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Deal: Georgia 'exceptional' after 7 years of his leadership
Governor delivers final State of the State address
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Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, applauds as he acknowledges his wife, Sandra Deal, sitting up in the balcony while delivering the State of the State address at the state Capitol in Atlanta Thursday. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA  — Delivering his final State of the State address as his fellow Republicans look to maintain their hold on Georgia government, Gov. Nathan Deal hailed an economic boom during which he invested in education, overhauled the criminal justice system and helped attract a legion of new businesses.

In this election year, Democrats are certain to offer voters a different interpretation of the last two terms as they try to reclaim the governor's office after a 16-year absence, while building on recent special election victories to dent the GOP's legislative majorities.

Deal declared Georgia "not just strong" but "exceptional" as he spoke to the General Assembly during a joint session Thursday, and her urged lawmakers not to change course. The 75-year-old governor choked up multiple times during his 45 minutes at the House rostrum, thanking voters for their "kindness ... support ... and your prayers" and praising his wife, Sandra Deal, as she looked on from the gallery.

In his last state operating budget Deal proposes a $50 billion spending plan, with $26 billion coming from state coffers and the rest from federal sources. State revenues have increased over the last year, but Deal isn't seeking sharp deviations in the state's fiscal course.

He highlighted smaller, targeted spending proposals to illustrate his priorities: $22.9 million for a fledgling state commission on children's mental health, and $1 million more for recruiting high school students into post-graduate technical training.

Most of Deal's signature legislative accomplishments are behind him. Elected in 2010, he is barred by law from seeking a third consecutive term.

The governor touted his three economic development chiefs and cited a litany of statistics: 675,000 new private sector jobs in seven years; unemployment down from 10.4 percent to the current 4.3; and thousands of business relocations and expansions. He singled out the film industry, which has boomed as multiple Georgia administration's, including Deal's, offered some of the most generous subsidies of any state.

Deal cited a 10-year transportation spending plan that has yielded new projects across the state — though lawmakers concede they still face familiar debates over what to prioritize: traditional roads and bridges or mass transit, including rail in metro Atlanta.

He hailed an ever-expanding "accountability court" system that steers certain nonviolent offenders away from prison. He also noted an overhaul of the popular HOPE college scholarships that he says allows the grants to continue, with new investments in technical college aid. Should lawmakers adopt something close to his proposed budget, he said, total education spending during his tenure will have increased $3.6 billion.

Deal took office on the heels of the 2008 investment market collapse and subsequent national recession that sent employment figures and public revenues plummeting. The resulting austere state budgets became the baselines that allowed Deal and many other governors elected in 2010 to preside over consistent economic growth and rising tax collections.

The last regular session of Deal's two terms comes after a recently enacted federal tax overhaul and changes in the health care marketplace that could increase pressure on the Medicaid insurance program for the poor, disabled and many children. Deal is among the Republican governors who declined to expand Medicaid eligibility as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Amid the uncertainty, some Georgia lawmakers also want to push for state tax cuts.

Deal did not mention the possibility of tax cuts, nor did he delve into Medicaid, health care or any concerns over how federal tax policy will affect Georgians. He also sidestepped any mention of the Trump administration's recent announcement that it will allow offshore drilling, against the wishes of many coastal states. A Deal spokesman this week said the governor "has some concerns about opening up Georgia's pristine coast" and would "communicate those concerns" to the state's Washington delegation.

Republicans and from Democrats gave Deal a warm welcome in the House chamber. But the opposition already is pushing back his policies. Two former Democratic lawmakers, Stacey Abrams of Atlanta and Stacey Evans of Cobb County, are vying for the Democratic nomination, arguing that Deal and the Republican-run legislature haven't invested enough in the state's working and middle class. Both Democrats call for boosting education spending and expanding Medicaid. Both women say Medicaid expansion would essentially pay for itself with a healthier workforce and stronger rural and small-town hospitals.

House Minority Leader Bob Tramell, D-Luthersville, is scheduled to deliver Democrats' response to Deal via televised address Thursday evening.

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