Editor’s Note: in order to provide accurate coverage of the topics Georgia Governor Nathan Deal spoke on Tuesday in Thomaston, this article will be printed in two parts, with the second part being published in the Tuesday, August 25 edition of The Thomaston Times.
Economic recovery and criminal justice reform were two of the topic covered by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal when he flew into Thomaston Tuesday afternoon for a special meeting with the Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary clubs of Thomaston. The visit and speech were arranged by Thomaston Kiwanis Vice President Melvin Fallin, who is the uncle of Gov. Deal’s daughter-in-law, Denise Fallin Deal.
The governor began his remarks by talking about the recovery efforts the state has gone through to recover from the great recession that began just before Deal took office in 2008. He said one of the first questions of his administration was how they were going to get out of the recession. He said he made the decision early one that the state could not tax its way out, but had to be able to grow out of it.
“That was the approach that I took,” he said, “and thanks to the support of the General Assembly, that’s exactly what we’ve done. We have come out of the depths of the great recession to having now had multiple years of being acknowledged of being the best state in the nation in which to do business. With that distinction has come many, many thousands of jobs to the State of Georgia.”
Deal noted that Thumbtack’s annual Small Business Friendliness Survey, released that morning, gave Georgia an ‘A’ rating for business friendliness, and ranked the state in the top 10 nationally for small businesses.
The governor added that the state also grew out of the recession by asking businesses what they needed to recover.
“When you grow yourself out of something, it means you have to have the right policies in place. We set about asking the business community what it was going to take in their part of Georgia to make them more competitive,” Deal said. “We took those suggestions and recommendations, came back and put them into legislative format, and the outgrowth of that was significant tax reform.
“One of the most significant was the removal of sales tax on energy for manufacturing. As a result of that, we have seen the manufacturing section of Georgia grow substantially. I have every reason to believe we’re going to see that trend continue as businesses are looking for states that appreciate the opportunity for employment. Georgia is certainly one of those.”
He added that the state can also measure its progress by how well its citizens are doing and how much tax revenue the state collects.
“I’m here to tell you today that we have done substantially well,” he said. “Our so-called Rainy Day Fund, which was put in place to tide us through the hard times; in a period of about two years before I became governor, over $1.4 billion had been spent out of that Rainy Day Fund, and it was virtually depleted. We made a conscious effort every cycle to budget conservatively and live within our means, and to put the excess into that Rainy Day Fund. I’m please to tell you that even though the final audit has not been done, it appears that at the end of Fiscal Year 15 – which was a month ago – that our Rainy Day Fund is now in the neighborhood of $1.3 billion. That is great progress.
“The last fiscal year, for example, we came in with a revenue collection of about 6.4 percent above Fiscal Year 14. For Fiscal Year 15, we budgeted on a budget of about 3.6 percent revenue growth. When you come in at 6.4 percent growth, then that difference goes into that Rainy Day Fund, to help build it up. We are very proud that we’ve been able to do that. My goal, before I leave office, is that we will have a Rainy Day Fund of $2 billion. That’s what the rating agencies tell us would make us in pretty good shape to sustain any bump in the road that may come along in the near future.
“And speaking of rating agencies,” he added, “we have maintained a Triple A bond rating from all three major bond rating agencies. As taxpayers, that saves you a lot of money every year. In fact, Georgia has now, in the last several cycles, led the nation in terms of our bond sales being most attractive by getting the lowest interest rate that we have to pay on the bonds that we sell. That’s a great place for our state to be. It saves a lot of money for our state budget.”
Gov. Deal also gave credit to Thomaston and Upson County for the growth it has had in existing industries.
“You have been the kind of community that sets the example we’d like to see all across the state,” Deal said. “That is community involvement. The state can only do so much, but we can do a whole lot more when we have local communities such as yours working cooperatively with us. Such as your economic development arm, through your local government arms, as well as working with our State Department of Economic Development and our Department of Community Affairs.”
Criminal Justice Reform
Gov. Deal also spoke about the need to reduce the population in Georgia’s state prisons, noting that Georgia is the 4th largest state in terms of prison population, and that it takes $18,000 a year to house one prisoner. He said over a three-year period, the state has implemented three parts of a criminal justice reform package.
“The first year, we created more accountability courts to let the non-violent offenders have a second chance to redeem themselves,” he said. “As of the first quarter of last year, we have had 4,100 people go through our accountability courts. They’re staying in their communities and they’re being rehabilitated. It has been a tremendous success. We’ve actually seen our prison population drop by 3,000.
“The second year we dealt with juvenile justice reform, using the same kind of methods. We put money in the budget to create local community diversion programs, rather than sending these youth to regional youth detention centers (RYDC). We have seen in the first nine months of that being in place a reduction in the number of youth being sent to RYDC’s for major felony problems of about 60 percent.
“The third year we did the re-entry part,” Deal continued. “ The prison population is now down to about 53,000, and we asked what the common characteristics were. The most common characteristic was that almost 7 out of every 10 had dropped out of school. We decided we needed to give them some education. We started partnering with outside charter schools in north Georgia at our Arrendale State Prison, which is our women’s prison in Habersham County. They came in and taught within the prison system and prisoners didn’t just get a GED, they got a high school diploma – and there is a distinction in the minds of employers between having a GED and having a diploma. About 19 women graduated a month ago with high school diplomas, and there are about three times that many enrolled in that program and it continues to grow. We’ve now moved it into the adult male system to deal with their lack of education. We have every indication to believe it will also be successful.
“We have also focused on training for skills that are in short supply. We had the first graduating class of certified welders at Walker State Correctional Institution. Blue Bird Bus Company is employing people we trained that came out of the prison system. They now have marketable skills and are becoming tax payers rather than burdens on the taxing community.”
Coming up Tuesday, Gov. Deal talks about Education.
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.