Why Does Georgia's Governor Fly Around the State so Much?
By James Salzer
Gov. Nathan Deal was so eager to publicize the election-year budget lawmakers approved during the 2014 session that after he signed it into law at a ceremony in Suwanee April 28, he hopped on a state-charted flight for the coast to sign it three more times in three more cities.
In the 40-day period he had to sign bills, the governor also travelled to Augusta, Macon, Columbus and North Georgia. The faithful diligence of a statewide public servant, or the calculated moves of an incumbent campaigning for a second term at taxpayer expense?
Deal swears the former, his Republican and Democratic opponents for governor claim the later.
"The governor has jam-packed his 40-day bill signing period each of the four years he has held this office," said Brian Robinson, his spokesman. "Elected officials have a duty to listen to and communicate with constituents in every part of the state. Gov. Deal has worked overtime to do that the entire term and he will in his second term too.
"There's tremendous demand from legislators and community groups interested in particular bills. We try to accommodate as many as we can."
The governor accommodated fewer last year, or at least flew fewer hours to get where he was going. This year, the governor used chartered planes twice as much during the bill-signing period as in 2013, costing more than $30,000, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of state flight records. State patrol records showed no increase in the use of the agency's helicopters over the past two signing periods.
The bill-signing events are mostly staged for TV and press attention in the communities where they are held, allowing the governor and lawmakers to get publicity without having to dip into their campaign war chests.
Deal flew to Augusta to speak to a civic group and sign legislation letting cities set limits on the use of golf carts on public streets; he flew to Macon to sign a downtown development bill and offer a proclamation to the Mercer basketball team; he traveled to Columbus to ink a bill allowing for the creation of special court divisions for veterans; he hit Albany to sign a bill making changes to the state's community service board network; he helicoptered to Dawsonville to sign legislation giving local governments and the public more say over where sludge can be dumped in a community, just before stopping in Ellijay to approve legislation expanding where permitted gun owners can carry their weapons.
And he signed the state budget in Suwanee, Pooler, Tybee Island and Statesboro.
Robinson said such trips aren't campaign related. And he noted that other governors have done much the same thing.
Political veterans say he's right.
Rick Dent, who served as communications director for Gov. Zell Miller, said his boss traveled the state extensively in 1994 when he was facing a tough re-election challenge.
"There were some bills we signed in seven different cities in one day," Dent said. "Legally, the first time you sign the bill, that's all it takes, and the rest was for show."
After the 1994 session, Miller signed an anti-crime package seven times and a $100 million tax cut five times. Republicans accused Miller, a Democrat, of campaigning at taxpayer expense. This year, Deal's political opponents have noticed his high-mileage bill-signing period.
"Obviously we have been fascinated by his appearances across the state when he hasn't left Atlanta for three years," said former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who is running against Deal in Tuesday's Republican primary. "Nothing surprises me about Nathan's disregard for Georgia taxpayers."
Bryan Thomas, spokesman for Democratic contender Jason Carter, an Atlanta state senator, said, "It's disappointing, but sadly not surprising that Gov. Deal is once again using his office for personal gain, and making taxpayers pay the bill."
It's not entirely accurate that Deal has been a homebody in past years during the bill-signing period. The state's aviation department said the governor took five chartered flights -- nine hours of flying -- during the signing period last year.
This year, he made 11 trips on chartered flights over the 40 days, running up 19 hours of flying time. On average, aviation officials said, the flights cost about $1,700 per hour, so the cost this year is a little over $32,000.
One difference this year that might account for the increased hours in airplane travel time is that Deal, who built his political power base from his home turf in North Georgia, took more trips to South Georgia.
The governor's office can also use state patrol aircraft, and Deal took about 14 hours of those flights during the signing period this year. That's about the same as he used state patrol helicopters last year for trips closer to Atlanta.
The state patrol only records the fuel cost for such trips. It cost $1,352 in fuel alone to take a North Georgia bill-signing tour the day Deal signed the gun bill in Ellijay. Overall, fuel costs for his helicopter trips during the bill-signing period were just over $3,000.
Some of the governor's trips weren't to hold bill-signing ceremonies before TV cameras. He visited churches in Albany and Macon to talk about criminal justice reform. He spoke to civic clubs in Valdosta and Thomasville, in the latter touting the extra money he included in this year's budget for schools. While he was in town, he also visited Flowers Foods, a major campaign donor. He flew to Bainbridge to tout Bainbridge Manufacturing's decision to invest $10 million in a new headquarters.
The trip to the coast April 28 may have raised the most eyebrows. He signed the state budget, which included $300 million extra for schools, at an 8 a.m. ceremony at the Gwinnett County public schools main office. He then flew to Jeykll Island, where he signed juvenile justice bills at the Jekyll Island Club and Resort. Next up was signing the budget he'd already signed, this time at JCB, a heavy equipment manufacturer, in Pooler. After that, it was off to the Tybee Island Lighthouse, where he re-signed the budget. Then on to Statesboro, where he signed it again at Georgia Southern University.
Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, who attended two of the budget-signing ceremonies, said Deal's willingness to come to the coast to re-sign the budget helps erase the perception in his area that state leaders only care about North Georgia, where so much political power currently resides. Both the governor and lieutenant governor are from Gainesville, and the leader of the House is from Blue Ridge.
"It hasn't been that long ago that a lot of power was concentrated in coastal and South Georgia," he said. "All of a sudden the power has shifted to a small area. It's important to show your face when big things happen and that you are not always just thinking about the area you're from."
It also helps that the state budget always has a little something for any local politician -- or governor -- to crow about. Stephens noted that the budget Deal signed and re-signed includes $5.7 million in borrowing for beach restoration on Tybee Island.
"I don't care if you are Republican, Democratic or martian, that's a big deal here," he said.
(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution