Courtesy State of Georgia
“I don’t walk away from bills,” Gov. Nathan Deal declared this past Monday, the deadline for unsigned legislation passed by the General Assembly to automatically become law. “I either sign them or veto them.”
His defiant remarks came in response to being asked about the “campus carry” bill, a measure that would’ve allowed people to carry concealed guns on college campuses, which had languished on his desk during April. Sure enough, last Tuesday afternoon, he vetoed the measure, which sparked praise from the left and even greater outrage from the right.
“The most obvious question is why since 1785, when we’ve been through major wars, conflicts and upheavals in this country and in the world, why all of the sudden in 2016 do we need weapons in the hands of college students where they have historically never been allowed,” Deal later said. “Nobody has answered that question satisfactorily for me.”
Of the 323 bills the General Assembly passed this legislative session, Deal vetoed 16, the most he’s rejected in a given year. Two of those—“campus carry” and “religious freedom”—have signaled a remarkable shift from a governor not known for ruffling feathers within the Republican ranks. Blocking two of his party’s top legislative priorities will, according to far-right lawmakers, turn the second-term governor into a lame duck earlier than expected.
Since taking office in 2011, the governor has been willing to work across the aisle on issues like criminal justice reform, which has earned him praise from President Barack Obama, and a proposal to erect a monument of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that would replace the statue of Thomas Watson, the late Georgia politician and known white supremacist, removed from outside the Gold Dome in late 2013. On the other hand, the governor has backed anti-immigration policies, blocked Medicaid expansion, and insisted that Georgia not emulate Colorado’s marijuana laws.
In a year of political extremism on the national stage, Deal has revealed himself to be a moderate Republican willing to break ranks with his party. On March 28, just three days after the end of the legislative session, Deal vetoed the “religious freedom” bill out of concern that it would legalize discrimination against LGBT people and lead to economic boycotts, as seen in North Carolina this spring. But he also laid out a conservative argument, quoting scripture as he questioned the need for further legislation regarding a right already protected by the U.S. Constitution. For his efforts, Deal was met with unprecedented vitriol from within his own party, while some Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Bill Heath, called futilely for a special session to override the veto.
In response to Deal’s “campus carry” veto, which cited legal precedents from Thomas Jefferson’s day, state Rep. David Stover, a Newnan Republican, last week declared on Facebook that the decision was “further proof that the state of Georgia, in modern history, has never elected a true Republican governor.” On the radio, state Rep. Kevin Cooke, a Carrolton Republican, proclaimed that Deal’s vetoes epitomized the political double-speak that has frustrated conservatives across the nation.
“People want to know why Donald Trump is the nominee for president,” Cooke said in a 1330-AM interview. “Nathan Deal is the reason Donald Trump is the nominee for president.”
Longtime University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock can’t recall another governor’s vetoes being met with such a negative outcry. “[Past] governors have taken an aggressive approach during the legislative session, shaping bills into something they’re willing to accept,” he said. “This was surprising.”
Deal, however, caught a break from the ever-changing news cycle. Just a few hours after his “campus carry” veto was released, Republican candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz dropped out of the presidential race after a shellacking in Indiana, conceding the party’s nomination to Donald Trump.
Proponents of both “campus carry” and “religious freedom” have already vowed to resurrect the bills next year. As retribution for his vetoes, Bullock said, Deal could be “stonewalled” on his planned education reform package, a centerpiece of his second-term agenda that includes a rewrite of the state’s archaic school funding formula. If he continues to resist, WSB-AM conservative pundit Erick Erickson recently wrote, “the [g]overnor is going to see his remaining agenda hijacked.”
It’s a threat that could come back to haunt Deal as he carves out his legacy in his final two years in political office.