Gov. Brian Kemp Monday announced a grant program to provide $1,000 one-time bonuses to public safety officials across the state. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder
Gov. Brian Kemp Monday announced a $1,000 bonus for police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders as part of ongoing efforts to support frontline workers during the pandemic.
As part of the grant supplement program, up to $100 million in federal coronavirus relief money will be set aside to cover an estimated 80,000 Georgians working in public safety positions.
Republican leaders say the plan is another sign that they’re stepping up efforts to beef up law enforcement and help other essential workers who are coping with the stress of another surge of COVID-19 after more than 18 months of pandemic duty. Kemp led a Capitol press conference Monday that included Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, Attorney General Chris Carr, law enforcement officers and firefighters.
“Our law enforcement officials and first responders answered the call of duty and bravely served on the front line of our fight against COVID-19, despite the unprecedented challenges thrown their way,” Kemp said while flanked by several dozen high-ranking public safety officials at the state Capitol.
The program is not required to follow the usual legislative budgeting process since it’s a part of the COVID-19 recovery funds passed down to the state. Georgia’s bonus supplement will cover expenses for child care, testing services and other related costs.
Each public safety agency will have from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 to apply to the state for the grant program that they will be in charge of distributing the funds to eligible employees. Part-time and volunteer firefighters will be eligible for a $300 stipend.
Since protests for racial justice grew in 2020, the issue of police accountability has remained in the national spotlight. This spring, Republican state lawmakers passed legislation preventing local governments from decreasing police budgets more than 5% from a prior budget year.
State Democratic lawmakers filed police reform legislation after infamous deaths of Black people at the hands of police, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But those bills stalled.
Now the political climate has changed to the point that Georgia Republicans had planned to make a crackdown on crime a focus of an upcoming November special session.
That shift in the political winds will make it problematic for Democrats and social justice advocates to criticize giving some extra money to police officers and other people who deliver emergency services, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.
Bullock said criminal justice and the state’s spiking rate of violence will continue to be front and center throughout next year’s election season, so public officials and others will have plenty of opportunities to wade into taking a position on how the issue is handled.
“Giving rewards to crime fighters will be popular, and then to the extent this is going to the health care industry, that also is going to play well as we know that the health care industry has been under tremendous duress now for more than a year and a half,” Bullock said.
The announcement comes just days after the governor announced that anti-crime legislation would no longer be a on the agenda during November’s special session where lawmakers will focus their energy on redrawing Georgia’s congressional and legislative maps.
The bonus supplement is coming from $4.9 billion allocated for Georgia’s state government through the American Rescue Plan that passed in March without any Republican support from the state’s congressional delegation.
A recent poll found that 43% of Georgians who responded are in favor of the Legislature helping decide how the state spends the emergency money, compared to 37.5% who prefer the governor’s office managing it, according to the survey conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public Affairs Survey Research Center on behalf of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
The respondents listed economic security, health care, infrastructure and education as the top priorities for the available funding.
Throughout the spring and summer, a Republican House committee held a series of meetings focused on rising violent crime in Atlanta as Kemp and the GOP heads of the two chambers debated plans on how to curb crime while supporting law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Democrats remained critical of what they say is a heavy handed approach that could reverse some of the criminal justice reforms made in Georgia over the last decade.
House Speaker David Ralston said Monday the bonus grant program aligns with his $75 million budget proposal to reinforce local policing through one-time bonuses for local police officers and sheriff’s deputies, hiring more state troopers and providing additional funding for mental health services.
“We know that it has never been harder to wear a badge and we want to ensure our officers know that we appreciate their service and sacrifice,” Ralston said. “Georgia is a state that stands for those that have answered the call to serve.”
Public safety leaders said the men and women who wear the uniform can use the money to help cover some bills and necessities for employees who continued to serve their communities despite the pandemic.
“We all know public safety is not a profession where you can work from home,” said Janet Moon, president of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “We’re on the front line all the time no matter the circumstances.”
Even if the bonuses escape partisan criticism, Republicans will likely make political hay out of them against Democrats in the months ahead, Bullock said.
“I can imagine this time next year seeing an ad, which has a progressive Democrat and not even necessarily from Georgia, but someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying ‘defund the police’ that’ll say ‘Democrats are in favor of defunding the police here in Georgia while the governor’s camp gave $1,000 to every police officer in the state,’” Bullock said.
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