After weeks of dropping hints about his legislative priorities, Gov. Brian Kemp will deliver a State of the State address on Thursday that will detail his agenda and help define his second year in office.
The governor has already spelled out his vision for overhauling Georgia’s foster care system, and he’s said that new crackdowns on violent gang members and sex trafficking will be at the top of the list. But other burning questions will be answered at his 11 a.m. speech in the House chamber.
After his first legislative session was shaped by anew anti-abortion law, he’s facing pressure in an election year to fulfill other conservative promises by pushing for a broad gun rights expansions and new restrictions on illegal immigration.
And he’ll issue his plan for spending cuts he ordered that slash Georgia’s budget by 4% this fiscal year and 6% next year. That makes it harder for him to finance his most significant vow – the remaining $2,000 of a promised $5,000 teacher pay raise.
Here are a few things to watch:
The governor’s spending cuts have already sparked tensions in the statehouse. House Speaker David Ralston indicated as much Wednesday when he said he would not set an end date to the 40-day legislative session until he gets a “clearer picture” of the budget process.
Kemp’s proposal will immediately help illuminate that. It will answer whether he plans to fund the rest of the teacher pay raise, which could cost more than $300 million, or leave it until later in his term.
He’ll outline just how sharply some agencies should slash their spending. And he’ll indicate whether he supports allowing lawmakers to vote to lower the top state income tax rate again, from 5.75% to 5.5%, saving taxpayers money but further cutting state revenue.
Coy with some specifics, Kemp said in an interview he wanted to toughen penalties for those convicted of human trafficking and boost funding for an anti-gang task force he launched last year. That includes more money devoted to a promised database to track gang members.
He also plans to unveil an overhaul of Georgia’s adoption and foster care system that will triple a tax incentive for some adoptive parents and reduce the minimum age for unmarried people to adopt children.
But other top agenda items remain unknown, such as whether he’ll back a Senate compromise to combat “surprise” medical billing or seek a litigation overhaul that curbs large awards that Georgia juries have granted in recent years.
Pressed by conservative supporters to carry out campaign promises, the governor hasn’t said whether he’d return to the cultural battles that dominated his first year in office. Asked whether he’d pre-emptively try to block such legislation, Kemp said he’ll deal with that issue “when the time comes.”
Still, even innocuous-sounding legislation can quickly morph into new political pinatas.
Opponents of same-sex marriage could again push for a provision that allows religious charities to block gay couples from adopting children. Anti-gang efforts could wind up including new sanctions on immigrants in the country illegally.
What’s left on the cutting room floor will say plenty about Kemp’s agenda.
It won’t be a surprise if he sidesteps some of the state’s most controversial debates: The push to legalize gambling, the bid to give the state more control of Atlanta’s airport and a budding effort to revisit the state’s film tax credit.
The special visitors Kemp chooses to highlight in the House chamber will help reinforce his policies. Expect law enforcement officers and teachers to get a shout-out, along with his wife, Marty Kemp, and three daughters.
About an hour after Kemp wraps up, Democratic leaders will deliver a response in the South Wing of the Georgia Capitol. Expect a call to expand Medicaid – something Kemp has long opposed as too costly – and boost education funding.
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