When Nathan Deal entered the governor’s office on January 10, 2011, the congressman from Hall County did not have particularly wide name recognition. A former prosecutor and state senator before heading to Washington, D.C., in 1992 to represent the state’s northeast corner, Deal rode a national Republican wave into office. But over the course of eight years—he handily won a second-term victory against Democrat Jason Carter, a move that cemented Deal’s undefeated record as an elected official—he proved himself a conservative pragmatist. Working with then Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Deal pursued billions in federal funding to expand the Port of Savannah and in the process repaired the decades-old acrimonious city-state relationship. During a time when his colleague in North Carolina pushed far-right policies discriminating against transgender people, Deal played defense against his own Republican lawmakers. Instead, the governor focused on economic development, education, and criminal justice reform, a years-long initiative that changed sentencing for nonviolent offenders and promoted re-entry into society, among other measures. On January 14, Deal hands the keys to Brian Kemp and settles in Habersham County, where he and his wife, Sandra, will retire. Atlanta magazine spoke with Deal, now 76, in the ceremonial office in the Capitol in late October. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You came into office nearly eight years ago. You had the full power of the governor’s office behind you and could have picked any issue to address. Why criminal justice reform? What was it that made you say, “I want to dedicate the time, political capital, and brain cells to this?”
Politics is like riding a merry-go-round. You got all sorts of horses, benches, colorful things that are going around. Where do you decide to jump on the merry-go-round? I was asked early on, “Why criminal justice reform? This is not a Republican issue.” We were growing into a situation that, I thought, was going to get worse. It was economically a drain on our state, becoming more so every cycle. The prisons were overcrowded. We were going to have to spend $267 million, as I recall, to build two new adult prisons. It was a dead-end road. Our recidivism rate was one out of every three adults returning to the system within three years from when they’re released. Sixty-five percent of our juveniles returned within that same period of time.
We learned an important lesson that I think is good for politics in general. When you take big issues like that, you can’t just cram it all into the public’s mindset, or the General Assembly’s mindset, in a short period of time. We approached it incrementally. We appointed a council and asked them to study the issue and come back with recommendations. Over the following years, we passed some pieces of that package—which we were told would be controversial—unanimously. Throughout the entire seven years, there have been very few dissenting votes. It is one of the rather unusual issues where there’s tremendous bipartisanship. I did not know that was going to happen. I’d hoped that it would happen. But I think it was an issue worth dealing with for our society and for the future of our state.
You look like you started to tear up talking about it.
I get a little soft-hearted. My son is a drug court judge. I’d been to several of his drug court graduations. I saw the human stories associated with successfully giving people a second chance. I don’t think there are many people who would have a hard heart when confronted with those circumstances. To see people take advantage of a second chance, not only to redeem their lives, but to redeem and reclaim their children in many cases, and to be able to be taxpayers instead of depending on the rest of us to support them for the rest of their lives? It’s a good news story, and it’s one that needs to be told more than it is.
There’s been a constant battle between roads and transit, and, in the last few years, we started seeing the state contribute more to the latter. Do you think that is something that should continue?
I hope the demand for transit will continue. Historically, the state has spent money on state highways, state bridges, interstates, and sent state money to local jurisdictions to improve local roads and local bridges. We have not gotten into the transit issue until this past year, and we put $100 million of bond funding in for transit. Again, we started with an incremental approach. We funded rapid transit buses and the bus system. Some places, like parts of North Fulton, have been opposed to the extension of a rail line running through their community. Those are local issues that are still going to have to be resolved. You still have the arguments of those who will never use transit. Note that many rural legislators, whose communities might never be touched by transit, supported the ATL [the regional transit agency created in 2018 by the state] largely because of metro Atlanta’s role as a jobs hub.
You got a lot of pushback from Democrats and healthcare advocates for not expanding Medicaid. [They argue that covering the “hole in the donut”—the segment of Georgia’s population that earns too much to be eligible for the federal assistance program and too little to qualify for the Affordable Care Act—would cover 500,000 people and create jobs.] What do you think needs to be done on that issue of health insurance for that segment of the population?
I put the emphasis on job creation. The largest incentive for people to have health insurance was when Congress allowed an employer to deduct the cost of health insurance for their employees off of their company’s operating expenses. Some people are wanting to do away with that exemption for employers. If employers are not required to do it and get no financial benefit from doing it, they will cease to do it, which means you will have more uninsured. I hope the proponents of that change gain no steam, because their underlying theory is they want the federal government to be the sole provider of healthcare, a single-payer system. The bulk of our population in this country gets their health insurance through a job. Instead of increasing the burden on taxpayers to provide healthcare, why don’t we train our people so they can get a job? Because when they get a job, the likelihood that they’re going to get health insurance is rather high. To me, that is a better approach.
The converse of that is, if you put people on taxpayer-funded programs like Medicaid, and you have earnings limits that qualify you or disqualify you from eligibility, then you create disincentives for people to get a job. That is bad policy. If Congress wants to solve this so-called “hole in the donut,” then let the subsidy program start where the state’s Medicaid eligibility leaves off, so you would have no gap in between. If you fill that gap by just increasing Medicaid eligibility, that’s all taxpayer funded. If you simply fill that gap with subsidies, it is only partially government funded. You will have them in the private health insurance marketplace. I would like for people who are advocating for Medicaid expansion to show me a few healthcare providers who claim that they do not lose money on servicing Medicaid patients. Every hospital—and most private providers—will tell you, Medicaid costs us more to provide the services than we are reimbursed. People are saying, “Well, we’ll make all this money if we expand Medicaid.” We will draw down some federal money, perhaps. Where are you going to get the money from when they start saying, “Well, this is just not enough for us to even break even?” It’s a real issue that ought to be talked about.
What is something that you couldn’t address that makes you say, “I wish I had four more years?”
Kindergarten through 12th grade education reforms. We tried with—I know they don’t like for us to use this word, but I haven’t heard any term that describes it any better—chronically failing schools. Too many young people are dropping out of school. The education community will say, and rightfully so, we can’t educate children who come here hungry, who don’t get to sleep at night because their parents keep them awake with wild parties, so they sleep in school. We can’t do anything about the sheer poverty from which some of these children come. Because the poverty-stricken child has no vision or hope for the future. Because children only know what they’re exposed to and what they see. And if they see a dead end, then their hope for ever rising out of that is significantly diminished.
But we all have to get real about that. If we are not willing to do something about those factors that teachers cannot control, then we’re going to have to accept teachers doing the best they can under the circumstances. Both of my parents were public school teachers. My wife was a public school teacher. So were both her parents. We know the trials and tribulations of school teachers. And I have great empathy for them.
The money factor had been an excuse every time we would recommend reforms to the quality basic education formula [or QBE, the formula the state uses to determine funding for public schools across Georgia]. I don’t think that the current use of the money through QBE is the best use, and I think it needs to be modernized and upgraded. Fully funding that formula for the first time [in 2018] took away an excuse, hopefully, for the next governor and the General Assembly to look at, how are you gonna spend this money wisely?
We’re spending over half our state budget on education. If there is something wrong with the way we spend that money, then we ought to change it. I think the really good educators and administrators are more than willing to do that. There are some who like the politics of education who do not want to deal with those hard facts. Now that we’ve fully funded QBE, it’s a good launching pad for reforming that formula.
You earned a lot of respect from people across the aisle when you vetoed religious liberty. How did you approach that issue?
My responsibility as the governor is to do what’s best for our state and for our people, as a whole. I voted for a scaled-down version of the religious liberty legislation back in 1993 when it was first introduced in Congress. I was never presented with a state piece of legislation that was like that. It always had some little gimmicks and side things. And those were the things that were the most objectionable, quite frankly.
I concluded that our state is a pretty good state, and we try to treat people fairly. I have asked those who made that a big issue, some of whom wanted to censure me for vetoing that legislation, “Well, give me one good example of something that has happened in our state that having a religious liberty statute would have prevented?” They’ll cite examples from another state here and another state there. I have never, yet, been given a really good, hard example of anything bad that had happened here, even though we had no religious liberty statute.
I respect people of religious faith. I am one, as is my family. But my religion teaches me that you love people. And I think it comes right down to that. When you’re passing legislation that is somewhat punitive in nature, who are you mad at? Who are you trying to punish? Why are you trying to punish them? I felt like it wasn’t necessary. It was gonna do damage to the fabric of our state. And we’re bigger people than that.
What’s been the most fun part of the job?
Being able to help people. I ran for governor because I think I had the background, the understanding, the concept of what government should and should not do that would help our state move forward. I hope that time has proven that [I had] those qualities.
Did anything keep you up at night when you were governor?
No, other than my back. [chuckles]
This article appears in our January 2019 issue.