The Follow Up: Georgia gov aims to keep promise of teacher pay raise

Gov. Brian Kemp used his State of the State address to call for a $2,000 pay raise for the state’s 100,000 some public school teachers. If the proposal wins the Legislature’s approval, it will fulfill one of Kemp’s biggest campaign promises in 2018, when he pledged get teachers $5,000 raises. They got the first $3,000 last year. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Gov. Brian Kemp used his State of the State address to call for a $2,000 pay raise for the state’s 100,000 some public school teachers. If the proposal wins the Legislature’s approval, it will fulfill one of Kemp’s biggest campaign promises in 2018, when he pledged get teachers $5,000 raises. They got the first $3,000 last year. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

A legislative version of the Capitol Recap

Kemp seeks $2,000 raise for teachers

Gov. Brian Kemp is calling for the state's public school teachers to receive raises next year of $2,000.

If the proposal wins approval, Kemp will have fulfilled one of his biggest promises during the 2018 campaign, when he pledged to raise teachers’ pay by $5,000. The down payment came last year, when the General Assembly approved a $3,000 raise.

Kemp used his State of the State address to announce the plan — which would cost about $350 million.

It follows Kemp’s order in August to cut state spending by 4% this fiscal year and 6% next year. The governor’s edict was meant to set aside funds to meet some of his priorities, such as the teacher raise, but also to serve as a hedge against the possibility of an economic downturn. The state’s fiscal economist said in September that there was a 50-50 chance that a mild recession could hit in 2020.

The state has also seen its tax collections slow since shortly after the General Assembly voted in 2018 to reduce Georgia’s top income tax rate. On the first day of the new legislative session, the state reported that tax collections were up just 0.3% during the first six months of the fiscal year, which began July 1, and analysts said income tax collections were tracking about $300 million less than what had been expected.

Legislators this year will consider another reduction in the rate, to 5.5% — which would cost the state, and save taxpayers, about $550 million. The further reduction in the income tax rate is not accounted for in Kemp’s budget plan.

Kemp said the teacher pay raise “will enhance retention rates, boost recruitment numbers, and improve educational outcomes in schools throughout Georgia.”

“By investing in our educators,” he said, “we can build a strong house … a place where everyone learns … and all Georgians have the opportunity to thrive.”

In his speech, Kemp did not mention a pay raise for the tens of thousands of state employees and staffers in the University System of Georgia. His budget, however, includes $45 million to fund a $1,000 pay hike for full-time state employees earning less than $40,000 a year.

Senate Democrats expressed support for the proposed bump in teacher pay while also saying the state needs to increase what its spending on students.

“We should not forget that Georgia is 36th in the nation on per pupil spending,” they said in a tweet. “We must set a goal to reach at least the national average on student spending.”

Kemp also told lawmakers that his budget proposal would fully fund the formula the state uses to decide how much money k-12 schools receive. It would be the third consecutive year the formula is fully funded after being shortchanged for more than a decade.

Passage of the teacher pay raise, along with any of Kemp’s other proposals, is not a given, though, with all those money issues on the radar.

Earlier this month, House Speaker David Ralston called a boost in teacher pay "a laudable goal." But he added: ""I hope we're able to do that. I don't know that we'll be able to do that this session."

Foster care overhaul a top priority for Kemp

Gov. Brian Kemp will push this year for an overhaul of the state's adoption and foster care system, and that includes his call to triple the tax incentive some adoptive parents now receive.

Legislation would boost the tax credit for adoptions out of the state foster care system from $2,000 to $6,000 for the first five years. It would then return to $2,000 until the child turns 18.

It would follow changes legislators made in 2018 that reduced adoption waiting times, legalized the reimbursement of birth mothers for their expenses in private adoptions, banned middlemen who profited from arranging adoptions and simplified out-of-state adoptions.

That legislation hit a snag that only disappeared when Republican state senators agreed to remove a provision that would have allowed religious adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples seeking to adopt foster children.

Kemp has not called for restoring that provision, but some have expressed concerns that social conservatives will try to tack it on to a new bill this year. The governor has said he’ll deal with that possibility “when the time comes.”

The new measure would also reduce the minimum age for an unmarried individual to adopt in Georgia from 25 to 21.

The state estimates that 1,145 foster children were eligible for adoption through the state Division of Family and Children Services in late 2019.

Deal reached on internet sales tax

The state House and Senate voted to force "marketplace facilitators" — entities that use websites or apps to sell goods or services produced by others — to collect and remit sales taxes.

The legislation, House Bill 276, could apply to ride-sharing networks such as Uber and Lyft, short-term housing rental sites such as Airbnb, and eBay and other auction sites, although lobbyists for Uber are expected to push for a separate bill to change how customers are taxed.

Potential impact of the measure is up for some debate.

A group called the Faith, Justice and Truth Project released a report in June that said the state is losing nearly $750 million a year in sales taxes not collected from online marketplace facilitators. The state’s estimate, however, is closer to $150 million a year.

More than 30 states have similar tax laws.

Bill seeks debt relief for teachers

Teachers working in Georgia's worst-performing schools and handling key subjects could see their student loan debt forgiven under new legislation.

House Bill 736 would apply to teachers in what the state calls its turnaround schools. The list of “turnaround-eligible” schools, released in December, numbers 105, including 28 in metro Atlanta.

The bill would apply to teachers in “high-demand” subject areas, including math, science and special education.

Education leaders have faced difficulty in hanging on to teachers in the low-performing schools.

Teachers who qualify for the debt relief must have received a bachelor’s degree from a Georgia college or university and taken out a loan for their education at that school or another in the state. Debt relief would apply to costs not covered by the HOPE scholarship.

The funds would be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Block on ‘red flag’ laws proposed

Being deemed by a judge as a threat to yourself or others is not a good enough reason to take your guns away, at least one state House Republican thinks.

State Rep. Ken Pullin of Zebulon has proposed House Bill 751, which would charge anyone — including a law enforcement officer — who tried to enforce a "red flag" law from another state or the federal government. A conviction could result in three years of incarceration and a fine up to $5,000.

“Red flag” laws, which would take guns away from a citizen who is ruled by a judge to be a threat, gained attention last summer after President Donald Trump suggested such a law in response to high-profile mass shootings in Ohio and Texas. Trump has since cooled on the idea.

Pullin said he believes the laws violate due process as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Georgia does not have a "red flag" law, although state Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven, filed House Bill 435 to allow state residents and law enforcement officers to ask a superior court judge to determine whether someone is a threat. The District of Columbia and 15 states, including Florida, have such laws.

If Pullin’s legislation were to pass, it would be superseded by any federal law that had been enacted. Wilson said Pullin’s bill would set up a “constitutional showdown in federal court.”

Governor targets sex trafficking

Gov. Brian Kemp opened the legislative session by signaling that his top priorities include cracking down on sex trafficking.

The state’s first lady, Marty Kemp, also got involved. She unveiled a training program to help identify sex trafficking victims.

The governor encouraged every state employee — roughly 80,000 of them — to take the course.

Last year, he signed into law measures to increase penalties for those convicted of pimping or pandering, give the state new powers to provide emergency care for a child victim of human trafficking and broadened the definition of criminal gang activity to include the crime.

This year, Kemp is pursuing legislation that would “put some more teeth” into state laws by increasing penalties for those convicted of the crime.

The Kemps followed up their announcement Monday by accompanying Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump's daughter and adviser, and other officials to a Wellspring Living campus in south Fulton County to highlight efforts to combat human trafficking. There, they met with several victims who shared their stories of recovery from abuse, drug use and sexual exploitation.

Support to stop surprise billing

Gov. Brian Kemp is backing legislation to bring an end to surprise billing for health care.

Surprise bills are medical bills that come to patients for costs they thought were covered by their insurance. The bills can run hundreds or thousands of dollars.

For example, a patient can undergo surgery at a hospital in his or her insurance network, not realizing that some of the medical facility’s doctors are independent contractors and aren’t part of its insurance contracts. So the patient can receive a separate bill from an out-of-network anesthesiologist or radiologist.

A Senate plan unveiled this week designed to curb patients’ risk of facing unexpected charges could be the framework that Kemp supports.

Under the proposal, Senate Bill 293, the state Department of Insurance would create a database using prices insurance companies have already negotiated in their other contracts. Doctors have traditionally opposed that. The plan would also include options for independent arbitration.

“Families are living on a prayer because the system is rigged against them,” Kemp said. “This year, we will implement long overdue reforms that put our families first.”

$1.6 million sought for hemp

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is asking state lawmakers for $800,000 in each of the next two years to create a state hemp program.

The state needs to establish the program before the U.S. Department of Agriculture will approve Georgia’s hemp regulations.

Black said that if lawmakers approve the funding by early March, farmers could plant their first hemp crops shortly after that, in time for this year’s growing season.

Hemp, like marijuana, comes from the cannabis plant, but it contains less than 0.3% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high. Hemp is used to make CBD oil, a popular product imported from other states and sold in Georgia health stores.

Georgia lawmakers voted to allow the cultivation of hemp in the state last year, but they did not include money for a state program.

Black’s proposal calls for two field inspectors, two administrators, an enforcement officer, four four-wheel-drive vehicles, training and computers.

14 penciled in, 26 to go

The General Assembly mapped out the first 14 days of this year's session, stretching past the first week of February.

It sounds like it could take a while before the rest of the calendar fills out for the 40-day session.

Speaking at the Georgia Chamber's annual Eggs & Issues breakfast, House Speaker David Ralston said he won't set an end date for the session until there's a "clearer picture" of how the state budget is shaking out.

“We will carefully scrutinize this year’s budget,” Ralston said, “bearing in mind the nearly 11 million Georgians impacted by those numbers.”

While the legislative session consists of 40 official business days, it often stretches into early April because legislators work many more days through committee hearings and other events. That includes budget hearings set for the coming week.

Legislators knocked off the first four days of the session in its first week.

Here’s a look what’s on the calendar so far:

  • Jan. 21-24: Budget hearings
  • Jan. 27-31: Legislative days 5-9
  • Feb. 3-6: Legislative days 10-13
  • Feb. 10: Legislative day 14

Stat of the week: 38

Cancer Treatment Centers of America hired at least that many lobbyists over the years that it fought to loosen regulations that were put in place to protect the bottom lines of nonprofit hospitals.

The number came out as part of a report state auditors released examining lobbying expenses by the state's 184 hospitals.

The report also produced this nugget: The state’s hospitals spent more than $7 million trying to influence legislation in fiscal 2019. For a sense of scale, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $95 million at the federal level in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Quote of the week

“Half the time we walk around here in the dark anyways.”

— State Rep. Terry Rogers, R-Clarkesville, speaking about a power outage that hit the Capitol and a few surrounding buildings just as both chambers of the General Assembly were wrapping up business on the first day of the legislative session.

LEGISLATIVE COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the largest team covering Georgia's Legislature and offers expertise on issues that matter to taxpayers. Get complete daily coverage during the legislative session at www.ajc.com/politics.