Kemp ends session with new fuel for reelection fight

Gov. Brian Kemp after speaking on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022.   Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Gov. Brian Kemp after speaking on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gov. Brian Kemp picked the right time to reach a meeting of minds with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Unlike past legislative sessions shaped by tighter budgets and stifling infighting, the governor and his allies steered just about every proposal on his wish list through the General Assembly.

And now dozens of bills molded by the governor’s office and his key legislative supporters await Kemp’s signature just ahead of the May 24 GOP primary against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

And each signing ceremony — to be dribbled out during a 40-day window that ends in early May — will be designed to either shore up his support with swing voters for a potential rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams or demonstrate his conservative credentials against Perdue.

It was almost as if top Republican lawmakers — who have either backed Kemp or stayed away from Perdue — used the legislative session to endorse the governor’s reelection campaign by giving him every key item he wanted.

“This governor has taken a lot of abuse. And we know where it’s come from,” said House Speaker David Ralston, a onetime rival of Kemp’s who has now forged a tight political alliance with the governor. “He’s kept on going. He’s governing. He’s not just out here speechmaking. I kind of admire that.”

Kemp is trying to raise the pressure on Perdue, whose Donald Trump-backed campaign is running out of time to catch up. Perdue lags behind Kemp in public polls and fundraising, and Trump began to downplay the former senator’s chances shortly after he drew a smaller-than-typical crowd to a March rally in Georgia.

“It’s a real close race. David is a good man. I hope he’s going to win it. Maybe we’ll have to do another rally. But it’s a shame. It’s a shame. Not easy to beat a sitting governor,” Trump told a conservative radio show host this week. “Just remember that.”

Already, Kemp has signed a record-setting state budget that includes raises for hundreds of thousands of public employees and more money for law enforcement. He’s inked measures to refund $1.1 billion in state surplus to taxpayers and suspend gas taxes to lower prices.

Surrounded by schoolchildren, Kemp OK’d legislation that allows parents who don’t want their children wearing masks as precautions against the coronavirus to opt out of any school district mandates.

And on Monday, he approved an overhaul of the state’s flagging mental health system championed by Ralston. At the emotional ceremony, Ralston gushed over his bond with Kemp.

Base-pleasing measures

But it’s the red meat that he’s served up to the GOP base that might get the largest bounty of attention as the primary nears.

That starts with a measure that passed early Tuesday that would allow the Georgia High School Association to ban transgender athletes from participating in sports. The same proposal also seeks to control how educators teach “divisive” concepts about race and gender.

The governor made a late push to secure the legislation by urging lawmakers to bring more “fairness” to high school athletics, and it sped through both chambers with little discussion in minutes despite staunch opposition from Democrats.

“They acquiesced to the governor and didn’t even have the courage to allow floor debate,” Democratic state Rep. Bee Nguyen said of the rapid-fire voting on what she called the “anti-transgender girls bill.”

Ralston, who hasn’t formally endorsed Kemp, has long had reservations about legislation that restricts transgender athletes and expressed hope that the high school association wouldn’t take action. Still, he put aside his concerns to usher it across the finish line, giving Kemp his most surprising legislative victory.

That measure is one of several education proposals aimed at parents frustrated with k-12 policies. One would make it easier for parents to see the curriculum used in their child’s classroom, while another would allow them to object to books considered “harmful to minors.”

And among the biggest items on Kemp’s agenda — one that he announced with great fanfare at a gun range in January — is a contentious effort to loosen firearms restrictions to meet a 2018 campaign promise.

Gov. Brian Kemp announces plans in January to expand gun rights during a visit to Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna.

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At the governor’s urging, lawmakers voted along party lines to allow Georgians to carry concealed handguns without first getting a license from the state, giving final approval to a measure that pro-gun groups have long wanted.

As he spoke to lawmakers late Monday, Kemp reflected on the priorities he outlined during his State of the State speech in January — and then went through a mental checklist of each proposal that has reached his desk.

“You have delivered on every one of these items — and much more,” Kemp told legislators in both the House and Senate. After lawmakers adjourned early Tuesday, he trumpeted that his “entire legislative package has passed.“

‘Election-year politics’

The governor has aggressive plans to maximize the bill-signing process on the campaign trail. He’s scheduled a series of stops in North Georgia on Wednesday and Thursday — and launched an ad criticizing Perdue for calling Kemp’s election-year budget proposal “disgusting.”

The swirl of media attention for Kemp’s agenda adds to Perdue’s challenges. The former U.S. senator trails Kemp by double digits in some recent polls and hasn’t raised enough money to match the governor and his allies on the airwaves.

The Republican Governors Association has now reserved about $5 million in airtime through the May primary to boost Kemp’s campaign — about five times more than Perdue reported raising in the first two months of his bid.

The campaign of former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary, has taken credit for Kemp’s legislative agenda. “The question is: Why did it take Perdue getting in the race for Kemp to start doing what he said he would do?” Perdue spokeswoman Jenni Sweat asked. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

To gain traction from the GOP’s right flank Perdue has increasingly featured his support for Trump and tried to paint Kemp as a moderate. His campaign took credit for Kemp’s legislative agenda — and characterized the timing of the pay hikes and tax refunds as “corrupt.”

“The question is: Why did it take Perdue getting in the race for Kemp to start doing what he said he would do?” Perdue spokeswoman Jenni Sweat asked.

“This governor is trying to play election-year politics and buy votes with $250 checks that hit right before the primary and a gas tax break that ends right after the election,” Sweat said.

Democrats, as they did through the entire legislative session, predicted that Georgians will punish Kemp and his allies in November for the pivot toward culture wars issues.

“Voters can recognize obvious hypocrisy,” said state Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, a Gwinnett County Democrat. “In November, the GOP will learn not to underestimate Georgia voters.”

Lobbyists gather Monday in the Capitol as they wait for the session to start on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly for 2022. (Bob Andres /


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A closer look

The end of the legislative session kicks off the start of a window for Gov. Brian Kemp to decide which measures he’ll sign into law and which he’ll veto.

Kemp has already approved a record-setting state budget and a vast restructuring of Georgia’s mental health system. He’s also inked proposals to suspend state gas taxes,

Though he only vetoed one measure last year, Kemp hasn’t been shy about using his red pen. He nixed 14 measures in 2019 and an additional four in 2020, although there was little doubt he’d sign the most consequential measures.

State law gives the governor 40 days to sign or nullify bills, or let the legislation become law by not taking action. Here’s a closer look at the top measures that passed the General Assembly:

A record-setting budget

The governor will soon sign into law a $30.2 billion state spending plan for the coming year that includes a $2,000 pay raise for teachers and continues attempts to slow state government turnover. Some staffers in areas with hard-to-fill jobs, including corrections and mental health agencies, would receive bigger raises.

Kemp already has signed a midyear budget, which runs through June 30, that includes $2,000 bonuses for teachers and school workers, and $5,000 cost-of-living raises for most state and university employees.

A $1 billion tax refund

The state is directing more than $1 billion in surplus funds to provide an income tax refund this year. Under House Bill 1302, single Georgians would receive a $250 refund when they file their taxes and joint filers would receive $500. Kemp signed the bill in March.

Income tax cut

In the final hours of the legislative session, lawmakers agreed to a measure that would gradually drop the state’s income tax rate from 5.75% to 4.99%. Under House Bill 1437, a compromise was reached to lower the rate to 5.49% in 2024, then it would step down until it reaches 4.99% in 2029.

Mental health overhaul

After unanimous votes in both the state House and Senate, Kemp signed legislation designed to increase Georgians’ access to mental health and substance abuse care to shore up a flagging system.

Under House Bill 1013, set to go into effect July 1, the state would enforce a federal law that requires “parity” in health coverage, forgive student loans for mental health providers who work in underserved areas of the state and take other steps to improve care.

Gun expansion

In one of the broadest expansions of gun rights in recent state history, Kemp is set to let Georgians carry concealed handguns without first getting a license from the state.

Senate Bill 319 would allow a “lawful weapons carrier” to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed. Kemp is expected to sign the measure this month.

Another elections bill

State lawmakers approved a bill giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation authority to probe election fraud complaints in the latest GOP-led response to Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat. The legislation, Senate Bill 441, would allow the GBI to launch election inquiries and subpoena records on its own. Kemp seems certain to sign it.

Education overhaul

Surrounded by schoolchildren, Kemp signed legislation that allows parents who don’t want their sons and daughters wearing masks as precautions against the coronavirus to opt out of any school district mandates.

Kemp is also likely to soon ink proposals to make it easier for parents to object to books in public schools, and another that would give parents more leeway to see their children’s curriculums.

And a broader proposal seeks to control how public school educators teach “divisive” concepts about race and gender, while also empowering high schools athletic associations to ban transgender athletes from competing in sports.

In another move, lawmakers voted to increase the cap on tax credits for contributions to the Georgia student scholarship to $100 million, allowing taxpayers to steer more money to k-12 private schools.

‘Freedom to farm’

Georgia is poised to rebalance property rights between farmers and their neighbors under a “freedom to farm” bill that would limit the ability of landowners near agriculture facilities to sue them because of noises, smells or other impingements on their property.

Kemp has not said whether he’ll sign the measure, House Bill 1150.

Blue lights

Georgia State Patrol troopers would be given new flexibility to use flashing blue lights on the front, back or sides of vehicles under legislation that’s pending on Kemp’s desk. It’s not clear whether he will sign the legislation, House Bill 1146.