Capitol Recap: Georgia educators, state workers could see another bump in pay

Kemp budget will also seek $2 billion in tax refunds and rebates

Gov. Brian Kemp aims to boost a lot of people’s bank accounts.

For the coming year, he is calling for another round of pay raisesthis time, $2,000 each — for the state’s teachers, education staffers and state employees.

Kemp is also seeking $2 billion in income and property tax rebates, honoring a promise he made last year in his successful bid for reelection.

State employees saw their pay go up by $5,000 last year as Kemp and lawmakers attempted to stem high turnover in many agencies. Teachers received $2,000 raises last year, the final increment in fulfilling a promise he made on the campaign trail in 2018 to raise their pay by a total of $5,000.

Kemp begins his second term with the happy problem of what to do with a surplus for the 2022 fiscal year that ended June 30 of $6.6 billion.

About a third of that surplus could go toward Kemp’s proposed income tax refund — similar to the one this year that meant $500 for joint filers — and a property tax break that he said would save homeowners about $500.

Revenue has been climbing since shortly after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Congress first passed massive federal aid spending. Since then, inflation has helped boost sales tax collections, with goods costing more and the taxes on them rising. Wages have also increased as unemployment hit record lows and businesses scrambled to fill job openings.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Record $113 million wasn’t enough for Abrams to win or even cover expenses

One of the lessons of the 2022 race for governor could be that money isn’t everything.

Democrat Stacey Abrams raised a record $113 million in her second bid for governor, but that wasn’t enough. She lost her rematch with Republican Brian Kemp, and in doing so, her campaign went into debt.

Kemp, wielding the power of incumbency, raised $78 million while beating Abrams by more than 7.5 percentage points.

Both candidates shot right by the record Abrams set in 2018, when she raised $27 million and lost by a mere 1.4 percentage points to Kemp, who took in $21 million that year.

What caused the cost of running for governor to explode in that short time?

In 2021, the General Assembly created a mechanism called the leadership committee that allows only certain candidates to raise unlimited amounts of cash from individual donors.

Most candidates face limits on how much donors can give.

Both Abrams and Kemp used their leadership committees to great advantage.

Abrams’ committee raised $59 million and Kemp’s collected $45 million, according to the reports the campaigns filed this past week.

Kemp, who can’t run for governor again, ended 2022 with about $5.2 million in the bank. Abrams’ leadership committee listed about $1.4 million in debt, and her accounts had about $100,000 in cash on hand. Most of Abrams’ debt was to her media firm, AL Media.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported before the election that despite her record fundraising, Abrams’ campaign was having money troubles. The AJC reported in December that she owed vendors big money.

Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo told Axios that a “cavalcade of negative press” and poor results in polling hindered fundraising in the race’s final weeks.

But interviews with former staffers and operatives revealed new details about questionable spending that contributed to Abrams’ financial woes.

For example, several staffers pointed to the campaign’s rental of a home near Piedmont Park to serve as a “hype house” for making TikTok videos. The five-bedroom craftsman-style house, now available to rent at $12,500 a month, wound up seeing little use beyond serving as a makeshift office for some staffers.

Signs of money trouble surfaced in the final two weeks of the race — a crucial time when voters started going to the polls to cast early ballots — as the Abrams campaign cut spending on television advertising by more than half, to less than $1 million.

At the time, Groh-Wargo said the campaign was shifting resources toward digital outreach and on-the-ground canvassing. It was only later that she acknowledged the cutback in TV buys had been designed to hold down expenses.

Fair Fight Action must pay $231,000 in costs tied to voting lawsuit it lost

Fair Fight Action and other plaintiffs lost their lawsuit alleging that Georgia laws violated voting rights, and now they must pay the state $231,000.

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group that Democrat Stacey Abrams founded after losing the state’s race for governor in 2018 to Republican Brian Kemp, launched the lawsuit four years ago to challenge aspects of state law it described as illegal or discriminatory.

The suit took aim at Georgia’s “exact match” voter registration policy, absentee ballot cancellation practices and registration inaccuracies after voters alleged they had problems casting ballots in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

U.S. District Judge Steve Jones ruled against Fair Fight Action on all counts in September. He found that while Georgia’s election system was imperfect, it didn’t violate the U.S. Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in elections.

The court has now ordered Fair Fight Action and its allies to pay nearly $193,000 for trial and deposition transcripts and over $38,000 for copies of thousands of exhibits the state used in defending the state’s law.

“This is a start,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said, “but I think Stacey Abrams should pay back the millions of taxpayer dollars the state was forced to spend to disprove her false claims.”

The Georgia attorney general’s office has said the state’s costs tied to the suit amount to nearly $6 million, but attorney fees for the government’s lawyers won’t be repaid.

Fair Fight Action spokeswoman Xakota Espinoza shot back at Raffensperger, saying he has not made improvements to the system that Jones had suggested to prevent problems with voter registrations of former felons and new citizens.

“Raffensperger has never wavered in his commitment to disregarding voters’ concerns, ignoring barriers, scapegoating elections administration, and sowing confusion in Georgia’s elections,” Espinoza said.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Restoration of state tax to pump up cost of gasoline

Georgia motorists may have saved more than $1 billion over the past nine months, but they might see it differently as they return to paying 31.2 cents a gallon in state motor fuel taxes.

Suspension of the tax was meant to help Georgians cope with rising oil prices, but its end may not have an immediate impact on drivers’ wallets. Gas distributors pay the state, and the cost moves down the line to retailers, including many who still may be selling untaxed gas — with or without a state-inspired surcharge.

Patrick De Haan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy, which tracks fuel prices nationally, said gas stations with larger profit margins could absorb more of the added cost as the tax kicks back into gear. Drivers will most likely see prices climb first at the stations that have the lowest margins.

A year ago, gas prices averaged $3.15 a gallon in metro Atlanta. But a month later, Russia invaded Ukraine, threatening supply chains and feeding speculation on the oil market.

Legislators voted in March to suspend the tax as prices began to rise, but by June, the cost of gas in metro Atlanta averaged a record $4.54 a gallon.

After the General Assembly approved the suspension, Gov. Brian Kemp — running for reelection — continued to extend the tax break month by month until last month, when he announced the state would resume collecting the tax this past week.

Suspension of the tax cost the state about $150 million to $170 million a month that would normally be applied to building roads and bridges. Kemp will make up the difference using extra revenue the state has been collecting. The state still managed to record a $6.6 billion surplus for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

On Tuesday, AAA reported the average cost of regular unleaded fuel in Georgia was $2.81 per gallon. The average in metro Atlanta was $2.76, according to Gas Buddy.

The U.S. average that day was about $3.24 a gallon.

Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Clyde gives explanation for votes against and then for McCarthy

Republican U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Athens was among a group of about 20 congressmen who had blocked Kevin McCarthy’s path to become speaker, waiting until the 12th round of voting before he backed the Californian for the top post in the U.S. House.

McCarthy succeeded on the 15th ballot after making numerous concessions to the holdouts.

It wasn’t until several days after the decisive vote that Clyde — in a floor speech and a letter to his constituents — offered an explanation for first his resistance and then his acquiescence.

Clyde said he withheld support from McCarthy to pressure him to “fix the broken system” by giving more power to rank-and-file members.

“Many of you asked what I fought for — but it isn’t necessarily what I fought for, but rather who I fought for,” Clyde said in his letter. “I fought for you, because you deserve a Washington that works for you, not for itself. And Washington working for itself is exactly how our nation’s capital has been run for far too long.”

Clyde also listed victories he said he and the other holdouts accomplished:

  • Any single member at any time can begin the process of removing the speaker, which he said will hold McCarthy accountable.
  • A special committee will “investigate the weaponization of government agencies ... against the American people.” Those agencies could include the FBI, the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency.
  • The debt ceiling cannot be increased unless a budget proposal also caps spending increases.
  • Members will have 72 hours to read bills before a vote.
  • A vote on legislation to secure the southern border.
  • A vote on term limits for members of Congress.
  • Passage of measures to end all federal COVID-19 mandates and funding.

Clyde did not mention any bargaining over a committee assignment, but he got a good one: a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

New speaker brings a change in approach toward health care legislation

New Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns is creating a new committee to oversee the health-related committees in the chamber that he said would “shift the focus a little bit” on the approach to legislating health care.

He added that health care access for all Georgians continues to be “one of our main priorities.”

State Rep. Butch Parrish, a Republican from Swainsboro who has previously led the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with health care, will chair the new committee.

A spokesman for Burns, Kaleb McMichen, stressed that the announcement was just “a change in committee structure” and “not reflective of a policy change.”

“It’s an internal change to improve coordination on policy among the various health care committees, both legislative and budgetary,” McMichen said.

Georgia has the nation’s third-highest rate of people who lack health coverage, partly because the state does not insure all its poor adults.

Asked by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter whether they would consider expanding Medicaid — which could add more than 400,000 adults to the rolls — neither Burns nor Parrish flatly ruled it out. “We’re going to look at everything,” Parrish said.

Gov. Brian Kemp and many other Republicans, however, have regularly opposed taking on full Medicaid expansion.

Kemp, instead, has opted for partial expansion of Medicaid called a “waiver” that would insure about 50,000 poor adults when it takes effect.

Political expedience

  • Push for national sales tax: U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, has reintroduced legislation to replace the federal tax code with a national sales tax and eliminate the need for the Internal Revenue Service. Carter said in a news release that his bill would eliminate all personal and corporate income taxes, an inheritance tax, gift taxes and the payroll tax. Carter said Speaker Kevin McCarthy has agreed to give his bill a vote on the House floor, one of many agreements the Californian negotiated to persuade Republicans to back him as head of the U.S. House.
  • Ralston holds lead in money: Sheree Ralston has reported raising $97,250 in her bid to replace her late husband, former Speaker David Ralston, in the Georgia House. About half of that money came from lobbyists, the business associations they represent, and David Ralston’s former colleagues. More than a dozen Capitol lobbyists and lobbying firms have kicked into the pot. Sheree Ralston, the executive director of the Fannin County Development Authority, is competing in a Jan. 31 runoff against a member of the authority’s board, banking executive Johnny Chastain. Chastain reported about $81,000 in contributions, with about half of that coming in a self-funded personal loan.
  • Georgia politics in a California setting: It wasn’t a typical swearing-in ceremony this past week for state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, as he began his third term in the state House. It took place in the stands of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, just before kickoff in the College Football Playoff title game featuring the University of Georgia against Texas Christian University. Gaines, a former UGA student body president, was administered the oath of office by Georgia Chief Justice John Ellington with Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp in attendance.

More top stories

Here’s a sample of other stories about Georgia government and politics that can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/: