In his second State of the State address and proposed state budget, Gov. Brian Kemp has pledged a $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers, after having demanded budget cuts of most state agencies amid a revenue shortfall and looming economic recession.
This completes a campaign promise of a historic $5,000 raise, which he began last year with a $3,000 pay bump. At the time, Kemp called the $3000 a “down payment” on the full amount. He said the additional $2000 was included in his 2020 budget.
“This was our big thing,” Georgia Association of Educators President Charlotte Booker said. “So at this point, we’re just saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you, Gov. Kemp.’”
While Georgia Democrats seem in support of Kemp’s pay increases, leadership denounced the mandated budget cuts.
State Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain, said the Governor’s budget “will reverse the state’s progress.”
“A budget that undermines the safety of our children and reduces the effectiveness of law enforcement is not acceptable,” she said, referring to budget cuts at the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Speaking to both chambers of the General Assembly, Kemp also promised to fully fund the state’s education formula for the third year in a row, to “dismantle the remnants of Common Core,” and to reduce the number of required tests.
Although this is the third consecutive year GOP leadership has pledged to fund the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula fully, Democrats took issue with that description.
“[Over 16 years] Republicans…cut between $9 and $10 billion out of public education in Georgia,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. “And they now say they’ve restored the money to QBE. That’s not true. They’re just restoring the cuts they made since [former Gov.] Sonny Perdue took office.”
Echoing another campaign promise, Kemp outlined a plan for adoption reform, through a tripling of the adoption tax credit to $6,000 and lowering the legal adoption age from 25 to 21. He also announced the creation of a Families First Commission to study the foster care system.
Kemp framed the reforms as a follow up to the anti-abortion law he championed last year.
“As a pro-life Governor, I believe that we need to protect the unborn and the born,” he said. “We have to defend those in the womb and then champion those when they leave the delivery room. It’s incredibly sad how many children are abandoned in our hospitals…now wards of the state.”
Regarding health care, Kemp said his administration plans to “craft a legislative remedy to reduce surprise medical billing.”
“We will demand transparency, embrace empathy and insist on fairness,” he said. “We have hardworking Georgians who, by no fault of their own, are on the brink of bankruptcy because there’s no transparency in health care billing. Families are living on a prayer because the system is rigged against them.”
In keeping with a campaign promise and consistent talking point, Kemp said his office plans to “empower law enforcement and prosecutors” to further target gang activity this legislative session.
While there are no details on any legislative proposal right now, state Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, expressed concern about the idea, particularly in the context of recent budget cuts.
“The key right now is not the fact that we don’t have tough gang laws,” he said. “The key is that we are not able to actually enforce them: whether we don’t have enough judges to do that, whether we don’t have enough prosecutors to do that, or we don’t have enough specialized police officers to do that, that is the key point.
“It is not to develop laws that potentially could also invade on persons’ rights as regular citizens in Georgia.”
Kemp also announced a new professorship at the University of Georgia to study Parkinson’s disease, in honor of former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who retired at the end of 2019 due to health complications, in part due to his struggle with the illness.
“Right now, over 20,000 Georgians are living with Parkinson’s disease – with new patients diagnosed every single day,” Kemp said. “While treatable, Parkinson’s disease has no cure. I don’t know about you, but I want to change that.”
The General Assembly will spend next week in budget hearings, evaluating the Governor’s proposal and listening to presentations from state agencies directly.
“I want to be fiscally responsible, but at the same time, I want to make sure that the essential services are continued and communities that I represent not adversely affected,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus.