit out of his hat earlier in the session when he defused what was predicted to be the most contentious issue of the session, extension of the hospital Medicaid tax. Here, the main objections were from members of his own party, the staunch conservatives who vowed to oppose any tax increase, even if it would require brutal cuts to government services to make up the $700 million void the expiring tax would leave.

Deal’s solution was legislation to have appointees levy the tax instead of the politicians. Many observers think it’s unconstitutional, but that didn’t stop the bill from being passed with lightning speed.

This year’s HOPE legislation is part of a package that shifts the funding of colleges and universities, including the technical schools, from based on enrollment to a graduation basis. For the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, it won’t make much difference since the exceptional students admitted there tend to finish what they start and graduate on time.

However, for the so-called access institutions like Savannah State University, South Georgia State College and East Georgia State College where admissions standards aren’t as high, graduation rates are much less than 50 percent. For these schools, his funding shift, when introduced this week, could have a dramatic impact.

These schools also have a higher share of minority and low-income students, the types of people Democrats often say they champion.

Deal may have pulled off a bigger coup than was immediately evident Thursday if his inclusion of HOPE Grant eligibility changes that Democrats want pulls them into accepting the funding shift that could target schools they are normally protective of.

If “Governor Deal” weren’t already his name, it might easily have become his nickname.

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(Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service.)

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