Kemp allocates nearly all of $4.8 billion in fed COVID-19 funds ahead of election

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Facing a tough reelection fight, Gov. Brian Kemp has in the past year committed almost all of the $4.8 billion in COVID-19 relief money approved over his opposition by Congress in 2021.

That means whoever wins the gubernatorial election in November will have little federal COVID relief money to spend on their priorities going forward.

The Republican governor has allocated all but $150 million of the money, announcing over the past year police bonuses, high-speed internet and sewer projects, debit cards for low-income Georgians, money for housing and business programs, and desperately needed funding for Grady Memorial Hospital, among other things.

The money didn’t have to be committed until the end of 2024, or spent until 2026, although Kemp’s staff said there was some urgency to make sure the projects finished on time.

While Democrats generally haven’t criticized what Kemp has spent the money on, they say the fact that he’s pushing the money out quickly in his reelection year shows the relief money is being used to bolster his chances of beating Stacey Abrams in November.

“It does not surprise me they haven’t left anything behind for the next person,” said state House Minority Whip David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs. “They are basically loading the cannons and firing off all the shots they have (to win). They are not planning for the long term. They are planning for right now.”

Cody Hall, a spokesman for the Kemp campaign, said, “Given significant state reserves and strong revenues thanks to the governor’s leadership, our office allocated federal coronavirus relief funds in strategic and innovative ways to help hardworking Georgians and their communities recover from the pandemic.”

Kemp called the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that congressional Democrats passed in March 2021 a wasteful measure that didn’t give Georgia its fair share.

However, he has gone on a yearlong spending spree while at the same time making criticism of Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic policies one of the cornerstones of his campaign against Abrams.

Georgia got $4.8 billion in two payments. When the first half arrived last year, Kemp appointed committees of legislators and state officials to recommend how the money would be spent. Under Georgia law, the governor has sole discretion over how the federal funds are spent.

Earlier this year, the governor announced in separate releases and press conferences that he was allocating money to expand high-speed internet to rural Georgia, for water and sewer projects and, right before the May Republican primary, to dozens of businesses and industries who asked for help because they said they were affected by the COVID pandemic.

The state received the second half of the money earlier this year, and since then, Kemp has committed $100 million in federal COVID relief money for grants to law enforcement agencies to address violent crime and offset staffing shortages. He then said $37.4 million would go to school programs to help students who might have fallen behind during the pandemic. An additional $125 million would go to school-based health centers.

The governor announced plans to spend more than $1.2 billion of federal COVID relief by handing out one-time debit card payments of $350 to up to 3 million Georgians enrolled in publicly funded Medicaid, food stamp and welfare programs.

He also allocated an additional $240 million in COVID relief money to expand high-speed internet services in rural Georgia — on top of $400 million in federal money already committed to the effort.

More recently, he announced more than $100 million would go to Grady Health System to build nearly 200 additional hospital beds and shore up what will soon become the only acute trauma hospital in metro Atlanta after Wellstar Health System announced it was closing Atlanta Medical Center.

In some of the press releases announcing the spending Kemp’s staff said the money was coming from the COVID relief fund. In some, they didn’t.

Some Republican lawmakers were initially concerned the massive federal COVID package would help drive up inflation, and they asked Kemp for a role in how the money would be spent. The governor allowed them to recommend projects in spending the first $2.4 billion. But in the end, he had the final say.

“I appreciate the input the governor has given us,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia. “The state constitution doesn’t require that.”

Tillery, whose committee helps write the annual state budget, said he was reluctant to comment on how the governor has spent the money.

“It would be incredibly unfair for me to Monday-morning-quarterback since we are not the managers of federal funds,” Tillery said.

Abrams’ campaign said it’s clear Kemp used the money congressional Democrats approved to further his reelection bid.

“Instead of investing in our state for years to come,” Abrams spokesman Alex Floyd said, “Brian Kemp shoveled billions into campaign gimmicks in an election year — using federal dollars he opposed.”