Gov. Nathan Deal ushered in the start of his second term with a vow to continue the next phase of his criminal justice overhaul and reminder of the work left unfinished from the last four years. He only made brief mentions about a few of his biggest policy proposals, leaving the more forceful advocacy for his agenda items to later speeches this week.
Here are four of our takeaways from Deal's remarks as he embarked on a second term:
Education: The governor only hinted about his top policy goal for this session, a constitutional amendment to give the state broad new powers to take over failing schools, in the vaguest of terms. He praised Utopian Academy for the Arts, a charter school he has visited several times, as an example of the power of alternative schools.
"Without the charter school amendment, many of these children would still be sitting in schools that are under performing," he said, adding: "These are exciting new beginnings, and we will work in this term to plant more of these opportunities."
MLK Statue: Deal badly wanted to hold the swearing-in ceremony at the new Liberty Plaza across the street from the statehouse, but bad weather forced him to move the ceremony indoors. He said soon the statehouse grounds will soon have another feature, in the form of a new Martin Luther King Jr. statue that was promised last year. There is a portrait of the civil rights icon, but no statue. Deal made clear that would soon change.
"He serves as a symbol for those ideals, but history recognizes him as a man of action," said Deal. "Within our new plaza, the symbols of freedom will welcome the exercise of freedom."
Criminal justice reform: You have already heard plenty about the overhaul championed by Deal that aims to keep more low-level offenders out of prisons. He'll push more for a new range of changes aimed at smoothing their transition to society, saying he intends for "Georgia to continue to leading the nation with meaningful justice reform." Said Deal: "I am here to tell you, an ex-con with no hope of gainful employment is a danger to us all. This is why we must work to get these individuals into a job.
What wasn't said: He skated over most of the nitty-gritty policy and budget debates likely to eat up his attention this session, but the most noticeable absence was any mention of the coming fight over transportation funding. The governor said in remarks after the speech that he's supportive of the effort to raise at least $1 billion to improve Georgia's beleaguered infrastructure network, but he hasn't said how he prefers to raise the funds.
Here's a full copy of the speech:
Lt. Governor Cagle, Speaker Ralston, President Pro Tem Shafer, Speaker Pro Tem Jones, members of the General Assembly, constitutional officers, members of the consular corps, members of the judiciary, my fellow Georgians:
Today, we stand under the watchful eye of History. In a nation founded by pilgrims seeking new religious freedoms, in a state formed by an English nobleman looking to give debtors and religious refugees from the Old World a fresh start, in a city symbolized by the phoenix rising from the ashes of a civil war, and across from a new plaza where Georgians of today and tomorrow can exercise their rights to speak freely, to petition and to assemble, the hundreds of you here today represent the 10 million people across Georgia as we inaugurate a new term, a new vision, a new mandate to address the needs of our citizens.
This is an occasion not to honor me or those who come after me, but rather to celebrate the will of the people of Georgia. Inaugurations of elected officials pay homage to our democracy – to the belief that all citizens have a say in who governs them.
While we planned to have this ceremony in our new forum, Liberty Plaza—which pays tribute to our freedoms, those rights endowed by God, enshrined in our Constitution and defended by free men and women—Mother Nature had a different idea, as she did four years ago. However, if this term produces results on a magnitude of those of my first term, I gladly gather with all of you inside this beautiful Chamber.
In that plaza, which we will dedicate this Friday afternoon, we prominently display symbols of our freedoms: the Statue of Liberty and Georgia’s Liberty Bell. Soon, on Capitol grounds, we’ll add a statue of Georgia’s native son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped fulfill America’s promise of freedom and equality for all. He serves as a symbol for those ideals, but history recognizes him as a man of action. Within our new plaza, the symbols of freedom will welcome the exercise of freedom. There, Georgians will engage in the marketplace of ideas. There, they will advocate or oppose government actions. There, they will assemble to express their thoughts and opinions, openly and without fear.
What we do as elected officials under this iconic gold dome directly affects the lives of all Georgians, and our duty is to seek policies that will allow every citizen to realize their full potential so that liberty and freedom will have real meaning in their lives. As we celebrate this new beginning today, we reflect on how forward-looking leadership creates powerful new beginnings in the individual lives of Georgians.
Those who have never lost their freedom can easily take it for granted. Perhaps, therefore, liberty may hold some deeper meaning for those who have lost it and are now seeking to regain it. In Georgia, we have taken monumental steps in recent years to give nonviolent offenders a new beginning. As a result, our alternative courts are paying dividends for offenders, their families and taxpayers. We have indeed found a smarter way to address the cases of nonviolent offenders whose underlying issues are addiction or mental illness. Instead of burdening taxpayers with the cost of a prison sentence, instead of branding the offender with the stigma of incarceration, these individuals are getting the treatment they need; they are keeping jobs; and they are keeping families together.
At the beginning of the current fiscal year, there were roughly 4,700 active participants in our accountability courts seeking a second chance. For those individuals and their families, these new beginnings are restoring hope.
The greatest affirmation of the success of these reforms comes from Georgians who tell Sandra and me their personal stories of how accountability courts have given them a second chance to break their addictions and reclaim their lives. These stories come from people we meet in shops, restaurants and the working world of Georgia. Several days ago I stopped at a small sandwich shop. The lady who took my order recognized me and immediately told me her story of how she had graduated from a local drug court. She repeated the refrain that is universal in these encounters: “Drug court saved my life.” She told me she was the mother of five children and that without that second chance she would not be able to work and support her family. Our reforms are working.
For those who are already in our prison system, many of them now have the chance for a new beginning too. Approximately 70 percent of Georgia's inmates don't have a high school diploma. If their lack of an education is not addressed during their incarceration, when they re-enter society they have a felony on their record but no job skills on their résumé. I am here to tell you, an ex-con with no hope of gainful employment is a danger to us all. This is why we must work to get these individuals into a job. Our prisons have always been schools. In the past, the inmates have learned how to become better criminals. Now they are taking steps to earn diplomas and gain job skills that will lead to employment after they serve their sentences.
Augusta is home to a fine example of what an opportunity at a new life can mean for an individual who has exited our prison system. A former inmate by the name of Sean has proven that a helping hand, a pleasant demeanor and persistence in the face of adversity go a long way in shaping a person’s future. While he was in a state transitional center, Sean worked at the Governor’s Mansion. Over time, Sandra and I grew to know him. He has since been paroled, and I am proud to tell you, he currently works for Goodwill. He has received a promotion for his strong performance, been nominated for Goodwill International Employee of the Year and now serves as Banquet Catering Sales Coordinator, employing skills he developed at the Mansion. He will soon begin taking classes in a college program, where he intends to earn a degree and become a counselor. I am pleased that Sean is with us today.
While it is important that our criminal justice system punish those who have harmed the lives and property of our citizens, it should also seek to change the direction of their lives so that they will not repeat their criminal conduct upon release. Punishment for bad conduct coupled with fundamental changes that lead to good conduct are the ingredients that result in True Justice.
While Sean’s story began before our Criminal Justice Reforms were passed, his conduct and that of many others who were seeking a better life upon their release, gave me confidence that we could find a successful pathway if we had the courage to do so. Our message to those in our prison system and to their families is this: If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life. I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.
Most of us who grew up in Georgia were blessed with a great public education, and most of you had the same opportunity I had, made possible by those teachers and administrators who invested in us. I am honored today to have my high school English teacher, Mrs. Shirley Friedman, as well as several of my classmates from Washington County High School, joining us on this occasion.
Education is often at the heart of new beginnings. With the blessing of Georgia's voters, in our first term we created a Charter School Commission to make sure concerned parents and communities would have alternatives from which to choose if their children were trapped in failing schools.
That was certainly the case for the parents and children at Clayton County's Utopian Academy for the Arts, whose students put on an amazing and inspiring performance for us earlier. These students are blessed to have parents willing to fight for them and a visionary principal, Artesius Miller, who overcame many obstacles to open the school.
Theirs is a story of determination, conviction and passion, and the children who sang for us today are the beneficiaries. You can see that hard work and discipline are paying off in their lives.
Without the charter school amendment, many of these children would still be sitting in schools that are underperforming. But because Georgia did the right thing, they will have a brighter future. In several years, many of them will be the first in their families to attend college. These are exciting new beginnings, and we will work in this term to plant more of these opportunities.
As governor, my top priority has been creating new jobs, so that those who take the time to acquire education and workforce skills will then be able to support themselves and their families. This task has been particularly difficult as our state has been recovering from the Great Recession. And yet, we've created more than 319,000 new jobs in the private sector in the past four years. Just six days ago we announced that Mercedes-Benz USA is establishing its North American headquarters here, creating hundreds of new high-paying jobs.
Let us not lose the significance in the statistic. Behind each one of those job numbers is a personal story. Every so often, I get to hear some of those stories myself. Let me read you a piece of a letter I received this past fall from a young girl in metro Atlanta:
“I’m 11 years old and live in DeKalb County, go to Peachtree Charter Middle School and love it here in Georgia. By the way thank you for becoming governor because those thousands of jobs you gave Georgia was one of my moms.”
The girl who wrote me that letter is here today with her mother and twin sister. Angelique, will you and your family please stand and be recognized. I want you to know that we will continue to create jobs over the next four years for others like your mom.
These are the stories of new beginnings for Georgians seeking to recapture their lives, for Georgians seeking to learn and achieve, for Georgians seeking to earn a living. These stories are what have inspired me for the past four years and what excite me about this second term. They are why I'm honored that the citizens of this state have affirmed their faith in the positive direction we're going by giving me this opportunity to serve once again.
These next four years are about building upon the foundation we have laid. While we have accomplished much, we have much left to do. That work is a new beginning. It begins today.
May God bless you and may God continue to bless the great state of Georgia.