Republican Brian Kemp. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Kemp proposes a $600 million annual plan to boost teacher pay

Republican Brian Kemp proposed giving Georgia public school teachers a permanent $5,000 annual pay raise if he’s elected governor, a plan that would cost state taxpayers roughly $600 million a year.

The secretary of state said Tuesday that he would not raise taxes or fees to fund the pay raises, instead depending on existing revenue from the state’s $26.2 billion budget. Kemp described it as crucial to help the state retain more educators.

“Anybody who looks at teachers’ pay will say this is much needed in Georgia,” he said. “This is about the future of our kids. What are we spending by having teachers get in the system and then leave, not having the best and brightest in the classroom?”

Kemp unveiled the plan as polls show he’s in a tight contest with Democrat Stacey Abrams roughly six weeks before the November vote. It’s the latest example of Kemp trying to appeal to a broader set of voters after a bruising GOP primary contest where he raced to his party’s flanks on conservative issues.

Brian Kemp is running for Governor. The AJC had three questions for him.

The plan would put pressure on the state’s fiscal bottom line, as Georgia officials already struggle to meet the state’s education obligations. Thanks to a robust economy, this year was the first in more than a decade that state lawmakers were able to fully fund the state’s k-12 system.

During good economic times, the state typically takes in about $900 million more in state revenue than the previous year. In the recently completed fiscal year, the state’s take rose $961 million. That means, hypothetically, the governor and General Assembly have an extra $900 million or so to spend each year.

However, paying for the extra students in growing k-12 schools and colleges, and increased state costs for the Medicaid program typically eat up a major chunk of that every year. And setting aside $600 million for teacher pay raises assumes tax collections will continue to grow.

In an interview, Kemp said his plan to limit state spending and review tax credits and other programs would free up more state dollars for education spending.

“That’s why we need to look at state government now to implement a state spending cap, so in good times like we’re in, we don’t grow too fast, we budget conservatively and fund our priorities,” Kemp said.

The average Georgia public school teacher earns roughly $54,000 a year, according to a 2017 National Education Association study, ranking the state 23rd in the nation. A recent state Department of Education report showed that roughly 44 percent of all teachers leave the profession within five years.

Abrams has said she would prioritize “competitive pay” for teachers, update the state’s decades-old funding formula and expand a community-based schooling model to offer more health care and other services. She would also eliminate the $100 million private school tax credit that Kemp supports.

“We’re glad to see Brian Kemp has finally decided to follow Stacey Abrams’ lead on education — she released a proposal to make teacher pay competitive back in April,” Abrams spokeswoman Caitlin Highland said.

He’s far from the first candidate for governor who has promised big raises for teachers ahead of an election. When Gov. Zell Miller was running for another term in 1994, one of the pillars of his platform included 6 percent pay raises for each year of his second term. Thanks partly to a strong economy during his second term, Miller fulfilled that promise.

Kemp has often targeted Abrams as a big-spending Democrat, zeroing in on her plan to expand the Medicaid program at an estimated cost ranging from $246 million to $468 million a year. Asked how he reconciles his critiques of Abrams with his teacher pay plan, he pointed to the state’s expanding economy.

“We absolutely can afford this,” he said. “She’s promising the same pot of money to a lot of different people. I’m promising one pot of money to a specific thing that’s very calculated and targeted.”

Kemp was joined by several legislative leaders who also endorsed the plan, including state Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, who called the pay hikes “long overdue.”

State House Speaker David Ralston, meanwhile, indicated through a spokesman that the jury was still out. He said he is looking forward to more discussion on how to “support our educators and fund important priorities like school safety.”

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Staff Writer James Salzer contributed to this story.

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