'Unprecedented' Signature, Record-High Vetoes Mark Georgia Governor's Final Bill Signing

May 9, 2018

Governor Nathan Deal is ending his final year in office by vetoing a record-high 21 bills.

Yesterday marked the close of a 40-day window in which the Governor could veto a bill, sign it, or let it go into law without a signature.

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a panelist on GPB’s Political Rewind. He joined me in the studio to talk about yesterday’s signings, and the legacy Governor Deal leaves behind.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: What Passed, What Failed In The 2018 Legislative Session

RICKEY BEVINGTON: The big news is the high number of bills that Governor Deal vetoed. Is this typical for an outgoing governor?

GREG BLUESTEIN: Not really. Look, he's vetoed about eight or nine bills every year – except for in 2016 when he vetoed 16. And the highest-profile veto that year was of course the religious liberty veto. Since then, it's been regularly eight or nine vetoes a year. Nothing too controversial… until this year.

BEVINGTON: Any big surprises in terms of the vetoes?

BLUESTEIN: I think the biggest surprise was what he didn't veto. I think that would be the bill that allows a vote to de-annex part of the city of Stockbridge to create a new city of Eagles Landing.

Among the vetoes, the hacking bill was largely expected because of all the frustration and pushback from cybersecurity experts and tech giants. They said that basically creating a crime of unauthorized computer access would hurt them in the long run. It could prevent supportive hackers who are probing for any problems and any vulnerabilities in their websites without being malicious about it and prevent them from taking action.

BEVINGTON: You mentioned Stockbridge. What exactly does the governor's signature trigger?

BLUESTEIN: This is unprecedented, and this is why it's so important. It would carve out land from the existing city of Stockbridge to create a new and more affluent municipality called Eagles Landing.

And the reason why this is unprecedented: It would be the first time where there's a de-annexation of an existing city to the allow those voters to vote to leave the existing city, and then form a new city called Eagles Landing.

So there are a lot of mayors and county officials and local officials all over the state who are worried, now looking in their own backyards. Could there be secession movements here and there?

BEVINGTON: We should be clear, all the governor’s signature does is allow for people to vote. It isn't in any way finalized.

BLUESTEIN: You got it, it is not finalized. The vote would be as soon as November. But there's also a threat of litigation. Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford has said left and right long before this that the city has hired lawyers. After the governor's signature, his message to everyone listening is ‘This is not over yet. We're still fighting this fight.’

BEVINGTON: As I mentioned at the top of this conversation, it's the governor's final year. And he did sign some major legislation this year that caps off his legacy, we might call it. Explain what Governor Deal's legacy might be.

BLUESTEIN: This year alone there is some significant legislation that mostly had a broad consensus behind it. You had the income tax cut that many Democrats also supported (and of course Republicans were almost in lockstep behind it), you had the legislation that paved the way to what could be a dramatic expansion of mass transit. That lets counties all over Metro Atlanta vote for a one percent sales tax to expand mass transit.

You had the update of the state's decades-old adoption rules that was so fraught with controversy last year because of the religious liberty component of it. Well, that had been taken out, so that was signed into law.

And of course you have the $26.2 billion budget that included for the first time in more than a decade the full funding of the K-12 school funding formula.

So those were sort of the highlights of this year's legislation.

The AJC did a poll a few weeks ago that asked Democrats and Republicans separately what they thought of the governor. About half of Democrats gave him a high approval rating and 85 percent of Republicans. A lot of Democrats praise him for his religious liberty veto and for his criminal justice overhaul. And Republicans also favor his criminal justice overhaul and also just say in general they liked the fact that he backed a sort of pro-business initiative throughout his tenure.

BEVINGTON: Greg, you mentioned the criminal justice overhauls that Governor Deal has enacted in the last eight years. What type of criminal justice system in Georgia is he leaving for the next governor?

BLUESTEIN: He's leaving one that diverts more nonviolent offenders away from more costly prison sentences, and towards rehabilitation programs and treatment centers. And other things that keep them out of jail, and out of prisons and out of costly state budget funding.

The state has saved more than a billion dollars in corrections costs over the last eight years. It has not had to build more prisons like was feared when Governor Deal took office, the incarceration rates are lower.

You've already seen cities like Atlanta who are taking steps towards eliminating cash bail. On the statewide level, the governor embraced an initiative that gives judges more leeway to not ask for cash bail, and to keep more people out of jails.

The governor said he's glad he went out on that note.

But I asked him the other day if there's one thing that he really wished he could have tackled that he didn’t, and he was very point-blank about it.

He said mandatory minimum sentences. That's 10, 15, 20-year sentences for certain crimes that I think he would want more discretion for the judges to say something like ‘Well, in this situation maybe it's worth eight years and not 15.’

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter for The Atlanta Journal Constitution and a panelist on GPB’s Political Rewind. You can hear the latest political insight and analysis Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 2:00 on your GPB station.