Special Assignment: Gov. Deal, Augusta mayor urge 'open mind' on possible GHSU, ASU merger

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- From the his and hers rocking chairs out front to the stately symbol that greets you as you walk inside, it is clear this is not just any house.

"This is absolutely immaculate, governor," we noted as we entered the mansion.

"This is a beautiful place," replied Gov. Nathan Deal.

We are told you cannot come to the governor's mansion without hearing a story about the punch bowl from the Battleship Georgia that sits in the main entrance.

"My grandson was here and he had already heard the bowl story about two or three times," said Deal with a smile. "And my wife was beginning to tell about it again, and he asked his momma ... 'Do we have to listen to the bowl story again?'"

With that customary bowl story aside, consider yourself officially welcome. That leads us to the other main attraction this holiday ... the dining room.

The home boasts seven bedrooms and a ballroom that holds more than 200 people.

"Oh, it's a very fancy place. I've never lived in a house quite this nice or this large," Deal said. "But I am honored that the people would allow me and my wife to do so."

The governor's mansion is open to the public three days a week, but there are signs that it is indeed a home. There is a playground for the governor's six grandchildren that was dedicated back in 2005 in honor of Sonny and Mary Perdue and the foster children of Georgia.

And then there are the sprawling greens and shimmering fountains.

It is all a big change for the Sandersville native who had a special name for Augusta growing up.

"The big city that I could go visit," said Deal about Augusta.

Let's just say Augusta has a special place in the governor's heart.

"In fact," Deal said, "Sandra and I bought our first house in Augusta when we were stationed at Fort Gordon."

Gov. Deal is no stranger to the area and is quite familiar with the persisting story lines.

One of the main questions is: Will Georgia Health Sciences University favor expansion in Athens over growth in Augusta?

"You build great institutions over generations and certainly that has happened in Augusta," Deal said. "In my opinion, it should stay there."

There you have it. We also asked the governor about his take on possibly merging Georgia Health Sciences University and Augusta State University.

"I think there is a possibility that some very good things would come out of that," he said. "Especially for the Augusta area."

Just last month, the Georgia Board of Regents held its monthly meeting in Augusta where the idea first made waves.

"I know that Dr. Azziz is very interested in elevating the reputation of the Georgia Health Sciences University," he said. "And I am, too."

The governor urges the community to keep an open mind.

"Anything we can do to enhance the educational reputation of the state of Georgia we should be looking at and be willing to do it if it's possible," Deal said.

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver agrees.

"You know, I like to tell kids that a mind is like a parachute. It works best when it is open," Copenhaver said. "I want what's good for Augusta at the end of the day, and so I think this is a good conversation to have. It could be a way of growing that university as well as Augusta State University together."

On a much broader level, the governor is also reviewing the results of a new state education finance study commission.

"We still have a ways to go, especially in K-12 education," Deal said. "We've got some very good schools, and we have some that are in serious trouble."

The commission recommends things like funding school nurses based on the number of students instead of the current flat rate. They also recommend eliminating the 65 percent rule that requires school systems to spend 65 percent of their budget on direct classroom expenses.

"Sometimes you can present arbitrary rules that become very difficult for a system to actually comply with," Deal said.

Lawmakers will tackle education, and the governor won't rule out another stab at tax reform when lawmakers head back to Atlanta in January.

"No," said Deal, "I'm optimistic that we may see some tax reform."

Deal admits those controversial fees on things like hair cuts and car repairs may be tough in an election year.

"That will probably be an ongoing discussion for many years," he said.

But the governor says one thing needs attention immediately.

"Our revenue is gradually recovering," he said. "But our unemployment rate is still unacceptably high."

Expect a move to "change tax laws" to make the state more business friendly.

"Jobs is going to be the underlying root of everything you see the assembly try to do in terms of major reforms," Deal said. "It's a lot more fun, I must say, than commuting back and forth to Washington every week."

The governor says he is watching the race for the White House.

"Georgia is in the mix," he said. "I think that's very good."

Georgians Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have traded spots for the lead.

"I endorsed Newt Gringich early on," Deal said. "He is a personal friend of mine."

Still, personality alone won't cut it. Lawmakers know it is hard to stop by anyone's home these days and not make jobs the No. 1 priority.

"I mean that," Deal said. "Because that is the best thing we can do to help families ... is to make sure they have a good job."

Meanwhile, the Georgia Board of Regents is expected to have a list of possible universities for consolidation as early as next March. They board recently finalized the criteria for consideration and will consider things like the distance and size of each university.

To view the State Education Finance Study Commission, click here.

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