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Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 1:22pm

Political Surprise: Georgia Governor Vetoes Private Probation Bill

Governor Nathan Deal signed a bill Tuesday that will allow for the construction of a statue to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on state Capitol grounds. Immediately afterward, he vetoed a bill governing how private companies oversee Georgia probationers.

The private probation bill, which was the subject of a scathing state audit, is the only major bill Deal will be vetoing. Critics say the measure would have allowed private probation companies to conceal details of their dealings from the public.

“There were a lot of red flags raised in the audit, with regard to the process, the procedures, the reporting mechanism and quite frankly the failure to follow existing protocols established both through the office of the courts that has oversight over it, as well as some of the statutory requirements,” he told reporters after the bill signing.

In his veto statement, Deal said, "There is language in this legislation that would exempt certain key information about private probation services from the Georgia Open Records Act. I favor more transparency over private probation services and therefore I am not in favor of this information being exempt from the Georgia Open Records Act. In addition, it is my understanding that the Supreme Court of Georgia has under its consideration an appeal that would address the role of private probation services and, while the current law pertaining to private probation services remains in effect, this legislation seeks to have a preemptive impact on any decision in that appeal."

While the veto may come as a surprise, some Georgia political experts aren’t too shocked. Tom Crawford, who writes the online political digest Georgia Report, told GPB Monday there was a chance Deal would not sign the bill.

“I think the only bill there’s a chance he will veto is the private probation bill,” Crawford said. “Simply because it’s an election year, I don’t think he’s going to take a chance, even if he doesn’t agree with them.”

Surrounded by Democrats and Republicans, Deal said his signature fulfilled a promise he made in January to find a way to honor Dr. King at the Capitol this year. He surprised many this year on the Martin Luther King holiday when he announced his support for a Capitol tribute to King. That jumpstarted the process, which eluded Democratic Governors for decades.

“It’s appropriate to once again claim the legacy of our native son,” he said, before signing the bill.

Tuesday is the last day for Gov. Deal to veto a bill passed in this year’s General Assembly to prevent it from becoming law. He has signed or signaled his intention to sign a host of controversial bills.

That includes, for example, a bill that would make Georgia the first state in the nation to require welfare and food stamp recipients suspected of drug abuse to submit to drug tests. He told reporters on Tuesday that he expects the bill will result in a court challenge but he intends to sign it anyway.

He also signed a bill Tuesday barring state agencies from implementing the Affordable Care Act. And he plans to sign a measure stripping the Governor of the power to expand Medicaid coverage.

These two bills have inflamed many Democrats, including those who say one way to honor Dr. King would be to expand Medicaid under Pres. Obama’s federal healthcare overhaul.

“It is a sad and cynical political maneuver, which seeks to ensure Medicaid is never expand in the state of Georgia,” said Raphael Warnock, pastor of King’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who attended the ceremony. “To sign into law legislation remembering Dr. King the same day is offensive and unbearable contradiction.”

Details on the MLK monument are scarce. Deal referred questions to State Sen. Emanuel Jones, who heads up the Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council.

Jones has already begun fundraising and believes the council will need no less than $300,000 to $400,000 for a monument that would include an interactive display for children.

That number, however, is fluid.

“It depends on how much real estate we will have for this statue,” he said in an interview. “More importantly, we want to build a museum inside the Capitol, and coordinate with Museum for Civil and Human Rights. Everything needs to be connected.”

It’s unclear when the monument would be open to the public or where it will be on Capitol grounds.

Supporters say the statue is several decades in the making. And many credit Deal with getting the job done, even if others say it’s an election-year ploy to curry favor with African-American voters who typically don’t back Republicans.

Martin Luther King III, Dr. King’s son, said he doesn’t focus on how long it took.

“I’m just truly elated,” he said in an interview. “It is a great tribute, and a reminder. My hope is that it will remind people there’s work still to be done.”

The King statue probably won’t be the only new monument coming to the grounds of the state Capitol. Another bill passed this session would allow for a second tribute to the Ten Commandments (the first is in the basement of the Capitol). It's unclear when that monument would be erected or where.