The tabulation of votes on Election Day reordered Georgia’s political landscape in ways that may not be fully realized. It President-elect Donald Trump appoints some key Georgians to administration posts, it will create a round of musical chairs that will have long-reaching impact on things like the next race for governor and the Washington delegation. Having friends in high places has the potential to bring benefits to the Peach State, although there is no guarantee.
While we won’t know about those appointments until they are made, we can predict some changes that are already evident.
First is the Trump plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, which eliminates any impetus for the Peach State to consider expanding Medicaid. Until the new Trump proposal is passed by Congress, all state-level health policy discussions will be silenced, including a vague plan pushed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce for a sort of streamlined version of Medicaid expansion that legislative leaders were lukewarm about anyway.
Other state actions required to cope with regulations pushed by the Obama administration are also on hold, such as Georgia’s response to the Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. Plenty of time and energy has been expended by bureaucrats and lobbyists on these types of state rules to implement federal regulations, so now they’ll have free time for other issues.
Another source of tremors emanating from the vote tally was the thumping Gov. Nathan Deal received with the thrashing of his Opportunity School District amendment to the state constitution. He might have written off a narrow defeat to special interests, but a loss in nearly every county and by a total of more than 800,000 votes is a clear signal that he’s out of touch with the public on that issue.
The amendment setback comes after he vetoed two controversial bills that the legislature was solidly in favor of, the so-called religious liberty bill and a measure to open college campuses to guns for permit holders. In the case of those bills, Deal appeared to be more in synch with public opinion.
The potential upset of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed a similar religious-liberty bill, could give opponents more ammunition when that state’s votes are finally all counted. Still, Deal’s vetoes put him at loggerheads with his own legislature.
Deal, the child of two public educators and the spouse of a former one, has made education reform a priority. A major item on his personal to-do list is revamping the state’s formula for school funding, including endorsing districts’ freedom to institute merit pay. Although merit pay is allowed under current law, his formula revision would offer districts scenarios that could make it a greater likelihood that they would switch to performance pay.
In January, the governor postponed legislative consideration of his new funding formula until the 2017 legislative session. Some say it was because he recognized the opposition it would face as long as it included any merit-pay provisions. Now, that opposition hasn’t lost any steam, and instead is feeling more potent after Deal gained no return on the political capital he invested in the amendment battle.
A possible beneficiary of Deal’s shorter shadow is the group supporting expanded legalized gambling. Deal’s opposition to casinos and horse tracks stalled them during his tenure even though he can’t veto a constitutional amendment. The perception of his diminished influence opens the door wider. Already, the Columbus city council passed a resolution Tuesday backing casinos in what could be just the first of many dominoes to tumble.
Casino supporters may also benefit from the unseating of state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, as chairman of the Georgia Senate Republican Caucus. He was a strong supporter of religious-liberty legislation and an active opponent of casinos.
One other source of shudders on Election Day was the change of suburban Atlanta counties from red to blue, like Cobb, Henry, Douglas, Gwinnett and Newton, in a year when the Republican nominee beat the Democratic standard bearer by 5 percent in the overall state. Demographic trends foreshadowed the shift, but many observers thought they wouldn’t formally flip until the next presidential election.
This new Democratic majority in the state’s most populous counties, plus Bibb, Chatham, Muscogee and Richmond, may not immediately alter state elections that are held in non-presidential years. They do suggest an erosion of Georgia’s conservative muscle on votes for constitutional amendments like gambling expansion and referenda on taxes, bonds and Marta extensions. Even though Trump’s victory offers signs that the White House will tilt to the right, the state is now tilting less so.
What all this means is that conservative leaders have to be smarter. They can’t count on automatic passage of their every proposal any more. Timing contentious referenda will have to be strategic. And they will have to do a better job of convincing voters in the newly blue areas rather than just taking their agreement for granted.