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Deal pitches 2014 plans before GOP crowd
Governor touts education spending, jobs, justice reform as top priorities
Gov. Nathan Deal spoke to the Forsyth County Republican Party on Saturday before addressing a gathering of the Hall County GOP later that morning. - photo by Crystal Ledford

Gov. Nathan Deal emphasized the link in Georgia between strong business and a well-educated work force during an appearance Saturday in Forsyth County.

“We do have the top ranked work force in the country, but we’ve got to keep it that way,” he said. “And it takes a pipeline of educated people and trained and skilled people continuing to come through.”

As such, Deal said he has “put more money into K through 12 education than we’ve seen come in an increase in the last seven years.”

Addressing members of the Forsyth County Republican Party, the governor noted Georgia’s designation as the top state in the nation in which to do business.

“[This designation] is one that many people have worked very hard to achieve and it’s one that we’re going to have to continue to work very hard to maintain because it is a competitive environment for attracting and keeping business in this country,” he said.

Deal’s visit with the local GOP preceded a similar appearance later that morning with Republicans in neighboring Hall County, Deal’s home. Due to the tight schedule, the governor was unable to field questions from the Forsyth group, though he did cover a range of topics during his nearly 30-minute address.

Rather than going solely toward teacher pay raises, Deal has instructed the proposed additional funding for education be used however local school boards deem appropriate.

“You’re going to see it manifest itself in different ways in different school districts across the state,” he said.

Deal also praised the state’s technical college system for its role in attracting new businesses. He pointed to its Quick Start program, which provides individualized training based on the specific needs of businesses at no charge to them, as a key component.

According to Deal, if a German company was locating to Georgia, Quick Start employees would visit Germany to learn about the company’s climate and culture. Upon returning to Georgia, they would then teach prospective employees everything they need to know to work for the company.

Also on the topics of education and employment, Deal has begun a program that pays 100 percent of students’ tuition if they go into one of several in-demand fields. He said three areas were identified last year, with another four to join the program in 2014.

Regarding the state’s HOPE scholarship program, Deal said he has asked the General Assembly to create a Zell Miller grant for technical college students.

Under the proposal, the state would pay 100 percent of tuition costs if the students maintain a 3.5 or higher grade-point average.

Deal also touched on the state’s criminal justice system. He hopes to see an additional $20 million go toward accountability programs, such as drug, mental health and veterans’ courts. The programs provide judicially overseen recovery and direction for nonviolent offenders.

A misdemeanor drug court is starting this month in Forsyth County State Court, with a mental health court expected to launch in April.

“If we want to keep ourselves safe, we ought to not have our prison system as a revolving door,” said Deal, noting that it costs $18,000 per prison bed each year.

“If we don’t have something that will change the direction of [nonviolent offenders’] lives, then we’re going to see them be more dangerous when they come out [of prison] than we they came in. Let’s identify those that are nonviolent and see if there’s not a better way.”

Brad Wilkins, chairman of the local party, said Deal’s visit drew nearly three times the turnout for the group’s monthly meeting.

“We had almost 150 people and usually it’s around 50, so the governor definitely draws a crowd,” he said. “It was a great meeting.”

Wilkins said the group played host last summer to one of Deal’s opponents for the May 20 Republican primary and is in talks with the other about a visit.

He added the group plans to have several state, federal and local candidates during meetings prior to the primary, as well as candidate debates in April.

“We pride ourselves on giving people opportunities to hear from as many candidates from around the state and even the nation as we possibly can get,” Wilkins said.