Kemp unveils plan to undo some budget cuts, recover from 2020 woes

Gov. Brian Kemp’s new spending proposals will undo some of the cuts to public education made last year, attempt to spur economic growth in rural corners of the state and kickstart his health care plan. He announced his 2021 agenda at the Jan. 14 State of the State address. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

This post was updated 7 p.m. Jan. 14.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s new spending proposals will undo some of the cuts to public education made last year, attempt to spur economic growth in rural corners of the state and kickstart his health care plan that slightly expands Medicaid.

Public education bore the brunt of the deep $2.2 billion cuts made last summer, when state budget writers feared the pandemic would decimate revenues. Those revenues are beating expectations now, though, and state lawmakers did not have to dip into the reserves after all last year, leaving the balance of the rainy-day fund at just under $3 billion.

Kemp’s revised $26.3 billion spending plan for this year will restore about 60% of the $950 million cut to public education last year. The budget was $25.9 million when Kemp signed it into law last year.

His new budget proposal is about $27.2 billion.

“This state, while battered, is not broken,” Kemp said Wednesday. “A better, brighter future is right around the corner. Yes, we still have challenges ahead, a virus to beat, an economy to rebuild and restore. But, my fellow Georgians, the state of the state is resilient, and we will endure.”

The proposal will now move through the legislative process, starting next week with budget hearings that are expected to mostly take place virtually because of the pandemic. Changes will be made as lawmakers leave their own mark on state spending.

But Thursday was a chance for the governor to highlight his legislative agenda and spending priorities, which he did in an hour-long State of the State address delivered to lawmakers who returned this week to the Gold Dome for a masked, somewhat socially distanced legislative session.

His third State of the State was also a reflection on the turmoil that 2020 brought, including a pandemic that has killed nearly 10,600 Georgians and stymied segments of the state’s economy. He held a moment of silence for the lives lost to the virus.

And his speech was a defense of the tough calls he had to make as a governor during a pandemic. Georgia made national news last year when it was one of the first states to reopen after being one of the last to shut down.

“Other states are looking at further cuts to employees and essential services. For aid, they are now forced to turn to a dysfunctional and distracted Washington D.C.,” Kemp said.

“But because we acted swiftly and early, the budgets my administration will propose in the coming days include no new cuts to state agencies and departments, no furloughs and no widespread layoffs to state employees. And, I might add: no new taxes to pay for it all,” he said to applause.

Kemp also said the nation saw “injustice with our own eyes” when videos captured the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. He announced Thursday that he would pursue “significant reforms” to the state’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law that Democrats want to see repealed entirely.

He also briefly referenced some the political upheaval that made him the subject of scorn from President Donald Trump, who was outraged when Kemp refused to help overturn Georgia’s election. Trump endorsed Kemp in 2018 but has vowed to back a primary opponent in 2022, putting him on shaky ground with the GOP base.

Kemp’s budget proposal includes $40 million for a new “rural innovation fund” through the OneGeorgia Authority, although the details of the program – like how the money would be awarded – are still in the works. And Kemp proposed spending $20 million to provide rural broadband grants this year with another $10 million in next year’s budget. State lawmakers created the framework for such a grant program a few years ago but never funded it.

The spotty service in rural communities became even more glaring last year as schools turned to virtual learning during the pandemic and workers hunkered down behind their computer at home.

And the governor announced that he has set aside $76 million to implement his health care plan, which recently received federal approval.

Kemp’s plan is expected to extend coverage to about 50,000 people if they satisfy a work or activity requirement. Separately, the state will fund a reinsurance program that is designed to lower insurance premiums across the state but particularly in rural Georgia.

Democrats, health care advocates and others have criticized the GOP health care plan as a missed opportunity to cover hundreds of thousands of uninsured Georgians through full Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

The governor did not argue this year for raising teacher pay after trying last year to push through the rest of the $5,000 pay hike he promised on the campaign trail in 2018. But he did announce that federal coronavirus relief money would be used to give teachers a one-time $1,000 bonus.

Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, called the payment “welcome and tangible recognition of Georgia educators’ extraordinary work since the pandemic began.”

The governor has proposed adding back $647 million to restore funding to school systems across the state this year.

But House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat, said that is not enough and said he plans to press for the state to fully erase the $950 million cut made last year. And Beverly made the case for providing resources to more directly tackle the digital divide that has left some students behind.

“The additional money could actually be used for getting kids tablets who need them instead of using their grandma’s phone and to begin to put infrastructure in place for real for rural broadband,” Beverly said.

And in the official Democratic response to the governor’s speech, Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler argued that the state should beef up its response to the pandemic.

“I agree with Governor Kemp when he says we are deeply grateful to our frontline health care workers. They have been challenged in every way possible, and yet still strong for all of us,” the Stone Mountain Democrat said. “But I believe there’s far more we could do to help ensure the good health of Georgians, create better pathways to distribute the vaccine and to rebuild our state.”

Butler also revived the call for a tobacco tax hike, which saw some bipartisan support last year but went nowhere. She argued the revenue could be used to fund a permanent salary increase for teachers while also discouraging smoking. Georgia has one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the country.