Kemp delivers agenda-setting State of the State address

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Pay hikes and gun rights

Gov. Brian Kemp delivered a State of the State address on Thursday that outlined his election-year agenda ahead of a challenging battle for a second term.

He lobbied for a series of proposals meant to energize conservative voters in his GOP primary battle against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue along with crowd-pleasing salary hikes and tax cuts to prepare for of a possible November rematch against Stacey Abrams.

Here’s what he outlined:

TAXES

The governor elaborated on plans to dip into the state’s $2.2 billion surplus to finance refunds for taxpayers that would amount to $250 for single filers and $500 for joint filers.

He also said he would enact legislation to eliminate the state income tax on retirement pay for military veterans. And he’s open to exploring further cuts to the state’s overall income tax.

GUNS

At an event at a massive gun range, Kemp endorsed a measure to let Georgians carry concealed handguns without permits. It sets up the most significant battle over firearms in the state in roughly a decade.

In his address, Kemp said to build a “safer, stronger Georgia, we must ensure every Georgian feels safe and secure in their communities.”

“As I announced last week, I believe that starts with fully recognizing the constitutional rights granted to law-abiding Georgians in our founding documents, and I look forward to supporting constitutional carry legislation this session,” he told lawmakers.

SALARY HIKES

State employees will get a $5,000 pay increase in Kemp’s budget proposal as Georgia scrambles to reduce soaring employee turnover.

The governor’s spending plan would also make permanent a $5,000 cost-of-living adjustment for full-time employees, increase the employer match for 401(k) contributions to a maximum of 9% and allow employees to withdraw up to 40 hours of eligible leave as pay each year.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

The governor will back legislation to create an anti-gang unit in the state attorney general’s office and devote millions of dollars to hire dozens of technicians at the state’s overwhelmed crime lab.

“In too many jurisdictions across our state, soft-on-crime local governments and prosecutors have been unwilling to join our fight to rid their communities of these criminal networks,” Kemp said.

He also called for funding to train an additional Georgia State Patrol class of 75 cadets this year, along with a separate initiative to provide tuition-free education for technical college students pursuing law enforcement degrees. The latter aims to provide free tuition to more than 1,000 Georgians.

And he supported a new crackdown on human trafficking that’s part of a yearslong effort spearheaded by his wife, Marty, to curb the crime.

EDUCATION

Public school teachers will get another $2,000 raise on top of the $3,000 hike that was previously approved by legislators. There’s also a one-time $2,000 bonus for the teachers to speed the payments, along with a one-time $1,000 bonus for school bus drivers, nutrition workers and part-time workers.

“This $2,000 raise will impact K-12 teachers, assistant teachers, and pre-k teachers – who I think we can all agree have gone above and beyond for their students throughout the pandemic,” he said.

His budget includes a $425 million infusion to fully fund k-12 schools and restore all austerity cuts to education funding that were made during the pandemic.

Kemp said he will explore ways to encourage in-person learning and ban the teaching of critical race theory. He also vowed to sign a “parental bill of rights” that seek to block certain “obscene materials online and in our school libraries.”

His budget plan would restore $262 million in previous cuts to the higher education system, allowing technical colleges to offer more programs in high-demand fields and remove a fee for university students that ranges from $200 to more than $500 a semester.

HEALTH CARE

The governor hasn’t yet revealed how to counter the White House decision to reject his proposal to require that more low-income and uninsured adults in Georgia meet a work requirement to join the Medicaid rolls.

He said he would include $1 million for the University System of Georgia to expand nursing programs up to 500 students annually, along with more funding for the Technical College System to grow their partnership with Allied Health to serve up to 700 additional students annually.

His spending proposal would also allocate $2.5 million for 136 residency slots and another $1 million to Mercer University to address rural physician shortages. He said the spending would finance an additional 1,300 healthcare practitioners in the state.

CORONAVIRUS

The governor said in an interview he had no specific pandemic-related legislation on his agenda this year, though he emphasized that he would not support mask requirements, vaccine mandates or economic lockdowns.

“Georgia is on the move because we chose freedom over government shutdowns. We trusted our citizens to be a part of the solution - instead of part of the problem,” he told lawmakers.

“We continue to fight unconstitutional federal mandates that force hardworking Georgians to choose between their livelihoods or a COVID vaccine.”

BUCKHEAD

The governor has yet to take sides on the effort to split Atlanta by creating a new Buckhead City and he’s not expected to make the issue a part of his agenda. He has said, however, that he understands why residents are “fed up” with crime.

ELECTIONS

Kemp has expressed skepticism about new efforts to block absentee drop boxes and revisit other election rules after he signed into law a sweeping rewrite of voting procedures last year. He told reporters he doesn’t want to overhaul “the best elections integrity act in the country.”