Governor reflects on past seven years in office. Looks ahead to final year as lawmakers prepare to return to the Gold Dome.
Editor’s Note: Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal delivered the following remarks on January 10, 2018, during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.
“Tomorrow, I will give my eighth and final State of the State address. In preparation, I reflected on these last seven years that I have been privileged to serve as your governor, and I asked myself what so many ask during a campaign year – are we better off as a state now than we were seven years ago?
Well, with the help of many in this room, we have achieved the goals and priorities I spoke of in my first campaign to govern and in my first State of the State address. As a result, I believe the answer is yes, we are indeed better off today than we were seven years ago.
We mended and strengthened a battered state economy. In January of 2011, for instance, our unemployment rate stood at 10.4 percent. Now, it is just 4.3 percent. At that time, just 3.8 million of our citizens had a job. Now, over 4.5 million are employed – the highest number than at any other time in our state history. That rapid increase is thanks to the more than 675,000 new, private sector jobs we have brought to our communities since my first day in office.
Some have suggested that our business climate is not conducive to job creation, but people do not come to a state unless it offers a quality business environment – one that encourages job creation and provides opportunity. Over the past decade, Georgia has jumped from the 10th most populous state to the eighth, with well over 10.4 million citizens now calling Georgia home.
Contrast that with many of our competitor states that are steadily declining in population size, revenue and economic prosperity. In fact, according to a national survey, 22 states made net mid-year budget cuts in Fiscal Year 2017 and the revenues of 27 states came in below their budget projections.
That same report also found that Georgia’s personal income growth between 2016 and 2017 was significantly higher than the national average. Furthermore, among the ten most populous states, Georgia is one of only five to have above-average employment growth.
We continue to see new Georgians move here every day because they find the jobs and opportunity in our state that they cannot find anywhere else. Together, we have attracted new industries and the professions of the future. We have made our schools a priority and improved our student performance so that these students of today become the highly-skilled workforce of tomorrow.
When the Great Recession dealt its heavy blow to our state before my time in office, Georgia used over $1.4 billion from its Rainy Day Fund in just two years, and it was dangerously low in January of 2011. We had only enough in our Revenue Shortfall Reserve to fund state government for just two days. Now, thanks to conservative budgeting, investing in areas that produce positive results, and placing the remainder of our yearly revenues into the Rainy Day Fund, it now stands at over $2.3 billion, putting us in a safe position for any economic eventualities the future may bring.
That is one of the key reasons why we have maintained our AAA bond rating – one of the very few states in the nation to do so for 20 consecutive years. We made state government more lean and efficient. We reformed taxes – another campaign promise kept – and made Georgia a safer place to call home. And we made Georgia the No. 1 state for business five times over!
A major brand we hope to welcome to Georgia in the coming year is, of course, Amazon with its forthcoming HQ2 announcement. Like everyone else in this room and under the Gold Dome, I am excited by this prospect. Rest assured that we have made a strong, highly competitive offer that highlights all that makes us unique and truly the best place for any company to do business – our skilled workforce, our strengthening infrastructure, our business-friendly policies and our connection to the global market.
Given the nature of Amazon’s announcement and the frenzied publicity it has generated, many people suddenly have a lot of advice about what we should do. Do not listen to those voices!
It may be months before Amazon makes a decision or even narrows their choices, and we have many important issues to consider in the interim during this legislative session. We cannot waste valuable time, energy and effort when what we should be doing is focusing on enhancing those issues which have already made us an attractive candidate to Amazon.
We have opportunities over the next few months to strengthen our education system, improve the health and safety of our youngest citizens and invest in our network of transportation infrastructure. We cannot allow those opportunities to pass us by as we wait on another.
Until such a time as we are given notice that we are on the shortlist of candidates, it would be very unwise for this session of the General Assembly to consume valuable time trying to guess what Amazon is going to do. Such speculation may in fact do us more harm than good.
To those who believe we should instead spend that time passing Amazon-specific legislation, let me assure you that if Georgia makes the list of final three contenders for HQ2, I will call a special session so that we can make whatever statutory changes are required to accommodate a business opportunity of this magnitude. To do so before we know where we stand would be presumptuous on our part and premature.
As we know, there is a time and a season for all things; and when the right time comes, we will focus our full attention and efforts on the success Amazon can enjoy by bringing their second headquarters to Georgia.
In 2013, Georgia first received the designation of No. 1 state in which to do business. Prior to that time, we had never received such a distinction from any rating agency. For the past five years now, we have sustained that designation, which is unheard of but a profound endorsement of the policies we have adopted. We aim to do what we can to safeguard that reputation in the years to come.
Cyber Center for Innovation and Training
That effort includes our commitment to bring next-generation professions to our state. To that end, exactly a week ago today, I joined with our private and public sector partners to break ground on the second phase of the Cyber Center for Innovation and Training in Augusta. With the state as the primary financial backer, coupled with contributions from the Augusta-Richmond County, the Hull McKnight Georgia Cyber Center for Innovation and Training constitutes the largest investment in cybersecurity facilities in the nation to date.
Because this Center is located in Augusta, many in the Metro area underestimate the importance of this new tool. The Cyber Center will have a dual role as a cyber defense and economic development facility that brings together academia, private industry and public sector partners to work on meeting the growing need for highly trained cybersecurity professionals.
Just as the film and TV production industry has brought thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact, so too does the Cyber Center for Innovation and Training have the potential to impact all corners of this state in a meaningful way for generations to come.
Therefore, in this gathering of the elite business leaders of our state, I encourage you to look closely at the resources offered by the Cyber Center, including the incubator that will produce new technologies and high quality, high-paying jobs.
As we continue to invest in our cyber infrastructure, we will also continue to invest in our gateways to the global market – the port system. Already, Georgia has contributed $266 million to the ongoing Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. In this year’s budget proposal, I have allocated a further $35 million for this vital undertaking. As we have always done in the past, this additional funding ensures that Georgia will have paid its fair share of the project – a project, I might add, that has been far too long postponed due to the ongoing delays in federal funding.
Again, Georgia has paid its fair share of the project. As the largest infrastructure project in the Southeast, I call on our congressional delegation, including our U.S. senators, to ensure the federal government lives up to its funding requirements, as set down in the original agreement on this project.
The contributions we are making to the Savannah Harbor Expansion are just a single part of the ongoing, comprehensive investments we are making to our state’s infrastructure of all modes and levels. This year, we will allocate over $25 million in increased funding to our state’s regional airports for improvements and expansions. The improvements will impact eleven airports in the state, with nine of the eleven located in rural Georgia. Based on the upgrades, the airports will be elevated in their tier rankings as we extend the length of their runways to 5,000 feet or more in order to accommodate corporate aircraft and, ultimately, economic growth.
If we really want to improve the economic future of rural Georgia, this is one of the best ways possible to do so, because it will allow business leaders to come to their communities and see all that they have to offer. Companies often evaluate a community’s local aviation capabilities when considering new locations and expansions.
The nine rural communities directly impacted by this investment will be Burke, Colquitt, Cook, Macon, Morgan, Polk, Seminole, Washington and Wilkes counties. Many of the towns and cities in these counties lack direct access to our interstate highway system and are unlikely to have such access in the foreseeable future. Their airports provide the best option for job creators interested in viewing their resources. Therefore, these upgraded airports will provide rural Georgia with a competitive advantage and a strong boost in their efforts to attract new companies. The other two are Coweta and Newton Counties. These airport improvements will also relieve pressure on Metro Atlanta regional airports that are handling more and more volume due to increased growth.
As we make these improvements, we will be mindful of the fact that the longer the runway, the bigger the corporate jets and the greater the possibilities for our rural citizens.
Through these important investments, we will further connect our rural communities with our broadening, statewide infrastructure network. Throughout my administration, my team and I have been dedicated to lifting all communities in Georgia, not just our denser population hubs. This is just the latest in our ongoing effort to improve the opportunities of these smaller communities, which serve as the backbone of our state’s overall success.
Business Court Constitutional Amendment
Finally, as we address the issues that result from an ever-expanding state population, we will continue to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our state government. The Court Reform Council I established last year was tasked with reviewing our current practices and procedures within the civil judicial system and the Office of State Administrative Hearings.
One of the primary reform recommendations from that Council that will be included in legislation this session calls for a Business Court Constitutional Amendment – something long advocated for by many present today and throughout the private sector community.
A constitutional business court would provide an efficient and dependable forum to litigants in every corner of the state for the resolution of complex matters. Such a stable legal environment will help ensure that we remain the number one state in which to do business and also provide relief to the demands placed on our superior and state courts, making our judicial system as a whole more efficient.
If this is an issue you are interested in – and you should be – I encourage you to talk to your members of the General Assembly, because it will require a two-thirds majority vote to put this much-needed reform on the ballot.
‘nothin’ lame ’bout this duck
Eight years ago, I campaigned to govern on five major issues: tax relief, education improvements, transportation funding reform, criminal justice reform, and a strengthened economy with new jobs and opportunity.
I would strongly suggest to you that over the last seven years, my administration – along with the General Assembly – has addressed each of these areas of need; and as a result, I will ask once again: Is our state better off today than it was seven years ago?
The answer on all accounts is a resounding yes. If anyone suggests to you otherwise, they better be prepared to prove it.
Let me also have some fun with y’all in letting you know that my senior staff is very territorial when it comes to the accomplishments we’ve made while in office. We’re so very happy we could provide such a great record for those campaigning this year to run on.
To those trying to use our record for their gain, and to those insinuating that our economic potential is not as great as it is, if you begin firing shots, just remember that we have the ammunition. We have the facts, we have the truth, and we aren’t afraid to use them.
In short, there is nothin’ lame ‘bout this duck.
Eight years ago, I campaigned to govern. I recommend to all those on the ballot this year to do the same. Choose your words carefully, because they will follow you into office, should you be blessed with that responsibility.
As we enter this eighth year of my term as your governor, my goal is to maintain the gains we have made together, to build on the progress we began seven years ago, and to reinforce Georgia’s growing reputation as the greatest place to work, learn, and call home.”