Kemp to propose tax refund for Georgians, no taxes on veteran retirement income

The governor is scheduled to release his full budget proposal Thursday

By: - January 12, 2022 5:03 pm

The governor is set to release his full budget proposal Thursday after delivering his fourth State of the State speech at the Capitol. But Wednesday’s state Chamber of Commerce event gave him an opportunity to highlight some of his plans. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp is set to propose $1.6 billion in refunds for taxpayers and the elimination of the tax on retirement income for military veterans as the state sits on a record budget surplus.

And the governor said he remained open to proposals to cut the state’s income tax, which has been cut twice in recent years. The pressure to provide tax relief is building as a contentious GOP primary in the governor’s race looms and as others clamor for increased spending, including reversing cuts made early in the pandemic.

The tax refunds, which would be paid for with a portion of the state’s reserves, would send back $250 to every taxpayer. Those who file jointly would receive $500. 

The state ended the last budget year with $4.3 billion in the state’s rainy-day fund, which was a sharp increase from the previous year. 

“I believe that when government takes in more money than it needs, surplus funds should be sent back to the hard-working men and women to keep our state moving. Because I believe that’s your money, not the government’s,” Kemp said Wednesday at the Georgia Chamber’s annual Eggs and Issues event held at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. 

The governor is scheduled to release his full budget proposal Thursday after delivering his fourth State of the State speech to lawmakers gathered at the Capitol. But Wednesday’s Chamber event gave him an opportunity to highlight some of his plans.

Kemp said his budget would wipe away funding cuts made during the Great Recession to the state’s university and technical college systems, allowing the university system to nix a special fee charged to students and offer more programs. His spending plan would also add $25 million to raise HOPE Scholarship award rates to at least 90% in all public post-secondary education institutions.

The governor had already floated plans to give state employees a $5,000 raise and pursue the rest of the $5,000 pay bump – $2,000 – he promised to teachers on the campaign trail back in 2018. Kemp also campaigned on exempting the retirement income for military veterans, which is a change he hopes will help keep them in Georgia.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, backed the governor’s proposed salary hikes for state workers and said he believed such spending increases could be coupled with “meaningful tax relief” this year – if it’s done responsibly, he said. Ralston has been critical of election-year pledges to eliminate the state income tax outright without a plan to replace the more than $14 billion collected from individual income taxes. 

“We always have to be mindful of our responsibility to be frugal and to keep taxes on Georgia’s families and businesses as low as possible,” Ralston said. “I know there are a lot of catchy, far-reaching tax proposals floating around out there.

“The House’s approach, though, will be as it has always been – providing responsible tax relief without jeopardizing essential services or our best in the nation AAA bond rating,” Ralston said.

Ralston did not rule out another income tax rate cut when talking to reporters Wednesday, but he has also said he likes the governor’s proposed tax refunds.

“We’re headed in the same direction. It’s just a question of what’s the best way to get there,” Ralston said.  

‘Voting rights is above politics’

Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, meanwhile, brought his push for federal voting rights protections to the pro-business crowd Wednesday. 

“Now I’m speaking to the business community. I know I’m speaking to the Chamber of Commerce, and it is the nature of business that you would rather steer clear as much as you can with some of these issues that cause you to wade into the waters of politics. I submit this to you that voting rights is above politics,” Warnock said.

“I submit that the right to vote and ensuring access to the ballot for every eligible voter – workers who work in the middle of the night, rural folks – this helps lay the pathway to the policies that impact each and every one of your businesses, your employees, and your customers. Restricting access to the ballot is not good for Georgia, and it is certainly not good for Georgia business,” he said.

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Warnock pointed to a proposal to eliminate absentee ballot drop boxes, a move to close all but one polling place in rural Lincoln County and the looming potential state takeover of the Fulton County Board of Elections, which is possible under last year’s controversial election law.

Warnock’s comments were made on the heels of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to Atlanta’s Morehouse College campus to call for the end of the Senate filibuster so Senate Democrats can move past GOP opposition to voting rights legislation.

State GOP leaders regularly defend last year’s election overhaul – doing so again Wednesday – and have pushed back on the White House.

“I, for one, refuse to allow this state to be used by those who would change the rules – long-standing rules in Washington – in the middle of the game for nothing more than political power,” Ralston said.

The governor called Warnock’s comments “preaching” when talking to reporters afterwards. Warnock is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Kemp also said criticisms of Georgia’s sweeping law ignore the parts that expand voting access, like the addition of early voting days. He also noted last year’s measure put the absentee ballot drop boxes into state law, although the changes also pushed them indoors and limited access to business hours.

Multiple lawsuits challenging the state’s election law have been filed, including claims the new law disenfranchises voters because it requires I.D. to vote absentee, makes it a crime for volunteers to pass out water to people waiting in lines, and disqualifies the majority of out-of-precinct provisional ballots.

When asked about the legislative proposal to eliminate absentee ballot drop boxes altogether, Kemp questioned the need for changes.

“We have the strongest Election Integrity Act in the country, but it’s also very accessible and easy to vote here,” Kemp said. “I’m not advocating that we change the best Election Integrity Act in the country.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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