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A sense of uncertainty in Georgia as Trump era arrives

Donald Trump. AP photo.

Donald Trump. AP photo.

The Donald Trump era begins this week when the New York businessman goes from private citizen to the nation’s president without ever holding elected office. And what that means for Georgia remains hazy at best.

What does his promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act “essentially simultaneously” mean for Georgia’s health policy? Will vast rewrites of tax policy upend the playing field? Will Trump follow through on his vow for a massive investment in new infrastructure?



That’s just a glimpse of the tremendous amount of uncertainty ahead, and already state leaders are calling for caution.

Gov. Nathan Deal urged lawmakers not to take “giant leaps” on health care policy before Trump’s administration figures out its plan. And state Rep. Terry England, who heads the House’s budget-writing committee, said this of what to expect from Trump: “We really have no clue.”

What is certain is that Georgians are poised to play a prominent role in the unpredictable new administration. U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell is slated for a spot in Trump’s Cabinet and the clout of the state’s Perdue clan will surely rise. Other Georgians who embraced the businessman when he seemed the longest of long shots will cash in on their support.

At the same time, though, the state’s leverage in Congress will take a hit with the departure of two veteran Republicans, which could make it harder for Georgia to look after its most important interests on Capitol Hill.

That uncertainty is reverberating from Washington to Atlanta as Georgia officials try to chart a course for the years ahead. After all, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop said, it’s hard to plan for an “unknown commodity.”

Some see it as an opportunity for Georgia to assert itself in new ways.

“Everything’s going to look a lot different under this administration,” House Speaker David Ralston said. “I’ve always been an advocate that we need a health care system in Georgia that’s designed by Georgians for Georgians rather than a cookie-cutter solution that’s designed in Washington.”

Power realignment

Whatever Trump does over the next four years — and he’s vowed a quick start — will have sweeping consequences.

His attacks on globalization and free trade and his plan to crack down on illegal immigration, with help from a promised wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, helped him notch a 5-point victory in Georgia and sweep most of the South.

Barack Obama (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Barack Obama (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

And his promise to undo Barack Obama’s signature health care plan became a rallying cry for his conservative supporters, even if it’s still unclear how he’ll replace it.

Price, expected to soon be confirmed to run the Department of Health and Human Services, will be charged with shaping policy and forging a path ahead for the roughly $1 trillion agency.

Another Georgian, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, has been short-listed to lead the Department of Agriculture. If selected and confirmed, he would be the first Southerner to head the powerful agency in more than two decades. It would give the Perdue family — and Georgia Republicans — a more formal beachhead in the Trump administration.

“They’re familiar with the challenges that our state has,” Rob Leebern, a lobbyist and former top aide to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, said of the state’s links to Trump. “That is helpful to not have to educate a member of the Cabinet on the challenges that Georgia faces.”

Georgia’s policy interests

After years of gridlock, there’s now a prospect — treated with dread by Democrats and glee by Republicans — that sweeping proposals once thought impossible could fast become law.

Tax-cut proposals ignored by both parties could be back in the spotlight. Free-trade deals and long-standing defense treaties could be overhauled. And a raft of government regulations could be swept away overnight.

“There is a sense of urgency in Washington to get things done,” David Perdue said, “and I’m excited to get to work.”

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) speaks to reporters at Trump Tower on Dec. 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) speaks to reporters at Trump Tower on Dec. 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There’s also more at risk. The F-35 stealth fighter, built partly in Marietta, became a vivid example shortly after Trump’s election when he singled out the warplane for cost overruns.

More Georgia officials might feel compelled to walk a fine line to make sure their pet projects don’t end up on the wrong side of Trump’s Twitter handle, said Adam Stone, a Georgia State University political scientist.

“You want to keep your issue quiet but not too quiet,” Stone said. “In other words, go back to building coalitions in favor, which is more traditional congressional politics. But you’ve got to be careful not to raise the ire of the president.”

For Georgia Democrats, now scrambling for a path forward after Trump’s victory, there’s a hope that a common enemy in the White House can unite them. With statewide elections looming in 2018, some Democrats aim to focus the next round of state votes squarely on Trump.

“Republicans may be one party, but they aren’t of one mind,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a DeKalb Democrat who has shifted his criticism lately from state Republicans to Trump’s administration.

“There is a lot of uncertainty and Trump doesn’t help,” he said. “It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen next.”

We are about to find out.

Health

Trump joined GOP leaders in calling for the immediate dismantling of the Affordable Care Act — throwing into uncertainty health coverage for hundreds of thousands of Georgians.

More than 480,000 Georgians have already selected Obamacare coverage for 2017, with thousands more expected to sign up before the end of open enrollment on Jan. 31.

Efforts by Congress to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act — and ultimately by Trump who would have to sign any legislation — will dictate whether Georgians get to keep their health plans, acquire another type of insurance or lose coverage altogether.

The future of Georgia’s Medicaid program and whether lawmakers here will eventually expand it also rests on Congress.

Rep. Tom Price enters Trump Tower. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. Tom Price enters Trump Tower. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

— Misty Williams

Immigration

Trump has vowed to cancel an Obama administration program that is temporarily shielding from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were brought here as children.

Called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program has granted two-year work permits and deportation protection for about 28,000 people living in Georgia. Further, Trump has proposed mass deportations. An estimated 375,000 unauthorized immigrants were living in Georgia in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.

— Jeremy Redmon

Defense/military

Trump has vowed to strengthen the military and take decisive action against the Islamic State and other terror groups, and his campaign platform aimed to add thousands of additional troops, hundreds of warplanes and dozens of state-of-the-art ships to the armed forces.

How he would pay for the military expansion while keeping his other campaign promises, such as cutting taxes and pouring new funding into infrastructure, remains uncertain.

Georgia is one of the larger recipients of defense spending. About $6.4 billion in Department of Defense contract work was performed in Georgia in the past fiscal year, employing about 50,000 people. The state is the fifth-largest host of active-duty troops, with about 137,000 troops stationed in Georgia, and officials are bracing for another round of negotiations over base closures.

— Greg Bluestein

Education

Trump campaigned on a pledge to put $20 billion into a school voucher program. He didn’t say where he’d get the money, but there’s been speculation he’d somehow redirect current federal school funding, mostly in the Title I program. He’s also endorsed merit pay for teachers, which has found bipartisan support in Washington.

That’s encouraged school choice advocates, who have lobbied the Legislature to expand the state tax-credit program that allows taxpayers to direct public funding to private schools. It also could dovetail with the governor’s past support for merit pay for teachers.

But the changes in Washington could encourage broader measures. It’s unclear where the money for things such as vouchers would come from, but Georgia gets about a half-billion dollars a year in Title I funding. Republican lawmakers have also been talking about a “Plan B” for low-performing public schools following the failure of the Opportunity School District referendum in November.

— Ty Tagami

Transportation

The president-elect has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan, but details remain sketchy. Whatever emerges could be a tough sell for a Republican-controlled Congress wary of adding to the deficit.

If Trump clears the way for more private investment in public projects, Georgia could be better equipped than other states to benefit.

Russell McMurry, the head of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the new I-285/Ga. 400 interchange and other projects designed to include private investment could provide a template for the state.

“I feel like we’ll be well-positioned if something like that moves forward,” McMurry said. “But we’ll have to see the details.”

— David Wickert

Agriculture

The New York businessman’s election was fueled by huge support in rural America, and Trump has said rolling back regulations and renegotiating trade deals would help boost the domestic agriculture industry.

Aside from vowing to end a “war on the American farmer” at a campaign stop in Iowa, he’s offered few specifics on his agriculture policy. One of the first challenges will be a new Farm Bill, which finances the food stamp program and farm subsidies and is set to be renegotiated by 2018.

A worker stakes tomato plants at Osage Farms in Dillard Georgia. Vegetable farming is a labor intensive process, employing hundreds of seasonal workers . Georgia farmers this year say the federal government's backlog on approving migrant workers threatens their crops. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

A worker stakes tomato plants at Osage Farms in Dillard Georgia. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

What he does will have a vast impact on Georgia’s leading industry. One in 7 Georgians work in agriculture or related industries, and the state is a leading producer of poultry, peanuts and blueberries.

— Greg Bluestein

Labor

Trump’s stance on the minimum wage has been all over the map since he entered the White House race. He once said wages are “too high” and shouldn’t be raised. He later came out against the federal minimum wage entirely, saying it should be eliminated in favor of state action. As recently as last summer, though, he backed a $10-an-hour federal minimum wage.

Depending on which policy he chooses to pursue, minimum wages could increase in Georgia. At $5.15 an hour, the Peach State has one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. (It hasn’t been increased in nearly two decades.) Workers who currently fall under the federal umbrella are subject to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

On maternity leave and child care benefits, Trump’s proposals differ from the Republican orthodoxy. He’s proposed six weeks of paid maternity leave, incentives for employers to offer child care and allowing parents to deduct child care expenses from their income. That’s likely to have a big impact in Georgia, where employers aren’t required to pay women on maternity leave.

— Tamar Hallerman

Energy and the environment

Trump’s move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. means almost a complete reversal of his predecessor’s energy and environmental policies. He plans to open up federal lands to oil and natural gas development and reverse a moratorium on coal leases, changes his campaign website says will “unleash an energy revolution that will bring vast new wealth to our country.”

Trump has also promised to reverse almost all of Obama’s climate regulations and shrink the Environmental Protection Agency.

Georgia had dodged the harshest and costliest requirements under Obama’s signature climate plan, but the state still sued the Obama administration over the regulations. An end to those protocols is undoubtedly being welcomed by the state Republican officials who had been fighting them.

Georgia does not have the oil, gas and coal deposits of other regions, so opening up the permitting process will do little for such production in the state. It could, however, have a major impact on Georgia’s liquefied natural gas terminal at Elba Island, which can export gas drilled from faraway states such as Pennsylvania and Texas.

In this 2014 photo, a new cooling tower for a nuclear power plant reactor that's under construction stands near the two operating reactors at Plant Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga. AP/John Bazemore

In this 2014 photo, a new cooling tower for a nuclear power plant reactor that’s under construction stands near the two operating reactors at Plant Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga. AP/John Bazemore

The state in 2015 got 39 percent of its energy from natural gas, 29 percent from coal and one-quarter from nuclear power, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

— Tamar Hallerman

Trade

Trump has pledged to scrap trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, he considers unfair to U.S. workers. He vowed during the campaign to kill a trans-Pacific trade pact that, if approved, would reduce import and export barriers. And he threatened tariffs as high as 35 percent on some Chinese imports.

Trump’s tough trade talk, though, could greatly affect Georgia’s economy, particularly if he imposes tariffs on imports. New taxes would likely cause prices to rise for all consumers. They could also cost jobs at the state’s ports, trucking companies and warehouses.

Georgia’s economy, after all, is truly global. More than $88 billion worth of cars, pharmaceuticals, computers, electronics, tractors, tires and lighting were imported into Georgia in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And most of the goods came from Trump-targeted countries, including China and Mexico.

Exports, while down 2.3 percent from the previous year, accounted for $38.5 billion and were shipped primarily to Canada, Mexico and China. Any trade war could affect Georgia’s aircraft, auto, chemical, gas turbine, wood pulp and chicken industries.

— Dan Chapman

Georgia’s ports

Much of Georgia’s exports and imports travel through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick. Trump’s plan to invest as much as $1 trillion on infrastructure projects nationwide — including $550 billion “to ensure we can export our goods and move our people faster and safer,” according to his campaign website — seemingly bodes well for the ports.

It remains to be seen, though if — and how — the Trump administration would finance such a massive public-works undertaking.

The Port of Savannah could be in line for more federal money sooner to deepen the same-name river and harbor to handle the bigger container ships that make world trade go ‘round. The Trump administration is likely to look favorably on a water bill headed toward the president’s desk that would add tens of millions of additional dollars to the $706 million deepening project.

— Dan Chapman

Manufacturing

Trump rarely lets a day go by without touting his goal “to make America great again” by keeping jobs — manufacturing, in particular — in the U.S. Factory work, though, is but a shell of its former self in Georgia as cheaper pay and fewer regulations overseas sucked away tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs the past five decades.

Factories account for only 9 percent of all Georgia jobs; they tallied one-third of all jobs in the 1950s and 1960s. And, between 2007 and 2014, Georgia lost nearly 29,000 manufacturing jobs.

Yet the industry has since staged a bit of a comeback, according to Georgia State University, regaining 6,000 of the lost jobs between 2012 and 2014.

— Dan Chapman


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