ATLANTA — As Gov. Nathan Deal prepared to outline his 2016 agenda, he spent Tuesday touting his 2015 legislative package that overcame opposition within his own party and won approval last year.
Deal, a Republican in the second year of his final four-year term, is expected to focus on ways to overhaul Georgia's education system when he delivers his State of the State address on Wednesday. An education commission he appointed made sweeping recommendations in December that would affect everything from how teachers are paid to how students advance grade levels. Deal hasn't discussed yet which of the recommendations he will propose to lawmakers.
Deal spent much of Tuesday morning praising two laws from the 2015 legislative session: a $900 million transportation package for upkeep of Georgia's roads and bridges and a constitutional amendment Deal proposed asking voters to allow the state to take over struggling schools.
During the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's annual breakfast and later at a press conference announcing $10 billion in construction planned during the next 10 years, he said state lawmakers who backed each proposal had "courage."
The transportation package inflamed conservative Republicans in the House and Senate last year. They called it the biggest tax increase in Georgia's history. The law increased gas taxes and created a $200 fee on electric vehicles and a $5 per night fee at hotels and motels. It also eliminated tax breaks for electric vehicle owners and jet fuel purchases by Delta Air Lines.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who opposed the transportation package, said he expects it will remain fresh in voters' minds when lawmakers return home to run for re-election, particularly in Republican primaries.
"Unquestionably, it is the most significant action this legislature has taken since convening in January of last year," McKoon said. "Of course it's going to be an issue in elections."
Deal brushed off the odds of negative electoral consequences for lawmakers who backed the transportation package. The projects will have "real results," he said. The Department of Transportation also rolled out a website with Deal's announcement highlighting projects in each House and Senate district.
"If people will give an objective look at what's being accomplished by this, I don't think it should be an issue for them," Deal said. "In fact, it should be something (members) would be able to brag about, to be able to show that they're actually doing things to improve the infrastructure and transportation in their respective districts."
Education is expected to remain Deal's priority this year. Meanwhile, he's still promoting his administration's signature 2015 effort. Voters in November will decide whether to create a state-run school district, run by appointed superintendent accountable to the governor. The superintendent could add up to 20 schools deemed "chronically failing" to the district each year and have the power to close, convert them into charter schools, or overhaul management.
Democrats largely opposed Deal's school takeover proposal, siding with teacher organizations who plan to campaign against it. Former aides to the governor are managing a counter-campaign, and Deal has advocated for the proposed amendment at most appearances since last winter.
At the Tuesday breakfast packed with local economic development officials, Deal made his pitch to the state's business community.
"We need civic and business leaders just like you to tell your communities about the damage that failing schools can cause," Deal said, adding that school quality is a top question for companies looking at Georgia.
Deal's State of the State address is set for 11 a.m. at the Capitol in Atlanta.