Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled plans Wednesday to create a new state anti-gang task force and devote $69 million in one-time funds for school security grants, as he outlined specifics of his first-year agenda days after taking office.
The Republican also promised to deliver an "historic and well-deserved" pay raise for Georgia's public school teachers at his State of the State address on Thursday. Kemp said he would hike annual teacher pay by $5,000 during the campaign, but he's likely to divvy up the raise over several years.
His remarks came at the Georgia Chamber's annual Eggs & Issues breakfast, his first major event since he sworn into office on Monday. At both events, he pledged to work across party lines after a divisive election that he won by a slim margin.
His school safety plan will include $30,000 for each of the state’s 2,294 public schools to use as they see fit for school security – such as hiring officers, paying for cameras or metal detectors or more data analysis.
As another part of the plan, he said he would put a mental health counselor in all 343 state public high schools to “engage with struggling students and help provide the resources needed to prevent disruptive, aggressive and potentially violent behavior.”
“The classroom should be a safe haven for students,” he said, “not a hunting ground for school shooters.”
And his anti-gang initiative will involve $500,000 to form a Georgia Bureau of Investigation task force with a “highly qualified group of experienced law enforcement personnel” to work with local law enforcement officials.
Each of the proposals were staples of his campaign for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams. She was narrowly defeated in November, though Democrats flipped about a dozen legislative seats across the suburbs.
Since then, Georgia Republican leaders have signaled a focus on pocketbook issues rather than fights over social divides that energize the GOP's more rural base.
To reinforce that point, House Speaker David Ralston announced a new initiative – a House panel focused on arts and entertainment – that aims to grow Georgia’s film industry and other creative businesses.
“They will work to ensure Georgia has a workforce ready for the jobs these industries are creating throughout our state,” said Ralston. “They will identify ways to make certain that we meet every competitive challenge.”
The governor first unveiled his school safety plan in September, with a goal of pouring a total of $90 million into initiatives that also include financing a school safety division within the Georgia Department of Education.
It’s part of the overall approach by Georgia Republicans to try to address safety initiatives after mass shootings at schools without delving into a debate over new gun control measures.
Case in point: House and Senate lawmakers last year allocated $16 million in school safety funding after the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. school left 17 people dead. A range of gun-related proposals, meanwhile, stalled in the Legislature.
The November election heightened the divide. Top Georgia Democrats bucked years of pro-gun positions last year to embrace new restrictions, such as a ban on assault rifles and waiting periods.
And leading Republicans, including Kemp and just about every other statewide GOP candidate, pushed to aggressively expand where people can carry firearms.
Since his election, Kemp has said he would continue to champion Second Amendment rights. But he's been notably non-committal about a plan he supported in the campaign to let people carry concealed firearms without a permit.
Instead, he’s focused on broader appeals that are less likely to draw Democratic opposition. And soon after his speech, bipartisan legislative leaders signaled they were receptive to his school safety plans.
“We can all agree with Governor Kemp that the safety of our schools and students is a top priority,” said Republican P.K. Martin, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “We made an investment in school security last session, and safe schools continue to be a priority in the Senate.”
State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat and a leading advocate for gun restrictions, said she welcomed Kemp's plans.
“My three school districts can benefit from new money for cameras and security equipment,” said Oliver. “Most importantly, additional school counselors who can focus on school climate and children in trouble will help keep schools safe.”
And Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat, added that she hopes Republicans “will leave all options on the table as we work to protect our children.”
The cost of the programs raised other fiscal questions, since Kemp has promised he won’t raise taxes to pay for any of his proposals.
Stephen Owens of the left-leaning Georgia Budget & Policy Institute praised Kemp for “wisely” highlighting school safety as a priority. But he warned against relying solely on economic growth, rather than increasing taxes, for initiatives that could top $700 million annually.
“Adding additional revenue will provide the funds necessary to display a commitment to the teacher workforce and school safety, as well as show the state is dedicated to public education,” he said.
‘Grab some nails’
Kemp's "stop and dismantle" program also played a central role in his run for governor. He first unveiled it in April as part of a broader push to emphasize crackdowns on crime and illegal immigration.
The plan would also give the state Attorney General more power to prosecute gang members and pour an unspecified amount of state funding to improve a database created in 2010 to track gang members.
For Kemp, who was in a tight race for the GOP nomination, the tough talk was a way to appeal to conservatives and echo President Donald Trump, who made targeting MS-13 and other violent gangs a linchpin of his criminal justice policy.
Statistics on gang membership and gang-related crime in Georgia aren't easily available - the FBI hasn't published a gang threat assessment since 2011 - and some critics have accused Kemp of fear-mongering. Some gang investigators, meanwhile, have recently documented a rise in gang activity.
In his address, Kemp cited statistics from a 2018 law enforcement survey to urge lawmakers to immediately target what he called a “crisis that stretches statewide.”
“It’s a great time to be a Georgian,” he said. “But it’s not time to grow complacent. Let’s pick up a hammer and grab some nails. It’s time to start building on the solid foundation poured by those who came before us.”