ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal urged lawmakers Wednesday to take dramatic action on transportation and education issues facing Georgia, proposing new powers to take over struggling schools but refraining from making any recommendation on how to pay for maintenance of the state's transportation systems.
"When confronting the challenges of 10 million people — challenges that can appear insurmountable — it's easy to feel that the tools we've been given aren't up to the task," Deal said in his State of the State Address.
"When it comes to our constituents' needs in education, health care, transportation and public safety, the sea seems so great and our boat so small. We may have 10 million challenges, but we also have 10 million oars."
Deal said later he would consider lawmakers' proposals to pay for infrastructure as they come forward.
A study committee estimates that Georgia needs $1 billion to $1.5 billion more each year to maintain its roads and bridges. The committee found adding roadways or expanding mass transit systems would cost far more.
Deal said solving the funding problem will make Georgia more independent from federal gas taxes, but warned that no action will slow the state's economy.
"We must maintain and improve our roads and bridges; we must provide congestion relief; and we must prepare for more freight and more businesses," Deal said.
Democrats want mass transit to be a big part of the discussion, and they could play a role in passing any package if conservative Republicans won't OK new taxes or fees. Deal didn't mention mass transit in his speech and later said its inclusion depends on how much new revenue is raised.
Deal also proposed a constitutional amendment forming a state-run "Opportunity School District" to take over failing schools, akin to the system developed in New Orleans.
Some educators already have questioned the plan, arguing that the New Orleans model depended on donations and other funding after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Deal bluntly said money cannot solve "chronic failure."
"Liberals cannot defend leaving a child trapped in a failing school that sentences them to a life in poverty," Deal said. "Conservatives like me cannot argue that each child in Georgia already has the same opportunity to succeed and compete on his or her own merits. We have a moral duty to help these children who cannot help themselves."
Rep. Stacey Abrams, House Democrats' minority leader, said she wants more details about the amendment including how long the state will manage the districts. Deal's goal is admirable, she said, but the state contributed to some districts' struggle by cutting funding in recent years.
The governor also said he will form a study commission to make recommendations by August on Georgia's education system, including updates to the state's complicated formula for funding schools.
Deal hopes to sign legislation decriminalizing cannabis oil in Georgia, saying it will allow people with certain conditions to try the treatment without relocating to states where it is legal.
Rep. Allen Peake, a Macon Republican, had discussed decriminalizing the oil and setting up a state-regulated program to grow and sell medical marijuana for certain conditions. But Peake said Friday that conversations with Deal prompted him to scale the legislation back.