Gov. Brian Kemp made a substantial down payment on his campaign promises Thursday, recommending that teachers get a $3,000 raise and state employees a 2 percent pay hike.
If the budget Kemp proposed Thursday is approved, the raises will put more money into the paychecks of more than 200,000 educators and state employees in Georgia.
Kemp’s budget plan for fiscal 2020, which begins July 1, also includes borrowing $150 million for a new voting system in Georgia and $100 million for bridge projects. Officials said it also funds the k-12 school formula, which was shorted for more than a decade before Gov. Nathan Deal added money to it during the 2018 session.
The new governor promised a $5,000 teacher pay raise on the campaign trail, but the price tag — about $700 million — had budget writers concerned. The $3,000 pay raise Kemp proposed is a substantial down payment on the promise he said he’ll still keep and something the governor said is vitally needed because so many teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years on the job.
“To recruit and retain the best and brightest in our schools, we must remove heavy burdens in the classroom and keep teacher pay competitive,” Kemp told lawmakers in his State of the State address.
The governor called it the biggest raise in state history. Gov. Zell Miller pushed 6 percent pay raises for four years during his second term in the 1990s in an effort to make average teacher pay in Georgia the highest in the Southeast.
A $3,000 raise for each teacher would cost about $418 million, according to an estimate by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
The state’s two largest teacher groups — the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Georgia Association of Educators — applauded the proposal.
John Palmer, a Cobb County educator and spokesman for the teacher group TRAGIC, said his organization “was thrilled the governor has included raises for teachers and state employees.
“This is a good first step and a welcome relief for state employees who haven’t seen raises in over a decade,” he said. “We applaud the governor for recognizing this need and hope he can continue to work through his term to make salaries for teachers and state employees more competitive.”
Margaret Ciccarelli, a lobbyist for PAGE, called the proposed $3,000 raise “a wonderful step in the right direction.” But she said teachers also will want to know when they can expect Kemp to follow through on the rest of his promise of a $5,000 raise.
House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, called the pay raises “doable,” despite the high price tag.
“I know he wants to go on and fulfill his campaign promise of $5,000 overall, and we will get there, lord willing and the economy stays strong,” England said. “Being pragmatic and not trying to bite off the whole thing in one year is wise.”
While educators probably expected a raise since Kemp had touted it on the campaign trail last fall, the 2 percent pay raise for state employees may be more of a surprise. Pay raises for state employees have been few and far between since the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s.
The governor also repeated that his recommendations include $69 million in one-time funding for school security grants. Each of the state’s 2,294 public schools would receive $30,000 to implement security. State lawmakers included similar grants to districts during the 2018 session. Kemp also wants $8.4 million for mental health programs in Georgia high schools.
“To keep our classrooms safe, we must also address the mental health issues that often lead to school violence,” he told lawmakers.
Shemeka Dawson, a parent of children with mental health issues, appreciated the proposal. She founded the group Parents Reaching Parents and works part time as a parent liaison at the Morehouse School of Medicine, where she advises parents of troubled teens, many of whom have mental health issues. “I think the children will definitely benefit from it,” she said.
The record $27.5 billion budget — $53 billion when federal and other funds are included — would borrow about $1 billion for construction, equipment upgrades and other projects.
Besides school funding, the voting-system money was among the most closely watched line items in Kemp’s budget proposal. Questions were raised repeatedly during last year’s election season about the system because it doesn’t provide paper verification of how Georgians vote.
Georgia legislators plan to replace the state’s 16-year-old electronic voting machines with a new voting system that has a paper trail for accuracy. Lawmakers will decide between paper ballots filled in by a pen and paper ballots printed by touchscreen computers, similar to the system currently in use statewide.
Hand-marked paper ballots would cost at least $30 million, and computer-printed voting machines would cost well over $100 million. The $150 million Kemp recommended would provide lawmakers the money to go for the more expensive system.
Besides the pay raises, much of the extra money in next year’s budget would go to fund growth in education and public health care programs.
Kemp, however, also included millions more for hazardous waste cleanup, trauma medical care, water project planning, addiction treatment and for a 3 percent increase in HOPE scholarship awards.
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Staff writers Ty Tagami and Mark Niesse contributed to this article.