After a first legislative session that was dominated by a clash over abortion rights, Gov. Brian Kemp indicated his second could focus on less heated issues that aim to broaden the Georgia GOP's appeal in a fraught election year.
The governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his leading priorities include a call for tougher penalties for violent offenders, more resources to crack down on gangs and changes to make it easier for families to adopt foster care children.
And he plans to devote much of his focus to steering budget cuts of $200 million this fiscal year and $300 million next year, a refashioning of state finances that he hopes will force agencies to pare down excesses and embrace innovation but that critics warn would hobble essential services.
If a return trip to the cultural battles that defined his first year in office is on his agenda, Kemp refused to say so. But he and other Republicans are under pressure from their conservative supporters to fulfill campaign promises that could invigorate the GOP base in an election year.
Aside from a sweeping anti-abortion law that was blocked by the courts last year, Kemp also promised to enact expansions in gun rights and crack down on illegal immigration during his first term in office.
He told the AJC the demands of grassroots conservatives who fueled his narrow 2018 victory are on his mind. But he sidestepped questions about whether he'd pursue culture war issues that could energize conservatives but alienate liberals and moderate voters in 2020.
“My commitments are the same. My campaign promises are the same. Nothing has changed. But you have to have a certain amount of votes to be able to get something passed, and people’s agendas are different,” he said.
“We got a lot done last year, but it’s an election year this year,” he added. “People are going to get like Elvis and want to exit the building quickly. How much we can get done this year will remain to be seen.”
Democrats are skeptical, mindful that hot-button debates can bubble up suddenly under the Gold Dome. Even last year, Kemp initially supported a weaker version of anti-abortion legislation before he forcefully endorsed more sweeping restrictions.
House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said he and his allies are ready to battle "foolish and dangerous" social legislation, which he said could forever tarnish Georgia's economic reputation.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
“The talent of tomorrow is watching what we do today. The stakes are enormous,” Trammell said. “Will we continue to be a state where people want to keep and bring their talent to make a brighter future, or do we want to engage in the types of culture war fights that can irreparably damage Georgia’s brand?”
After a tight victory, Kemp's inaugural session was marked by contrasts. The abortion restrictions dominated headlines and triggered threats of boycotts from Hollywood figures and promises of political retribution from Democrats.
Yet he also backed a sweep of proposals aimed at appealing to centrist voters that his more moderate predecessor avoided, including an expansion of medical marijuana and a limited push to add more Georgians to Medicaid rolls.
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The governor suggested a more scaled-back agenda this year, though he was coy about many specifics.
Kemp told the AJC he wanted to "put some more teeth" into state laws that increase penalties for those convicted of human trafficking and boost funding for an anti-gang task force he launched last year. He also said he would pour money into a promised database to track gang members.
His strategy to target serious offenders is a break from Nathan Deal's approach during his eight years as governor, when he took aim at the state's famously tough criminal justice system with an overhaul that steered nonviolent offenders away from costly prison beds.
Kemp has faced pressure from some conservatives to continue his predecessor's work, including reviving a dormant criminal justice council that helped hash out the most far-ranging proposals. The governor said he has no plans to re-up the group, but he's willing to consider more limited changes.
“I’ll be open to looking at that. But my focus is on fulfilling my campaign promise to go after street gangs,” Kemp said. “We still have a lot of work to do there, so that’s my priority.”
The governor will also promote legislation he said would help more families adopt foster care children and “ease the bureaucracy and red tape” of the system, though he would not delve into details of what that could look like.
Past efforts to make changes to those laws have been complicated by provisions that could make it harder for same-sex couples to adopt children. Kemp indicated he would not try to pre-emptively block a revival of that proposal but instead grapple with it "when the time comes."
“My focus is not on poison pills. It’s on making it easier for people to adopt foster care children. We’ll deal with those individual concerns as legislators have them,” he said. “Whatever else comes up legislatively, we’ll deal with that.”
‘Fulfilling my promise’
The budget is set to dominate the 40-day session, which starts in January and typically runs through late March. As some lawmakers fear his cost-cutting mandate will slice into essential services, Kemp cast them as a needed overhaul to "make government more efficient, to get rid of waste and streamline."
“You’re taking advantage of that opportunity to make government smaller and use technology to do a better job,” he said. “And at the end of the day, that will allow us to fund our priorities.”
Democrats and others warn the steep cuts were haphazardly designed and will wind up depriving Georgians of critical services.
“The fact is, currently, some of the largest agencies in state government are struggling to serve their current functions,” said Danny Kanso, a budget analyst for the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “The difficult part of this is that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of strategy to the cuts we are talking about.”
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Aside from bolstering state law enforcement resources, Kemp’s other main budget priority involves pursuing the rest of the teacher pay hike he trumpeted on the campaign trail in 2018.
He navigated a $3,000 raise in salary for teachers through the Legislature last year, though financing the final $2,000 bump has become an increasingly tougher prospect amid budget cuts.
In the interview, Kemp said he’s “committed to fulfilling my promise” of securing the increase but would not say whether he’d pursue the pay bump this year or wait until closer to his 2022 re-election bid.
With a new push to legalize gambling underway, Kemp said he remains opposed to the idea but repeated that he wouldn't try to stand in the way of a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide so long as new funds boost the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship.
And after Democratic gains across Atlanta's suburbs in the last election, Kemp said Republicans will sharpen their message by emphasizing anti-gang crackdowns, the state's economic climate and a health care "waiver" that he sees as the Georgia GOP's response to the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m not giving up on anyone,” he said. “We’ve got to be aggressive. We’ve got to take the fight to the other side — tell them what we’re for and what we’re fighting for.”
Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.