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Schoolhouse Tech: How Georgia’s State Government Set the Stage for Tech Industry Growth

by Amol Naik

In this column, technology and public policy expert Amol Naik will discuss issues at the intersection of government and tech. Views expressed are those of the author.

In this era of distrust in our federal government, its natural to write off everything in politics. But recent days in Georgia, which saw the passing of one Governor and the last legislative session of another, provide the perfect lens to view public policy in a hopeful light.

Indeed, without Governor Zell Miller, a former two-term Democratic Governor who passed away this March, and Amol NaikGovernor Nathan Deal, a two-term Republican Governor whose last legislative session ended in the same month, it’s arguable that Georgia’s booming tech sector would never have reached its current status as a top 10 U.S. technology employment market.

At first it may seem odd to credit two politicians from North Georgia for an industry fueled primarily by companies and businesspeople in metro Atlanta. No, neither Governor Miller nor Governor Deal would be the first to come to mind when thinking of political figures on the cutting edge of social media. And yes, you may disagree with them on any number of issues.

But when you look at the fundamentals — at the basic things that public servants are supposed to do — these two men have been indispensable for building the groundwork for the technology sector in Georgia today, and what it can become in the future.

Zell Miller brings HOPE to Georgia’s students

Let’s start with Governor Miller. He was inaugurated as Georgia’s 79th Governor in 1991. The Georgia Democratic Party was a coalition of conservative “Dixiecrats,” African-Americans and Atlanta progressives, and they control state government just as they have since Reconstruction. Even the future head of the Georgia Republican Party, Nathan Deal, is a Democratic State Senator.

The newly elected Governor and General Assembly passed legislation allowing for the referendum needed to establish a statewide lottery for education funding — a hot button topic amongst many in the Bible Belt.

“Governor Miller knew when he came out for the lottery, many of his base voters, who were deeply religious, would oppose the bill,” says Keith Mason, Miller’s campaign manager and first Chief of Staff. “But Governor Miller saw the revenue that would come from the lottery and knew that Georgians were already playing the lottery in other states. And he wanted to put those dollars to work for Georgia’s kids.”  

In November 1992 that vision became a reality when Georgia voters passed the lottery amendment by a close margin, 52-48 percent. As a result, the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship was born, along with funding for a new pre-K plan and distance learning technology. More than 25 years later, HOPE has helped more than 1.8 million Georgians attend college, and more than 1.6 million four-year-olds begin education one critical year early.

It’s safe to say that amongst those millions, there are future founders and employees of great Georgia technology companies. And for that, we owe Zell Miller and the many others in the public sector that supported him a debt of gratitude.

Nathan Deal and the “religious freedom” bill

Fast forward to March 2016. The political climate in Georgia is about as different from 1991 as the technology powering mobile phones. Republicans control all levers of state government, as they have since capturing the Governorship in 2002. Nathan Deal — who has now been a Republican for years — is in his second term as Governor. Miller, who never officially switched parties, famously became the first person in American history to give a keynote speech at both parties’ national political conventions when he endorsed George W. Bush in 2004, after having done the same for Bill Clinton in 1992 (both credited Miller with significantly helping their campaigns at his funeral in Atlanta last week).

Differences on social issues were one of many reasons for this changing political landscape, both in Georgia and throughout the Southeast. In March 2016, North Carolina — long respected in technology circles for the success of the Research Triangle Park area — found itself in the eye of this political storm as the state was considering a “bathroom bill” widely seen as discriminatory to the LGTBQ community.

At the exact same time, a bill purporting to protect religious freedom — one that was seen as discriminatory by both Georgia’s LGTBQ and corporate communities — was awaiting Governor Deal’s signature.

Large corporations, led by the tech sector, vigorously opposed the measures in both North Carolina and Georgia.

On March 23, 2016, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the “bathroom bill.” Five days later, Georgia Governor Deal vetoed the “religious freedom” bill, despite fierce opposition from his base.

“Governor Deal understood that a veto would be problematic with some of the voting base, but felt strongly that he had to lead on that issue in order to continue Georgia’s successes in economic development,” says Ryan Teague, Deal’s former Executive Counsel. The results of these decisions may well impact the technology sectors in both states for decades. 

On April 5, 2016, PayPal cancelled plans for a 400-job operations center in Charlotte. The NBA and NCAA followed suit by pulling marquee events from the state. Connecticut state government even prohibited its employees from traveling to North Carolina on the government’s dime as a form of protest.

All told, North Carolina suffered an international public relations nightmare that continued for months, which ultimately led to Governor McCrory losing a bid for re-election.

Georgia, on the other hand, was awarded a Super Bowl, Final Four, and Major League Soccer All-Star game. The movie industry, which had threatened to pick up and head back to California, continued to grow at a pace rapid enough to make Georgia the top location in the world for feature film production.

Atlanta and Georgia continue to be a site for technology expansion and investment. Advancements from the latest legislative session such as a regional transit package and increased funding for education set the foundation for continued growth.

Had Deal bowed to public pressure, it’s hard to see all of this progress happening for Georgia. Had Miller bowed to public pressure, the HOPE scholarship, which now specifically incentivizes STEM education, wouldn’t have given millions of Georgians access to higher education. 

At a time of turbulence in Washington DC, its good to note that steady, principled decisions have left Georgia and Atlanta in a position where the tech industry can continue to thrive.

Amol NaikAmol Naik is a Director on MailChimp’s Legal team. He formerly served as Google’s Public Policy & Government Relations Senior Counsel for the Southeast region. In this role, Amol was the head of external affairs for Google in Georgia, including state and local government affairs, public policy and community affairs. He is the City of Atlanta’s appointed Citizen Commissioner on the Atlanta Regional Commission, a member of Atlanta Mayor Lance Bottoms’ transition team, and Corporate Secretary of the Fulton County-Atlanta Land Bank Authority. 

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