Casey Cagle: Setting Out To Set A New Tone

Georgia’s lieutenant governor says despite a testy legislative session, education came out a winner. He’s looking ahead to the challenges of transportation and healthcare.

Casey Cagle, a Gainesville businessman who served in the state senate for 12 years, took office as Georgia’s first Republican lieutenant governor in January, just in time to preside over a raucous legislative session in which he often found himself in the role of peacemaker. Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy interviewed Cagle in his state capitol office in late June. Here are excerpts from the interview.

GT: You’ve had a fairly eventful first few months in office.

Cagle: We sure have. Being Georgia’s first Republican lieutenant governor has been a huge honor. The lieutenant governor kind of wears two hats. One hat is in the executive branch as an assistant to the governor. But also the lieutenant governor is the presiding officer in the state senate. So much of my responsibility through the year is based on giving guidance and assistance to the state senate. And I wanted to set a new tone for governing in that body.

GT: There were some fairly contentious moments during the session.

Cagle: I can tell you that Georgia citizens really don’t have an appetite for the bickering that goes on within the legislative process. They’re pretty tired of it. And I don’t think business likes it. I think business likes stability. They like a strong economy that they can be productive in and where government doesn’t ultimately get in the way to the point it impedes business activities. So much of what took place is somewhat perceived negatively.

GT: How do you go about changing that?

Cagle: My desire is to hopefully begin smoothing the waters [so] we don’t have these kinds of flare-ups again. And I think we can do that. We do it by finding the things that unite us versus those things that divide us, putting personalities and egos aside and focusing on what’s in the best interest of Georgia citizens. And my hope is that the governor, myself and the speaker can sit down in the fall and begin outlining some parameters and issues which we can find agreement on and begin moving our state forward.

We have a lot of issues that are problematic for our state. You look at transportation. You look at 1.7 million people in Georgia that are uninsured.

GT: During the session you often played the part of peacemaker or consensus builder.

Cagle: People that have followed my career in the Senate for 12 years oftentimes would say, “Casey’s very much a consensus builder” and I believe by nature that is who I am. I’m a businessman first and so as a businessman I have always been about bringing people together, not dividing their interests. It’s a natural thing for me to do.

Oftentimes in this process, it is easy to get mired down in the details and find reasons to be argumentative. What I want this office and government to be focused on is to be business-friendly, providing a strong, educated workforce and meeting the basic essential [needs] of our citizens. A lot of the issues that are outside those boundaries tend to monopolize our time and get us into conflict. And we forget to keep the main thing the main thing.

GT: What do you consider the chief accomplishments of this year’s session?

Cagle: We focused primarily on education. That was an issue I felt and feel strongly about. We had two educational initiatives. The first one was the charter school system … a new paradigm for education. It allows the ability for local communities – teachers, administrators, school board members – to come together and say, we want to be in control of our educational system. We want to be free of the state mandates that are associated with education. We don’t want our hands to be tied. We want to design a path that is focused on the needs of every single child. … Un-fortunately, we have too much bureaucracy and too much of a one-size-fits-all model for education that bogs it down. So this is moving from a top-down style of management to a bottom-up. I’m very excited about the five new charter systems – existing school systems that can convert to a charter school system and be free of state mandates.

GT: What’s the second initiative?

Cagle: Career academies. A career academy is a stand-alone facility that is a partnership between the high school and the technical college. They come together and they teach kids on a technical path of learning … a student will graduate from a career academy with a certificate in hand that guarantees employment. In our career academies today we have a 98 percent graduation rate, a 100 percent placement rate once they’re finished. The reason kids drop out of school is because they don’t see the relevance of what they are learning. What a career academy does is it connects the dots for kids.

GT: You mentioned transportation. What do you see as role of state in helping solve traffic problems in Metro Atlanta?

Cagle: Transportation – it really is, in Metro Atlanta, about congestion relief. In rural areas of our state it is about economic development, so new roads mean new opportunities. The real need that Georgia has is coming up with a true traffic management plan, and in order to do that you have to analyze what are our needs and what are the resources.

That’s why the public-private partnership initiatives are very important – moving forward, taking and leveraging public funds with private funds to do more. To embrace innovation like other states have done, for instance, with HOT lanes or variable price lanes where you add additional capacity that is market-driven. But also looking at converting lanes in peak and non-peak times to increase or manage traffic flow. All of those are part of the discussion that needs to be had.

It is, yes, a function of money. No doubt. But it is also, maybe more importantly, how do we truly utilize those funds to meet the greatest degree of need within our state. That conversation has not been had. So we will force this issue and I believe we will, at the end of the day, have some restructuring within the Department of Transportation.

GT: Do you see mass transit projects as part of a solution?

Cagle: Clearly, mass transit is one option and an option that will continue to be looked at in Georgia. There are some hurdles with mass transit in that the density that is really needed – the density meaning the real bulk of population in a very dense area – doesn’t exist in Georgia; so that creates a real obstacle for mass transit to be very profitable or to be financially viable. We do still live in the South, so in the South people love their independence. They love the ability to get in their own car and go where they want to go.

Again, that’s why the traffic management part of it is so critical. But massive transit is part [of it]. We have seen and studies have demonstrated that bus transit … provides a much more flexible [way] of curbing or solving our congestion problem.

GT: People have been complaining about traffic for a long time, but it’s been hard to make any real progress.

Cagle: I think the state has kind of gone through a transformation. Honestly, resources have been allocated at the state level not always where the most need is. You have to have a balance.

GT: You mentioned the 1.7 million Georgians who are without health insurance. How do we solve that?

Cagle: When you look at healthcare you see there are a lot of nonpaying customers. And those nonpaying customers are being paid for by the paying customers, which is called cost-shifting [and] is driving our premiums up. So we’ve got to get a handle on the uninsured population and we’ve got to make sure they have access to care. But we also have inefficiencies that exist within the structure.

GT: Such as?

Cagle: Many people are going to the emergency room, and the number one reason is because of an upper respiratory concern – meaning a cold. For that cold to be treated in the emergency room, on average, is about $1,400. You can go to your primary care physician and probably be treated for around $150. So the cost associated with treating individuals in an ER facility versus a primary care facility is having a huge impact on our wallet. We’ve got to be sure we mitigate that.

GT: How?

Cagle: One of the ways we can do that is the access of care … allowing [county] health departments to be restructured in a way so that they are operating as a triage – [directing patients] away from emergency room settings to a health department or a primary care facility or an urgent care facility. Opening up more avenues available through 24-hour-a-day settings so that people can access that care in a more cost-efficient means is certainly a help.

Also incentivizing not-for-profit organizations to come together and form partnerships to where they take care of the truly indigent or the truly poor. We’re exploring many of those options and will come with a proposal at the beginning of the year.

There is a great need within our state to provide a very basic insurance program that covers just the bare essentials and then has a catastrophic type policy that takes care of those huge costs. So we’re looking at the creation of more innovative policies that make sense or are more affordable to the consumers.

GT: Looking ahead to next session, we seem to be hearing a lot about taxes and tax reform. Could you talk about what might be happening in that area?

Cagle: First of all we have to recognize that Georgia has a very stable economy. Georgia has grown financially not because of increased taxes but because of growth in population. And we are a very well-managed state as well. As a result of that we are one of seven states that has a triple-A bond rating.

So if we want to reform the tax code, we have to have a pretty good reason for doing that.

The proposal that is coming forth – the speaker’s proposal – is to do away with ad valorem tax. I will tell you that I would love nothing more than to not have to pay property taxes, and I think for the most part every Georgian would agree with that.

The question is not one of cutting taxes but one of shifting the tax to other areas. The proposal would move sales tax to all services, so when an individual goes to get their hair cut, they would pay a sales tax. When a person goes to their accountant or to their attorney, those would be taxable exchanges.

We’re going to be looking at what the ramifications of such a proposal would consist of. It is a significant change. There’s no official bill that has been put out yet, but we’ve got to make sure that we don’t cause instability within the economy of Georgia and disrupt the flow of business.

GT: You often talk about service.

Cagle: It really goes back to my upbringing. I was raised by a single mom who had to work two jobs to make ends meet – never took a dime of public assistance, but instilled in me those values of hard work and perseverance and love for God. For me this life that I live is truly about service and it’s about trying to make life better for others. Sometimes that is in the public policy arena. Sometimes it’s just in everyday choices that we make.

GT: What are some of your own choices?

Cagle: One of the things I have done is through my charity of choice, which is Presence With A Purpose, designed to help kids of single parents like I was to meet their short term small needs like buying them a uniform to play on a sports team or buying them a trumpet to allow them to play in a band or giving them a scholarship to go to a camp – in the $100 to $500 range.

Along with that we have what’s called Casey’s Club, and that is a one-day-a-month commitment that I make to a group of kids to invest in their lives. It may be a trip to an aquarium, it may be a trip to a ball game, it may be a golf lesson. But it is direct impact that I’m making to try and invest in kids’ lives – making our walk match our talk.

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