OPINION: A legislative session for Brian Kemp to take to the bank

When I met with Gov Brian Kemp at the beginning of this legislative session, he said he was proud of the work that he had done in his first three years as governor and he laid out his plans for the 40 days ahead.

It would be his last session before facing a primary challenge from former Sen. David Perdue in May and, if all goes according to plan, a November rematch against Stacey Abrams.

With the session now down to its last days, Kemp heads into his double-barrel election year having maximized the benefit of being a sitting Governor in Georgia and seeing nearly every priority he laid out in January complete or nearly done.

And he’s done it with the help of a GOP House and Senate full of Trump supporters, despite having become Donald Trump’s Enemy No. 1.

Those Republicans may not be running against Perdue, but, like Kemp, many have primary challenges of their own to fend off. The results of this legislative session give all of them enough red meat to fill a steakhouse.

Let’s start with the so-called “Constitutional Carry” bill, since Kemp started off the year with that first, too.

The governor headlined an early January press conference pushing “Constitutional Carry” at a giant shooting range in Cobb County. Legislation to eliminate the current requirement for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Georgia has now passed both the House and Senate, despite fierce resistance by Democrats, and appears poised to be headed for Kemp’s desk soon.

Another base-pleasing focus for Kemp this session was a new anti-gang unit for the GBI and recruiting bonuses for police officers.

He also pitched a buffet of hot-button school issues that the governor put under the umbrella of “parents’ rights.” After nearly two years of COVID school closures, mask mandates, online school, and more, parent activists sent Republicans into this session with marching orders and most of those demands are now in legislation headed toward or across the finish line.

That includes the bill Kemp signed this week at a Capitol press conference to let parents opt out of mask mandates for their kids in school.

Also headed to Kemp’s desk is a new law to ban “obscene materials,” from school libraries, in Kemp’s words. Close to wrapping up, but not there yet, is House Bill 1084, a controversial measure that would ban teaching “divisive concepts,” including Critical Race Theory, in Georgia classrooms.

Less clear in the waning hours of the session is the fate of a bill that Kemp says would ensure “fairness in sports,” meaning it would effectively ban transgender girls from participating in sports that align with their gender identity. That Kemp put it forward at all in his State of the State address in January was a win for some activists.

Along with red meat for the right, Kemp is also poised to deliver on several issues that could play well in November against Stacey Abrams, assuming he gets that far.

In January, the governor called for big pay raises for all state employees and teachers, along with tax refunds for Georgia taxpayers. Even before the end of the session, he signed the raises and refunds into law.

Perdue has mocked those measures “election-year gimmicks” and “exactly what Georgians hate about politicians.”

Are pay hikes for teachers and tax cuts election-year gimmicks? Maybe. Will voters hate them? That’s hard to imagine. And as Perdue is showing, they are also popular proposals that are hard to campaign against.

If Kemp makes it past Perdue and into a rematch with Abrams in November, he’ll also be able to point to bipartisan achievements, including some crafted not just with the approval of Democrats, but with their active input, too.

Tops on that list will be the Mental Health Parity Act, which passed both chambers Wednesday. The bill to overhaul Georgia’s last-in-the-nation mental health and substance abuse treatment access was the brainchild of GOP House Speaker David Ralston. But Kemp will be able to take some credit for that one as well when he signs it into law.

In Ralston Kemp has had a powerful ally this year, a like-minded conservative with a caucus to protect and a policy agenda not far from Kemp’s own.

Although Ralston has never endorsed the governor in his primary fight, the legislation that Ralston has delivered to get his own members reelected, including an expected across-the-board tax cut, will give Kemp fuel for his own campaign, too.

Also empowering Kemp this session have been GOP lawmakers, with plenty of Trump supporters in their ranks, voting for the bills he’s pushed and more often than not, flanking him at his press conferences, happy to be photographed by his side.

It’s a signal that even Republicans who support Trump can support this governor, too. And that may be Kemp’s most powerful message of all heading into the primary.

As for Kemp’s potential general election, Stacey Abrams has long criticized him for failing to expand Medicaid in Georgia, a move that would help rural Georgians in particular, which Kemp still opposes and the Legislature again failed to do.

And although Kemp did not push for more changes to elections in Georgia, Republicans in the General Assembly know their voters want more and they could deliver more restrictions that Democrats will pan as voter suppression.

Last-minute bills could also greenlight further abortion restrictions that most Georgians oppose, along with other chicanery that Kemp may not even know about yet.

In January, the governor told me his wanted single message heading into his reelection to be “promises made, promises kept.”

“Whether you voted for me or not, you can at least say he’s the guy that told us what he’s gonna do when he got into office and did it.”

If that was his test for this legislative session, Kemp got the job done.