Gov. Brian Kemp delivers his annual State of the State address.

Gov. Brian Kemp wears a mask.

Gov. Brian Kemp at the beginning of a statewide tour urging Georgians - but not requiring them - to wear a mask.

Credit: Stephen Fowler / GPB News

2020 was not kind to the people of Georgia, from a deadly global pandemic to devastating economic hardships and political unrest, but Gov. Brian Kemp was optimistic in his State of the State address that what comes next will be better.

In last year’s State of the State address, Kemp laid out the blueprint for a thriving community, with record-low unemployment, a growing economy and plans for a $2,000 pay raise for educators.

“It’s 2020, folks, and it’s a year for building,” Kemp said at the time. “Pick up a hammer and keep working until the project is complete. We are doing a great work, so we can’t stop choppin’!”

The world had other plans: The COVID-19 pandemic has killed nearly 1 in 1,000 Georgians, the state trimmed a tenth of its budget and unemployment skyrocketed as many people struggled. So the 2021 state of the state was longer, more somber and cautious in its tone.

“There is no doubt that this virus has impacted all of us beyond what we could ever have imagined,” Kemp said in Thursday's hour-long address. “Too many families are now missing loved ones — a heartbreaking, devastating loss that I know many Georgians are still grieving today.”

WATCH Gov. Kemp's Address

Kemp, with a background in construction, has employed a metaphor about home building throughout his first term in office. Georgia’s foundation has been shaken to its core, the governor said, but he said leadership is well suited to lead the state forward into better times.

“Yes, we still have challenges ahead: a virus to beat, an economy to rebuild and restore,” he said. “But my fellow Georgians, the state of the state is resilient, and we will endure.”

On a practical level, Kemp said lawmakers need to move on and avoid trying to “assign blame, settle old scores and relive and relitigate 2020,” referring to months that saw many Republicans baselessly attack the state’s election integrity and falsely claim widespread voter fraud cost President Donald Trump's reelection.

Kemp thanked Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey for her leadership through the coronavirus pandemic and said the number of Georgians vaccinated so far “are 283,000 reasons for hope and optimism.”

On the economy front, Georgia’s unemployment rate of 5.7% is below the national average, companies have continued to invest into more communities — especially in rural Georgia — and that there would be no budget cuts or tax increases for the next year.

In another surprising note, Kemp said that the state did not actually have to tap into its revenue shortfall reserve “rainy day” fund to cover the cost of state government.

The new state budget proposal will include $40 million for a “rural innovation fund” that will continue to boost economic growth outside metro Atlanta, a new multimillion dollar fund to increase access to rural broadband and will fund enrollment growth in the state’s K-12 education formula.

“In a year when other states may face no other option but to slash education dollars, furlough teachers, and cut back on essential student programs, Georgia is restoring funding to schools, backing our teachers, and launching new initiatives to keep kids enrolled,” Kemp said.

Another priority the governor announced would be tackled this legislative session is reforming the citizen’s arrest law after the General Assembly managed to enact a hate crimes law in the latter half of the pandemic-affected 2020 session.

Kemp faces an uphill battle should he choose to run for reelection in 2022, after Democrats pulled off two victories in the presidential race and a dual U.S. Senate runoff that flipped the chamber.

Former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams is expected to run again, building on the groundswell of activism and organizing of a demographically changing state in hopes of giving Democrats control of the state government.

In closing, Kemp said it was time to put 2020 in the rearview mirror and set aside differences to rebuild Georgia.

“Let’s stand together as Georgians, and clear the destruction caused by the storms of life,” he said. “Let’s clear away the conspiracy theories, and the division. Let’s focus on the bountiful harvests to come.”