Credit: Riley Bunch | GPB News
Kemp calls for ‘safer, stronger Georgia’ in State of the State address
Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday unveiled several proposals for a “safer, stronger Georgia” in 2022, using the state’s strong economy to call for pay increases for public servants and tackle education priorities he pitched on the campaign trail in 2018.
In an election year where Kemp faces a brutal primary challenge, the first-term governor lobbied lawmakers for ambitious spending of funds after years of dramatic cuts to state agencies due to the pandemic.
“Over the last three years, we built Georgia’s house on a firm foundation,” Kemp said. “The concrete, the frame, and the roof withstood the storms. We emerged resilient. We boldly seized the opportunity to plant seeds for the future in good soil, so a bountiful harvest would bring our state to brighter, more prosperous days ahead.”
Record levels of state income revenue over the last 18 months has painted a rosier picture for this year’s budget, but Georgia’s Republican leaders have asserted they will still err on the side of caution when building the budget.
Kemp outlined a conservative policy agenda for the 2022 legislative session in full swing. He endorsed legislation on issues like “critical race theory” to curry favor with the Trump-supporting voting base that could sink his primary chances, as well as a bill that would allow gun owners to openly and concealed carry without a permit and other red meat issues.
"I also look forward to working with the House and Senate to pass, and sign, a parental bill of rights in our education system and other pieces of legislation that I strongly support to ensure fairness in school sports and address obscene materials online and in our school libraries," he said.
He also touted the booming economy, helping the state thrive amid the pandemic.
“Nearly five years ago, when I announced my campaign for governor,” he said, “I made Georgians this promise: that I would run on an agenda that would put them first ahead of the status quo.”
Kemp has faced unprecedented challenges during his first term in office, like navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and responding to mass civil unrest. Still, threes year later, his State of the State address struck similar tones as his first.
His remarks focused on bolstering the state’s education system, putting more dollars toward public safety and rebuilding the state’s health care workforce.
In 2021, Kemp said the state of the state was “resilient” in the face of adversity and the COVID-19 pandemic, turmoil over false claims about the 2020 election and racial justice protests.
“Let’s stand together as Georgians, and clear the destruction caused by the storms of life,” he said in 2021. “Let’s clear away the conspiracy theories and the division. Let’s focus on the bountiful harvests to come.”
The Republican governor asked lawmakers to back a $2,000 installment of pay raises for the state’s K-12 teachers after the legislature approved the first $3,000 chunk in 2019 — as part of the largest-ever pay raise for teachers in state history.
"Teachers are asked to do more and more every year,” Kemp said. “The need for a world-class K-12 education to prepare our children for an ever-changing workforce has never been greater.”
His budget will jump-start that process with an ask for one-time pay supplements for teachers and support staff in the amended fiscal year budget that ends June 30.
During the pandemic, lawmakers cut the state’s education funding formula, after previously boasting of its fully funded status. Kemp’s budget uses $425 million to restore the cuts to the system.
Kemp also announced earlier this week he will seek a $5,000 pay increase for all full-time state employees, including state law enforcement who received a $1,000 stipend last year.
Combatting crime is top of the list for Republican leaders in the state in 2022, and they have offered a variety of proposals on how to tackle the rise in violent crime being seen both in Georgia and across the country.
The governor’s address included plans for $3 million for additional trooper school cadets this year as well as $7 million for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for upgrades to lab equipment and additional personnel to combat a massive court backlog, which prosecutors testified is holding up cases.
The pandemic upended both the state and nation’s health care system, pushing hospitals and their staffs to the brink. The new omicron variant of the coronavirus has sparked record case numbers and overwhelmed hospitals.
Kemp unveiled a plan to add $1 million toward the University System of Georgia to expand nursing programs up to 500 students annually for five years and additional funding for 136 residency slots at Mercer University to overcome rural physician shortages.
“With these key investments, we hope to add 1,300 additional health care practitioners in our state,” Kemp added.
Another change proposed in this year’s budget will be extending the length of time that new mothers are covered under Medicaid from six months postpartum to a full year.
Meanwhile, legislative Democrats applauded parts of Kemp's speech that expanded access to health care and raises but said Republicans should fully expand Medicaid coverage and do more to invest in education beyond pay raises.
"With a record-breaking budget surplus and novel economic conditions, this is the best time to invest in Georgia, not to maintain the status quo," Senate minority leader Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) said. "I am extremely disappointed by what the governor is proposing.
The minority party also blasted the governor's support of permitless weapons carry in the state, with Sen. Elena Parent (D-Decatur) saying Kemp "is choosing to prioritize putting guns in hands over shots in arms" with his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the official state of the state response, House minority leader Jame Beverly (D-Macon) said that paying teachers more and fully funding the state's k-12 quality basic education formula was not enough to support students or staff.
"We appreciate the Governor’s willingness to finally deliver teachers a much-needed pay raise, in an election year," he said. "Democrats have been advocating for teacher pay raises for years. But the work cannot stop there. At minimum, we have to fundamentally revamp our QBE formula to adequately fund public education and get teachers the support they deserve."
Overall, Kemp says the state of the state under his leadership is going in a better, safer direction, and firmly plants the flag of his record in office so far at the forefront of his reelection campaign.
“The bold, conservative agenda I’ve outlined over the last few days prioritizes education, health care, and public safety,” he said. “It invests historic levels of resources in our students and educators. It keeps politics out of the classroom and ensures parents have the final say in their kids’ education.”