‘Toxic politics.’ The feud between Kemp and Ralston takes sharp turn

January 29, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (left) and Governor Brian Kemp speak during the 7th Annual Legislative Lunch at Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



January 29, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (left) and Governor Brian Kemp speak during the 7th Annual Legislative Lunch at Georgia Freight Depot in Atlanta on Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The clash between Gov. Brian Kemp and House Speaker David Ralston reached new heights on Wednesday as state lawmakers abruptly voted to take a break to try to sort out the state's strained budget situation.

Ralston and his allies said they needed more time to hash out the impact of Kemp’s proposed cuts of $500 million this fiscal year and next, as well as his push for $2,000 in teacher pay hikes that would cost nearly $400 million.

But the subtext of the maneuver is the growing rift between the two Republicans on a range of issues far beyond the budget.

The two are feuding over policies that include Kemp's foster care plan, Ralston's support for a deeper income tax cut and above all, the governor's pick of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler for the prized seat.

Ralston supports U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, and pushed legislation that would have forced Loeffler into a primary and could have presumably helped the four-term congressman. That effort stalled after Kemp threatened to veto it.

The infighting was laid bare in extended comments from Ralston and a statement from the governor’s office minutes apart on Wednesday. We’ll let you see for yourself.

Let’s start with Ralston, who offered his assessment of the situation and said he’s sought more transparency in the budget process.

Here’s more from the speaker, from the AJC’s Amanda C. Coyne:

"The other thing too, though, I think that has to be said is that, you know, when you're being asked to make cuts, I mean, those are those require painful and difficult choices. And so, you know, naturally as a more deliberative process and maybe in good time."

He then invoked growing concerns about cuts to the mental health programs and criminal justice initiatives.

"It's not just one area, it's not just two areas. I mean, there are a number of areas, but we think that we'll be able to have an amended budget ready for the house to consider when we get back by having the time that we're going to take, beginning tomorrow, to focus on nothing but the budget from sunup to sundown."

Two of the bigger hang-ups are also two of the biggest-ticket items in the spending plan. Ralston has been skeptical of Kemp's push to bump teacher pay this year, which would complete the governor's promise of a $5,000 pay raise in his first term.

The speaker has also led the charge for the second phase of an income tax cut that would decrease the top rate by a quarter-point – at the projected cost of at least $500 million in state revenue.

"Teacher pay raises is still something that we're taking a look at in the House. That's a big, big ticket, frankly ... The income tax cut, you know, I mean, I've said repeatedly, I think was a commitment that we made to the taxpayers of Georgia. We committed to do it in two steps. We did one step in 2018. We had always planned to do the second step this year. And, you know, here again, we've got, I think, frankly, a disagreement as to the impact of the budget on that, but I think that's something that we need to honor."

The delay increases the likelihood that the 40-day session will extend to mid-April, a harrowing prospect for some vulnerable legislators from both parties eager to hit the campaign trail. Since lawmakers can’t raise campaign cash during the session, some worry they’ll fall behind rivals.

Said Ralston:

"I'm sympathetic to people that want to get out of here, but you know, we didn't put on our mail pieces ...'Send me to the capital and I'll fight, I'll fight for you until the end of March.'" 

Enter Kemp, who through spokeswoman Candice Broce sent a scathing retort to Ralston’s delay. It started thusly:

"The governor's budget proposals are conservative and balanced, reflecting our values and vision as a state. His budgets fully fund public basic education and provide long overdue pay raises for teachers. They invest in community safety with anti-gang and anti-human trafficking measures, and they fund initiatives to lower healthcare costs and improve quality of care for Georgia families."

And then the hammer, which invokes Ralston's alliance with Democrats to force a primary.

"While we respect the Legislature's purview, the governor does not need a lesson in conservatism from a man who brokered a deal with Democrats just last week for political gamesmanship. Governor Kemp will continue to put hardworking Georgians first and prioritize people over toxic politics."