Abrams and Kemp chart rival economic strategies in Georgia

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Competing economic agendas from Gov. Brian Kemp and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, crystallized this past week as the two rivals issued strikingly different visions of how to tap state coffers bulging with billions of dollars in surplus money.

In a highly publicized speech, Abrams demanded that Georgians not squander a “generational” opportunity to build a more equitable economy as she promoted more than a dozen economic proposals, headlined by a call to expand gambling.

The governor days later unveiled the first major policy promises of his reelection campaign, pledging to deploy the state’s financial windfall to refund Georgia taxpayers rather than embark on ambitious new government programs.

The Republican put it bluntly: “I don’t want to get any illusions that we’re doing something for the next decade. We’re trying to help Georgians fight through this tough time now.”

The dueling philosophies over how to use a surplus that’s expected to exceed $5 billion is yet another policy difference between candidates who have differed on pressing issues such as education, health care, abortion, guns and public safety.

But with the economy the top priority for most Georgia voters, the rival financial platforms are destined to win an even larger share of the political spotlight as a November rematch between the two adversaries nears.

Both are already sharpening their economic attacks, with Kemp blasting the Democrat’s vision as “absolutely insane” spending that will be impossible to sustain without raising taxes, while Abrams assails the incumbent’s “miserly” philosophy and short-term outlook as she tries to overtake his lead in the polls.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“We know with absolute certainty we can do this work without raising taxes,” Abrams said in an interview. “It’s not a short-term thing. You can use the surplus to embed these changes in our budget and make sure they are self-sustaining.”

‘Good at math’

Abrams is trying to channel anger and outrage over Georgia’s anti-abortion limits and permissive gun laws into a broader argument that Republican policies are costing Georgia economic development opportunities.

Along with her vows to roll back firearms expansions and restore abortion rights protections, Abrams designed her suite of fiscal policies in hopes of building a more equitable and diverse economy in the long run.

Her plan calls for more funding for apprenticeships and small-business startups, increased incentives for rural development, an expansion of broadband access and new ways to help minority-owned businesses land lucrative state contracts.

She has pledged to spend some of the surplus on a $1.1 billion income tax rebate for all but the wealthiest of Georgia families. And she’ll dip deeper into state coffers to expand Medicaid and provide pay raises for teachers and some law enforcement officers.

Her policy is shaped by a promise that she won’t raise state taxes but instead find other ways to increase revenue — “that’s why we need a governor who’s good at math,” she quips on the campaign trail.

The biggest new pot of money would be generated by her proposal to legalize casino gambling and sports betting. The bulk of the proceeds under her plan would fund free technical college and a needs-based higher education scholarship.

Georgians, she said, have been trained by Republican governors over the past two decades “to believe that we can’t afford to do what’s right, that solving the big problems and making bold choices won’t work.”

“But when we have been bold, when we have been brave, we have been the best,” she said. “Georgians deserve leadership that doesn’t trickle down opportunity. Instead, we need a governor who says if you’re willing to work for it, I will work with you to succeed.”

‘Relative normalcy’

The governor’s economic agenda is more limited, though it still involves 10-figure initiatives with plans to spend about $2 billion in state surplus money next year on a pair of programs.

The first is a $1 billion rebate of state surplus money that would deliver $500 checks to many Georgia families next year. It comes on the heels of another $1 billion refund that Kemp signed into law earlier this year. Most of those checks have already gone out.

The second plan involves reviving a property tax break that petered out during the Great Recession. It could amount to an average savings of $500 on property taxes for most homeowners for one year only, though legislators could seek to extend the break.

Until now, Kemp’s financial message has focused on his decision to reopen sectors of the economy in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic — at a time when he faced criticism from all quarters — and major economic projects that picked Georgia on his watch.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

With the first elements of his second-term platform unveiled, Kemp said he was purposeful in not pushing more ambitious multiyear policies.

“This is one-time money,” he said of the surplus. “If you build big government programs with one-time money, it’s not going to be there the next year.”

Of Abrams, he said voters should be skeptical: “She’s not going to be able to pay for all the plans she’s putting out there, and that’s a fact.”

Both the candidates are poised to focus their campaigns on their economic narrative in a challenging political climate for Democrats.

Republican strategist Brian Robinson said Kemp’s economic message is resonating, one reason why the most recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows a majority of voters approve of his record while they’re more pessimistic about President Joe Biden.

“You can stand on the sidelines at soccer practice and hear parents talking about their friends in California whose kids are behind in school, whose businesses are struggling,” he said. “Those parents connect our relative normalcy to Brian Kemp.”

Democrats wager that voters are hungry for more sweeping policy overhauls on the heels of federal measures to combat climate change, finance new infrastructure projects and slow the rising costs of prescription drugs.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, summed up that sentiment at a stop this week in downtown Atlanta.

“We don’t do anything small here, y’all.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com