Republican Gov. Brian Kemp rarely touched on issues that appealed directly to his party’s base Thursday during his State of the State address. He focused more on widely approved subjects, with a call for a teacher pay raise and a pledge to crack down on gang violence. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia governor aims for the middle in State of State

Gov. Brian Kemp warned about the plight of victims of sex trafficking and the dangers of gang violence. He blasted soaring costs from a “rigged” health care system. And he promised another pay bump for Georgia’s public school teachers.

The Republican’s State of the State address Thursday was not targeted at his conservative base. It seemed tailor-made, instead, to appeal to another audience: suburban voters, particularly women, whose recent exodus threatens GOP control of Georgia’s Statehouse in 2020.

Kemp’s narrow election victory two years ago, squeezed tight by Democratic gains in the General Assembly from across metro Atlanta’s suburbs, seemed firmly on his mind as he unveiled his legislative agenda to a crowd of hundreds of lawmakers and state officials packed into the House chamber.

There was a proposal to fully fund the state’s education system for the third year in a row, depriving Democrats of a favorite attack. There was a pledge to target gang-related crime, when Kemp invoked a boy named Nicholas, a 10-year-old who was killed in a drive-by shooting, as an inspiration for the bill.

The governor promised to back legislation that would bring more transparency to combat “surprise” medical bills. And he honored former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, one of Georgia’s most popular politicians, with a new program to research Parkinson’s disease.

But the highlight of his plan was his promise to finance a $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers, even as he called for sharp budget cuts to other state agencies. Republicans could head into the election trumpeting a salary hike of $5,000 for Georgia’s 114,000 teachers in the two years since Kemp’s victory.

Absent from his address was mention of measures that would promote “religious liberty,” curb illegal immigration or expand gun rights — campaign promises sure to fire up his conservative base but risk alienating moderate voters.

Even talk of the far-reaching abortion restrictions that passed last year, a debate that dominated the session, was designed to set up his support for a far less controversial foster care overhaul he supports this year that would triple tax incentives for some adoptive parents.

“During debate on the heartbeat bill, I would always start with a simple statement: Georgia is a state that values life,” he said. “Honestly, it’s hard to disagree with that.”

Controversy

The governor’s agenda put Democrats in a tricky spot.

The fight over last year’s abortion restrictions, with threats of boycotts and political payback, led to a surge of donations and interest — and helped the party recruit a wave of Democratic candidates. Kemp’s decision to steer clear of polarizing proposals left Democrats searching for new lines of attack.

They pointed out pressing issues Kemp left out of his speech, such as Georgia’s high maternal mortality rates. And they seized on his decision to cut state spending 4% this fiscal year and 6% in the next, a fiscal turf war that could dominate this year’s 40-day session.

“For the first time in years, the budget is a source of controversy,” Democratic state Sen. Gloria Butler said before adding: “Despite this revenue shortfall, the governor does not ask Georgia’s wealthiest citizens to pay their fair share. Instead, the governor’s budget benefits the few, burdens the many.”

What leading Democrats didn’t do, however, is outright oppose many of the priorities he outlined.

It’s hard, for instance, to come out against a teacher pay hike in any year — but particularly an election year, when an increasing number of once-safe legislative seats are suddenly competitive. And opposing crackdowns on gang violence and sex traffickers? An unthinkable stance for many legislators.

At a press conference shortly after Kemp’s address, several top Democratic leaders illustrated that squeeze. They acknowledged they would support the policies Kemp highlighted even as they questioned whether his focus was in the right place.

“The key right now is not the fact that we don’t have tough gang laws. The key is that we’re not able to actually enforce them,” said state Sen. Harold Jones, an Augusta Democrat who said more judges, prosecutors and police officers are needed. “That is the key point.”

‘Electioneering’

The governor may find fellow Republicans just as difficult to corral. Sharp divisions are forming over Kemp’s spending plan, particularly in the House, where lawmakers have great influence over the final version.

And even innocuous-sounding legislation could become a battlegroundHouse Speaker David Ralston was asked about Kemp’s foster care overhaul, which beyond increasing tax incentives would also lower the minimum age for adopting children and task a commission to come up with more changes.

Normally, Ralston could be expected to support such crowd-pleasing legislation. But he took a different tack, saying he was leery of any plan to start a commission that could “become sort of an agent for special interests.”

At the same time, the Republican base could grow frustrated if Kemp doesn’t pursue other conservative campaign pledges this year, although there’s little indication of that now.

Adam Pipkin of the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition said the group was “extremely pleased” with Kemp’s track record — and optimistic he’ll aim for other conservative initiatives.

That could happen despite the absence of those proposals in Kemp’s agenda.

Four years ago, the last time Georgia held a presidential election, then-Gov. Nathan Deal also steered clear of controversy to kick off the session. His State of the State was devoid of any sweeping overhaul that had shaped previous legislative gatherings.

And yet, controversy found him anyways, as conservatives eager for an election-year edge passed a “religious liberty” measure — only to watch Deal veto the bill days after that session gaveled to a clamorous close.

The former governor was in the House gallery on Thursday, praised by Kemp and applauded by the lawmakers crammed into the House floor below him. Minutes after Kemp finished, Deal said his successor had embraced a “wide range of things all of us can agree on.”

“He did not use this speech as an electioneering-type speech, which I was pleased to see,” Deal said. “He touched on issues he knew would give him broad support across the aisle.”

- Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this report.

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