Published Saturday, May 19, 2012

Easy does it is Deal's style

The 40-day period after the legislative session was as noteworthy for how it could have ended as it was for the way it did.

In a typical year, it could have ended with Gov. Nathan Deal issuing a dozen or more vetoes and zeroed-out appropriations, triggering a cacophony of press conferences by angry legislators and special-interest groups screaming “foul” and “betrayal.”

The way it actually ended was pretty tame. He nixed eight bills and used his line-item veto to erase two appropriations totaling less than $400,000. Half of the eight were local bills, and one of those the sponsor of the bill requested the veto.

It was all a quiet affair, as vetoes go.

For one thing, he issued his vetoes on multiple days. Usually governors wait until after 5 p.m. on a Friday to release them to the press, forcing reporters to scramble to find disenchanted bill supporters by news deadline for a Saturday edition that typically has few readers.

Deal’s office prepared press releases but didn’t distribute them to the media, merely posting them on the governor’s website instead. While that created ill will within the tiny Capitol press corps, it also didn’t result in a big splash of negative stories for the governor.

The press release on the budget included a statement from him offering a reason why he was so sparing with his veto pen.

“As I do with general bills, I worked with legislators on the front end to make sure we’d have as few line-item vetoes as possible, and we have succeeded in doing that,” he said. “I think the best way to eliminate wasteful or inefficient spending isn’t with a line-item veto – which is an important tool – but by never allowing such projects into the budget in the first place.”

Legislators do give Deal high marks for cooperation and communication. That’s in contrast to his predecessor, Sonny Perdue.

Although Perdue came up through the legislative ranks, he never seemed to hit the right tone with his former colleagues. If he was actively engaged, they complained he was overbearing. So, the next year he provided no clues about his views on bills until after the session when he surprised them by what he vetoed, creating anger then, too.

For example, in 2005 Perdue vetoed 15 bills. In 2003, it was 21. In 2007, he axed 41 of them.

Lawmakers said they never saw them coming and always felt off balance working with Perdue.

The frustration resulted in Perdue becoming the only Georgia governor since Reconstruction to be involuntarily overridden.

On the other hand, Deal came to the governor’s office after a long career in Congress. He didn’t have the same personal relationship with legislators as Perdue or Govs. Roy Barnes and Zell Miller, yet he quickly established a rapport.

Deal’s veto stamp fell entirely on Republicans, but that was inevitable since the GOP allowed very few Democrats to pass any bills. Among those seeing their legislative fruits pruned were the chairmen of House Ways & Means, House Judiciary Non Civil and Senate Insurance & Labor committees. Also feeling it were Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and Rep. Charlice Byrd, two tea party darlings.

Byrd’s proposal, House Bill 456, got the most headlines because it would have created a committee to review every state agency to determine whether it should disband or continue. Deal’s veto message said he agreed with the goal but that preparing information for the committee would be too costly and that the zero-based budgeting bill he has already signed would accomplish the same purpose.

Even his veto of Rogers’ bill to restore hiring authority to the state school superintendent held by the Board of Education was because it would be too disruptive.

“I believe it is important to keep some of the current checks and balances,” Deal wrote.

Compared to governors in other states, Georgia chief executives -- and Deal in particular -- seem to be legislative allies.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott vetoed 11 bills each of his two years in office, but he also killed 23 water projects legislators had added to the budget totaling $143 million this year. The previous year, he pulled out 158 projects for $615 million in reductions, angering 158 communities and their legislators.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry averages about 50 vetoes for every legislative session. Across the Savannah River in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley issued 34 vetoes last year, but 25 of them were overridden by the legislature, evidence of the level of antagonism between her and the legislature.

Georgia lawmakers say it’s not that Deal is a pushover, just that he takes a mature approach to working with them.

Bills that Deal proposed sailed through the legislature with huge, bipartisan support. His sentencing reform, for instance, passed the Senate unanimously and drew just a single opponent in the House. Some observers say the lack of controversy suggests its impact will be modest and that the governor should have sought a more ambitious overhaul.

Clearly, Deal’s leadership style is reflective of his personality. No fist-pounding speeches or lines drawn in the sand.

His personality is deferential, a rarity among successful politicians. During his 2010 campaign, when he choppered in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to endorse him, Deal kept stepping aside to give the one-time presidential candidate and current cable-television star the spotlight only to have Huckabee repeatedly tug him physically back into the camera frame.

One legislator tells of stopping in an Atlanta grocery store during the session and coming across Deal patiently holding his wife’s purse while she shopped. That’s not an image that springs to mind of most leaders.

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