Casey Cagle on rural broadband — and a stalled adoption bill

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

When a candidate for high office invites a reporter for a chat, a transaction is often involved.

The politician wants a particular message placed before the public. The journalist has  his own topics to pursue. It’s not always the case, but in an ideal situation, both agendas are fulfilled and both parties walk away mostly satisfied.

This was the case on Thursday, in the Spaghetti Junction headquarters of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a GOP candidate for governor.

Cagle wanted to talk about expanding broadband in rural Georgia. I wanted to talk about an adoption law overhaul that had stalled in his Senate earlier this year over “religious liberty” issues related to same-sex marriage.

The two topics have more in common than you might think. And both fall under the rubric of the 2018 session of the Legislature, set to begin in four months or so.

As president of the state Senate, Cagle will be heading up a chamber that will include two GOP rivals for governor (Sens. Hunter Hill of Atlanta and Michael Williams of Cumming), two GOP candidates for lieutenant governor (David Shafer of Duluth and Rick Jeffares of McDonough), and at least one Republican candidate for secretary of state (Josh McKoon of Columbus).

Then there’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp, another GOP candidate for governor whose office, like Cagle’s, is on the second floor of the Capitol.

In other words, a mammoth clash of agendas is in the offing. Which is why Cagle wanted to lay down an early marker in August: He’s running as the guy who’ll bring a functioning Internet to the most distant parts of Georgia. He intends to be the Master of Megabites.

“There is excessive frustration across the state. Not that they simply don’t have access to broadband, high-speed Internet, but they don’t have quality and reliable access,” Cagle said. “Rural Georgia is losing population. The Internet, broadband, is in many ways an equalizer.”

If you have checked out our new subscriber site, Politically Georgia, you already know that Republicans candidates for governor are spending an extraordinary amount of time below the Gnat Line and in the north Georgia mountains, trying to corral the same voters who gave the state to Donald Trump in November.

Last month, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, identified broadband access as the key to bringing economic development, health care and better education to rural Georgia. Only last week, we noted U.S. Rep. Doug Collins’ work on the same topic.

On Thursday, Cagle brought out the specifics of what he’ll pursue in the Capitol come January He wants:

— A sales tax exemption on equipment used to install fiber optic cable that would apply to Georgia counties lacking broadband capacity. Twenty-three states already have something like it.

— Expedited permitting for the use of public rights-of-way.

— A public-private partnership law that would allow local governments to partner with local firms on Internet expansion projects. The same effort would be intended to encourage private companies to consider broadcasting broadband internet over unused “white space” channels of the television spectrum — a technique currently being explored by Microsoft.

— An expanded Georgia Technology Authority that would be tasked with coordinating the expansion effort. That could include a project being contemplated by the state Department of Transportation, to lay broadband trunk lines along Georgia’s interstates that could be leased by private companies.

But the eye-opener in Cagle’s plans is this: The GTA would be “directed and funded” to monitor speed and reliability of existing broadband in rural counties. Georgia would have an Internet cop.

Last week, Collins, the congressman who lives in Gainesville, told of his frustration with federal programs that offer private companies the financial incentives to enter rural markets — but include no means of evaluating whether the funds are being properly used.

“What we don’t want to find ourselves in, is the situation we find ourselves in in north Georgia, where the government throws a lot of money at it, and then there’s no accountability on the back end,” Cagle said. “If we’re going to be putting public resources in, we want to make sure we’re getting what we’re expecting.”

We put in a call to the Georgia Cable Association, an industry group likely to be involved in the details next year, but members weren’t ready to talk about the lieutenant governor’s initiative.

Cagle is taking a chance here. Not on the issue, which is most assuredly a popular one. But in the Legislature, to name one’s hole card is to invite sabotage and hostage-taking. “You give me mine or you’ll never get yours.”

Earlier this year, on the final day of the 2017 session, House Bill 159, the first re-write of Georgia adoption law in 19 years, stalled in the Senate. At issue was an amendment to offer legal protection to taxpayer-funded child placement agencies that refused to work with same-sex or other couples due to religious convictions.

Speaker Ralston was furious. So was the author, state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta. So was Gov. Nathan Deal.

Two weeks ago, Cagle and his three GOP rivals signed a pledge that they would enact a “religious liberty” measure if they’re elected governor.

But on Thursday, the lieutenant governor let Deal and Ralston know that his Internet package needn’t become a hostage for passage of H.B. 159. Cagle expects passage of the adoption measure early in the session.

“I expect the committee to do its job and vet the legislation. I don’t expect the Senate to adopt a bill that they have not vetted,” Cagle said. Senate fingerprints are to be expected, but “ by and large the bill seems to be good,” the lieutenant governor said.

I pressed him on the “religious liberty” amendment attempted in the past session.

“I think that we should obviously take care of the major issue at hand.” Cagle said. “And that is, we want to expedite kids being able to be adopted in any family, a loving family, a caring family — to where they have a true future.”

And then Cagle said this: “I don’t want us to get caught up in a religious liberty debate on the adoption bill.”

The lieutenant governor stressed that this position in no way violates the pledge he signed earlier this month. “I’ve been very clear. I will sign, if elected, a mirror image of the federal [Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993]. If the Legislature passes me that as governor I will sign it,” he said — adding this: “I do not believe in discrimination, nor will I condone it as a state or promote it as governor.”

The problem is, come that second Monday in January, the situation won’t be entirely be under Cagle’s control. Many of those in the Senate Republican caucus, including — and perhaps especially — his rivals and other statewide office-seekers, will have different ambitions for that adoption bill.

Many agendas will be tossed into the air. Many senators with many ambitions, I noted.

“Absolutely,” Cagle agreed. “But only one man with a gavel.”