In reelection year, Georgia governors take on role of ol’ Saint Nick

When Zell Miller was running for reelection for governor in 1994, he proposed a budget that included raises, tax refunds and increases in spending for schools and other programs. The Senate Republican leader at that time, Skin Edge, quipped, “Yes, Georgia, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s running for governor.” (AJC Staff Photo/John Spink)

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When Zell Miller was running for reelection for governor in 1994, he proposed a budget that included raises, tax refunds and increases in spending for schools and other programs. The Senate Republican leader at that time, Skin Edge, quipped, “Yes, Georgia, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s running for governor.” (AJC Staff Photo/John Spink)

The year was 1994 and Gov. Zell Miller was facing reelection after steering the ship of state through a painful recession.

The economy was improving, and Miller needed a boost for what would be a politically dicey year for Democrats such as himself, so he did what governors up for reelection do.

He proposed a budget that promised teacher and state employee pay raises, an expansion of the HOPE scholarship to more students, more money to fix the slow process of getting car tags and titles, extra funding for pre-kindergarten classes, tax breaks for businesses that created jobs, and more. He also promised a $100 million tax cut.

It prompted then Senate Republican Leader Skin Edge, now a Capitol lobbyist, to quip, “Yes, Georgia, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s running for governor.”

Miller wasn’t doing anything new. He was following in the footsteps of predecessors running for reelection who had promised everything from paved roads and school buildings to tax cuts in hopes of getting a political boost out of the state budget.

Almost 30 years later, Gov. Brian Kemp is proposing an election-year budget to dwarf all others, with $3 billion in new spending, big pay raises and bonuses, pension increases, an income tax refund, prison and criminal justice upgrades, and greatly increased funding for schools, colleges and health care.

The big pay raises and school funding hikes are traditionally high on the agenda of Democrats. Tax cuts are traditionally high on the agenda of Republicans.

It’s the kind of budget — bolstered by record tax collections that were in turn boosted by huge federal COVID-19 relief funding — that a state leader dreams of running on.

“The budget is such a powerful document, packed with projects, schemes and dreams,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, who was a legislative floor leader for Miller. “It’s a bountiful opportunity for governors to look for all the ways they can do good.

“For the folks that watch politics close enough to know that things happened — that coverage is provided for their child with a disability or a teacher gets a raise — when it hits your pocketbook, you don’t forget it.”

That’s why, no matter the state of the economy, governors want their last budget before a reelection to be a good one.

More money for pay and buildings

Two years ago at this point, Kemp was asking for spending cuts because economists were worried a recession was around the corner. It was, but not because of the business cycle. COVID-19 hit the state in March, causing the General Assembly to suspend its session for a few months and forcing the economy to shut down.

But sales and income tax collections have been on the rise since mid-2020, after the economy reopened. The record income produced a $3.7 billion state surplus in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and collections have continued to soar as the state’s economy recovered, up 18% in the first half of fiscal 2022.

Gov. Roy Barnes was in a much different situation 20 years ago when he was running for reelection. Georgia had been hit hard by both the dot.com recession and the aftereffects of Sept. 11, and state tax revenue was falling.

Bobby Kahn, his chief of staff, said when the General Assembly session opened in 2002, “There were already signs on the horizon that things weren’t good.”

Barnes demanded budget cuts from state agencies. But he also called for teacher pay raises, $900 million in new construction projects to prime the state’s economic pump toward recovery, extra money to reduce pupil-teacher ratios in schools, funding to reduce long driver’s license lines, and the fourth year of his effort to reduce property taxes by raising the homestead exemption on property.

More spending cuts came later, and Barnes lost the 2002 election to Sonny Perdue, who had to slim the state’s budget further the following year.

When Perdue was running for reelection four years later, the state had come out of the fiscal recession and state revenue was up. He proposed teacher pay raises and gift cards; a child care tax credit for families; big money for school construction, smaller class sizes and counselors; more prison beds; and funding to increase high-speed internet service in rural Georgia.

John Watson, his chief of staff at the time, said after a few years of having to slash the budget to balance the books, Perdue was putting money into the areas of greatest need.

“We decided Georgians wanted effective, lean government and were not looking for a Christmas tree full of giveaways,” he said. “It was good not to have the recession boot on our neck, but more than anything, we were backfilling holes. We were trying to play catchup.”

Watson, who complimented Kemp’s budget proposal, said Perdue and his staff were obviously conscious he would be running for reelection in 2006 on his record.

“There is no disconnecting policy from politics in an election year,” he said. “But fundamental to that is we believed good policy was good politics.”

Perdue easily won reelection.

Like Perdue, Gov. Nathan Deal came into office as the state was trying to recover from an economic downturn — the Great Recession. State officials hadbeen relentlessly cutting spending for nearly three years by the time he was sworn in.

Things were better by the time Deal ran for reelection in 2014, and he plowed more than 80% of new state spending into schools, offering raises and providing money to end furloughs and lengthen the school year. He wanted more than $400 million for school, university and technical college construction projects, millions for new programs to help Georgians complete degrees and afford technical college tuition, and millions more to help improve internet connectivity in schools.

Deal won reelection.

Challenging political year for Santa

Kemp may face tougher reelection opposition than his predecessors. He must win the GOP primary against several candidates, including former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a cousin of the former governor. Perdue has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who has a huge influence on a large segment of the Republican base.

If Kemp wins, he will likely face Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch of their close 2018 race. That contest set a record for spending in a gubernatorial contest. This year the campaigns will probably make 2018 spending look downright stingy.

So Kemp needs all the help he can get. It won’t hurt his cause to give raises and bonuses to 300,000 teachers, school, state agency and university employees; provide a cost-of-living adjustment to 50,000 pensioners; increase spending in programs that educate or provide health care to millions of Georgians; and offer state taxpayers a refund.

Charles Bullock, who has been a political scientist at the University of Georgia for decades, said the political calculation is easy for any governor.

“If you can find money to hand out checks, pay raises for teachers, new buildings ... for most folks, if you are somehow improving their lives, that’s a good thing, that is what government ought to be doing,” he said.

“It’s much easier to get reelected when you are Santa Claus,” Bullock said. “Who is going to vote against Santa Claus?”


KEMP BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

The spending plan Gov. Brian Kemp introduced this month includes:

$5,000 salary increases for state employees to cut down on high turnover rates.

— $2,000 pay raises for teachers; bonuses for teachers and state employees in the budget for fiscal 2022, which ends June 30.

— Income tax refunds worth $1.6 billion.

— The first cost-of-living raise for state retirees in more than a decade.

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