Kemp teases budget plans with COVID economic damage in spotlight

Gov. Brian Kemp says his budget proposal will include more funding for the state's struggling tourism industry and will make "substantial investments" in rural broadband. Screenshot of Georgia Chamber Eggs and Issues

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says the budget he plans to unveil Thursday will include new funding aimed at rebuilding the state’s tourism industry, which has been sidelined during a public health crisis where travel and gatherings are discouraged.

The Republican governor said Wednesday that his budget proposals will include a $1 million to promote tourism in Georgia, as well as “substantial investments” to connect communities to high-speed internet after the pandemic brought new attention to the spotty service in rural Georgia.

“In the spirit of building out a budget that reflects our priorities as a state, we are making key investments to revive our economy, champion rural growth and maintain Georgia’s place as a leading competitor for job creation and investment,” Kemp said.

Kemp provided the sneak peek of his budget proposal Wednesday during the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast, which was held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

The governor avoided controversy in his remarks, steering clear of the election fallout that has made him the target of President Donald Trump’s tweets in recent months.

And there was also no mention of the second half of the teacher pay raises he promised on the campaign trail as a candidate – a promise he had tried to fulfill last year before the pandemic took that and the GOP’s pursuit of another income tax break off the table.

The governor’s full budget proposal will not be made public until after he delivers the annual State of the State address to lawmakers at 11 a.m. Thursday. Once unveiled, the spending plan is handed over to lawmakers who will want to leave their own mark on the budget.

Lawmakers spent the last two years trimming the budget, including $2.2 billion in cuts made last year in an anticipation of the pandemic’s brutal economic toll on state revenues. Those budget reductions hit public education particularly hard last year.

But state revenues have been growing, leaving lawmakers to puzzle over what to do with revenues that have surpassed those grim expectations. Uncertainty remains, though, as COVID-19 cases surge, a half million Georgians are still out of work, and many restaurants and other businesses struggle to hang on.

Kemp took a moment Wednesday to defend his handling of COVID-19. Georgia made national news when it became one of the first states to reopen after being among the last to shut down last spring.

“I faced quite a lot of criticism from all sides when I chose to begin Georgia’s measured reopening, informed by the expert advice of Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey,” Kemp said into the camera Wednesday, referring to the state’s public health commissioner.

“But while the media was busy amplifying the voices of critics, my focus remained on the hard-working Georgians who had spent years building their businesses and who were terrified they were days away from losing everything. I knew we had to give these businesses a fighting chance, and I’m certainly glad that we did.”