Gov. Brian Kemp speaks Wednesday at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast. More than 2,500 people attended the event to hear Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston and U.S. Sen. David Perdue talk about plans for the coming year, including the General Assembly session that began Monday. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Georgia Republicans promise comity; critics predict ‘muddy’ fights

Gov. Brian Kemp trumpeted the state’s plummeting jobless rate. U.S. Sen. David Perdue lamented the polarization in Washington even as he declared that “government works in Georgia.” And legislative leaders promised to put consensus over conflict.

Those were the messages Republican state politicians delivered Wednesday at the annual Eggs & Issues breakfast as they seemed to signal a truce with business executives worried about a return of divisive social issues that have dominated past legislative sessions.

The mood was so optimistic that Georgia Chamber Chief Executive Chris Clark, whose organization sponsors the annual event, went so far as to predict politicians from both parties will go against the grain in an election year and avoid contentious proposals meant to gin up their bases.

“I just want to tell you I think we’re above that in Georgia,” he said.

At the Statehouse, though, a different reality is fast unfolding. Lawmakers are preparing for a bruising tussle over Kemp’s decision to reduce spending 4% this year and 6% next, leading House Speaker David Ralston to issue a reminder that his chamber has a different approach over how to mete out the cuts.

And though the governor has indicated he won’t make a concerted push to expand gun rights or pass “religious liberty” legislation this year — both were campaign pledges — he also suggested that he won’t try to actively block such efforts from moving forward this year.

Democrats are bracing for a new fight, mindful that last year’s legislative session started with similar promises until a bitter clash erupted over abortion restrictions. They, too, have offered red-meat proposals to ban assault weapons and repeal abortion restrictions, though they won’t get traction in a Republican-controlled Statehouse.

“They’re very, very welcoming comments,” state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who is the longest-serving lawmaker in the Statehouse, said of the sunny remarks from Republican leaders.

“But the rubber meets the road when we get to the corner of public policy,” Smyre said. “We have a way to come together as we deal with difficult issues. I just hope it doesn’t elevate to discord and we can have some good discussion.”

One man’s waste …

State lawmakers will get a better sense of Kemp’s agenda Thursday when he delivers his annual State of the State remarks, a speech to lawmakers that will detail both his policy platform and his spending plan.

The governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a crackdown on gang violence and new efforts to combat sex trafficking will be at the center of his policy agenda. 

He and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan have also demanded an overhaul of the foster care system that would triple a tax incentive for some adoptive parents and reduce the minimum age for unmarried people to adopt children.

But those proposals could also 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.

Under pressure from conservative supporters to carry out campaign promises, the governor hasn’t said whether he’d return to the cultural battles that defined 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.”

Kemp’s budget proposal, however, seems certain to be the main draw of Thursday’s speech. A recent dip in state collections has helped reinforce Kemp’s budget-cutting decision, but it’s not yet clear whether the governor will also push to finance the remaining $2,000 of his promised teacher pay raise.

Wednesday’s event offered a hint at the simmering tension over the spending cuts. Ralston said he wouldn’t set an end date to the 40-day legislative session until a “clearer picture” of the budget process emerges.

“I have already cautioned our members that one person’s waste can be another’s vital expenditure,” Ralston said. “So we will carefully scrutinize this year’s budget, bearing in mind the nearly 11 million Georgians impacted by those numbers.”

The governor, meanwhile, promised not to “take our foot off the gas.”

“We’ve hunkered down, we’ve stayed focused, and as you can tell from last year,” he said, “we’ve chopped a lot of wood.”

‘Muddy’

The soothing messaging at the Georgia Chamber breakfast extended to federal politics, too, as Perdue tried to emphasize his across-the-aisle support as he aims for a second term in November.

The former Fortune 500 chief executive praised Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as bipartisan guardians of “economic prosperity,” and he singled out U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, as one of his staunchest allies across the aisle. Perdue cast blame on “career politicians” for the gridlock in Congress.

U.S. Senator David Perdue presents his address More than 2,500 people attended the annual Georgia Chamber of Commerce - Eggs & Issues Breakfast. Speakers included Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston, and U.S. Senator David Perdue.
Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

“You read about the partisan politics in Washington — boy it’s there,” said Perdue, one of President Donald Trump’s top allies in the Senate. “I can’t find people to compromise with up there. It’s just a strange world.”

That led to snickering from Democrats who have made him a top target in November. Lauren Groh-Wargo, the chief executive of the Fair Fight voting rights group, challenged the Republican not to seek a second term if he hates Washington so much.

“One and done. Any of the Democrats running against you would be a vast improvement for the business climate and for regular Georgians,” she said of her party’s field, which includes four high-profile contenders who will square off in a May primary.

Skeptics of the promised comity weren’t hard to find. Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, who once lobbied for the gay rights group Georgia Equality, said lawmakers won’t be able to resist “crazy things” with an election looming and threats of primary challengers on their flanks.

“It’s inescapable that we’ll see some fireworks,” she said. “It’s like the first day of school — everyone is still wearing their nice clothes. But it’s about to get muddy.”

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