Kemp uses State of the State to launch ‘new phase’ of crime crackdowns

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp outlined fresh plans to crack down on violent crime in Georgia, laying out a pledge in his State of the State address to enact tougher penalties on gang offenders and address the “revolving door of criminal justice” as he opens his second term.

The Republican invoked the violent protests this weekend over a proposed public safety center in Atlanta as he urged legislators to commit to a “new phase” of law-and-order measures that continues to refashion the state’s approach to criminal justice policy.

Kemp said Wednesday that he endorsed legislation that would increase penalties for gang members seeking to recruit children. And he lauded a Fulton County judge for denying bond for four of the activists charged in connection with the spasm of violence in the heart of the capital city.

“Unfortunately, this approach is not universal across the judicial system. While some may not take this issue seriously, I can assure I do,” he told members of the state Senate and House. “We can and we must do something about the revolving door of criminal justice.”

While Kemp didn’t provide specifics, his advisers indicate he is reviewing legislation that could sanction prosecutors who don’t act with urgency to target serious offenders. He has also endorsed new efforts to limit no-cash bail, stiffen human trafficking penalties and boost the ranks of law enforcement officers.

It’s part of a wholesale shift in focus away from his GOP predecessor, Nathan Deal, who orchestrated an eight-year overhaul that focused primarily on steering more nonviolent offenders out of prison cells and into treatment centers.

While Deal pursued his criminal justice shake-up at a time when many Republicans embraced such change, Kemp’s agenda reflects the party’s return to tough-on-crime measures.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

To underscore the shift, Kemp blasted “out-of-state rioters” who set a police car ablaze and hurled rocks at a downtown Atlanta skyscraper over the weekend. To a loud burst of applause, he thanked the “unsung heroes” in law enforcement who contained the violence.

“That’s just the latest example of why here in Georgia we’ll always back the blue,” Kemp said.

Democrats offered a rival vision for Georgia’s future that included measures to create a $15 state minimum wage, hike teacher pay by $10,000 annually, expand civil rights protections and repeal anti-abortion laws now bound up in legal appeals.

The party’s leaders also offered a cautious note on Kemp’s crime-fighting emphasis. State Rep. Sam Park, a Gwinnett County Democrat, noted broad bipartisan support for legislation that targets human trafficking and other scourges.

“However, we must be very cautious not to overcriminalize our communities. The Democratic Party supports and fosters and will do everything to ensure bipartisan support for our law enforcement,” Park said. “But we also must ensure police accountability.”

And in a televised Democratic response, state Sen. Elena Parent said Republicans should prioritize “common sense measures to reduce the violence that the flood of guns in our streets creates” rather than back permissive firearms policies.

“Let’s be honest about what’s really going on. Georgians can now carry a gun without a permit because of a bill the Republican majority passed,” she said. “We need policies and laws that require common sense use of these weapons.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘Get it done.’

With record-high approval ratings, Kemp signaled he intends to spend his political currency beyond public safety initiatives.

He unveiled a Rural Workforce Housing Fund designed to empower the state to partner with local governments to develop home sites. That aligns with his recent remarks supporting efforts to roll back certain local zoning rules to jump-start development, though details remain sketchy.

“Despite all we have achieved,” he said, referring to the state’s pro-business reputation, “there’s a growing risk to that No. 1 status: the need for more workers and quality homes where they can raise a family in the same community where they work.”

He trumpeted his plan to fully fund the state’s K-12 system and pump more money into the HOPE scholarship, reversing cuts to the popular program enacted in 2011 that still haunt many legislators. He was rewarded with a standing ovation from legislators from across party lines.

And Kemp downplayed critics who have “continued to grumble” about teacher pay in Georgia by emphasizing his plans for a $2,000 salary increase for educators atop $5,000 increases that were adopted in his first term.

“In total, we will have given hardworking educators a $7,000 pay raise in just five years,” the governor said. “No other General Assembly or governor will have raised teacher pay by so much, so quickly, in state history.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@

On the health care front, Kemp reminded legislators of his proposal for $4.5 million in loan repayment programs to boost the number of health care workers in Georgia, plus an additional $1.7 million to finance 102 new residency slots.

And he backed a change to allow pregnant women who qualify to receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as welfare. Previously, he said, they were unable to apply for the aid until after the child was born.

As he has for the past decade, Kemp remained opposed to a full-scale Medicaid expansion and instead backed a more limited program hinged on workplace and other engagement requirements.

That has infuriated Democrats and health care advocates who have urged him to tap the state’s $6.6 billion surplus to add hundreds of thousands of Georgians to the Medicaid rolls.

For the same cost, “we can literally cover every uninsured Georgian by fully expanding Medicaid with the help of federal funds,” said state Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta. “But instead, because of politics, we are only covering a fraction.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Pointedly left out of Kemp’s speech was mention of divisive social issues that shaped his first term, such as the anti-abortion restrictions he signed into law months after his 2018 victory and the looser regulation of guns that he approved in the runup to last year’s election.

Echoing his inauguration message earlier this month, when he pledged a focus on everyday Georgians and not bitter politicking, Kemp promised to usher in a “new era” for the state.

“The campaigns have all been run and the people have spoken,” he said. “They have given us our marching orders, and it’s time to get back to work. So, for the Georgians of today and tomorrow, let’s get it done.”