Governor pitches more spending for education, health care in election year budget
Gov. Brian Kemp gives his annual State of the State address to House and Senate lawmakers on Jan. 13, during the first week of the 2022 legislative session. Riley Bunch/GPB
The state budget will swell under Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed spending plan as a surge in revenues clears the way for the rest of a promised teacher pay raise, a salary hike for state workers and $1.6 billion in refunds for taxpayers.
The governor, who is in a tough reelection battle, released his proposed $30.2 billion budget for next year Thursday after a speech where he outlined his spending wish list and announced his support for divisive base-pleasing proposals, such as bills targeting transgender athletes and teachings on systemic racism in schools.
“From the classroom to the ball field, there are those who want to divide our kids along political lines, push partisan agendas, and indoctrinate students from all walks of life,” Kemp said in his State of the State speech Thursday.
The governor’s proposed spending plan is just the start of the process, though. State lawmakers will also want to leave their mark on the budget and factor in their own priorities. But the governor sets the spending level, which means lawmakers can only move around money.
The Legislature’s budget writers will get to work next week, kicking things off with changes to this year’s budget that runs through the end of June. Committee hearings will start Tuesday, with the governor up first.
Georgia leaders head into budget talks with the state sitting on a pile of cash, thanks in good part to federal COVID-19 relief money. Republicans, though, are under pressure from the right to cut taxes while others see the surging revenues as an opportunity to bolster state services. Kemp’s budget is about $3 billion larger than this year’s budget.
Between this year’s updated budget and next year’s spending plan, the governor is proposing nearly $650 million to reverse cuts made to public education and pay for a $2,000 raise for teachers – capping off the $5,000 pay hike Kemp promised on the campaign trail in 2018 – and $1,000 for school bus drivers and other staffers.
There is $367.5 million to give state workers a $5,000 raise and another $143 million to increase the 401(k) match to 9% and other sweetened employee perks – a proposal intended to curb staff turnover.
The state has not released details about the incentives offered to the electric vehicle start-up Rivian, but the spending plan also offered a peek into the cost to lure the company to Georgia. Rivian announced last month it had selected a rural area east of Atlanta for its second factory and would invest $5 billion and create 7,500 jobs.
“Georgia is on the move because we chose freedom over government shutdowns,” Kemp said in his speech. “We trusted our citizens to be a part of the solution – instead of part of the problem. We continue to fight unconstitutional federal mandates that force hardworking Georgians to choose between their livelihoods or a COVID vaccine.”
The state has budgeted $125 million for the project, with the bulk of it – $112.6 million – going to local officials for land acquisition and development. There’s also money proposed for a training center to support the burgeoning electric vehicle industry in the state.
The governor has also proposed several measures meant to address the rise in violent crime, including increased funding for his anti-gang initiatives and the state’s crime lab and medical examiners to handle the workload. He also took a shot at some local officials as being “soft on crime.”
The governor is also moving forward with his health care plan after the Biden administration questioned the proposal to sidestep healthcare.gov and divert consumers looking for insurance to a privately run process. There is $23.5 million proposed to move forward with a state healthcare exchange.
There is also $140 million in the budget to continue building out a reinsurance program, which is designed to reduce insurance premiums. This part of Kemp’s plans has found broader support, and he championed the program in his remarks Thursday.
The governor touted the increased number of insurance carriers in the individual market and the lower premiums, particularly in rural counties. Health care advocates say additional discounts packed into last year’s federal COVID-19 relief package are also a factor.
“While the Biden administration plays politics, in Georgia, we’re making health care more affordable for millions of our citizens,” Kemp said.
He proposed new spending to tackle the workforce shortage in health care, and he also backed a $28.2 million proposal to extend Medicaid coverage for low-income moms for a full year after delivery, which GOP lawmakers have previously resisted.
The extended coverage is temporarily being provided during the pandemic because of a federal requirement, but there is support building to make that permanent beyond the health care emergency.
“My plan is to go ahead and put it in code so that when that state of emergency goes away, that coverage won’t go away,” Sen. Dean Burke, a Bainbridge Republican, said during a panel discussion this week sponsored by Georgians for a Healthy Future.
A compromise proposal last year extended the coverage, which once ended after two months, to six months in hopes of improving Georgia’s high maternal mortality rates.
Kemp’s opponent in the GOP primary, the Trump-backed David Perdue, accused the governor of following Perdue’s lead on issues like parental involvement in schools.
And Democrats in the Georgia House and Senate railed against Kemp for not expanding Medicaid fully, for not ensuring Georgians were better protected from COVID-19, and for not pushing for a living wage for many Georgians.
In their joint response, the minority party praised Kemp for following through on teacher pay raises but said that more money should be directed toward hiring more teachers and support staff.
Democrats also claim Kemp is focused more on expanding the state’s gun laws – which he only gave passing mention in Thursday’s speech – than strengthening COVID-19 testing and vaccination programs.
Caucus leaders criticized Kemp for not taking stronger steps, such as expanding Medicaid to 500,000 Georgians at a time when more than 26,000 Georgians have died from COVID-19 complications.
“Over the past two years, so many of these deaths were preventable,” House Minority Caucus Leader James Beverly said. “The governor failed our health, our state and our economy. The money is on the table to expand health care to 500,000 Georgians and it’s been there for years.”
Gloria Butler, the Senate Minority Leader, said Kemp’s $2,000 pay raise for teachers and support staff was long overdue, but even with the bump, Georgia’s teacher pay remains below the national average.
“I am glad the governor decided to raise teacher pay but there is so much more needed, especially right now,” the Stone Mountain senator said. “Online school has exacerbated the learning gap. We need more teachers, more substitute teachers and more paraprofessionals to work with kids who’ve fallen behind for the past two years.”
Meanwhile, Kemp’s plan to distribute $1.6 billion of surplus through income tax refunds of $250 for a single filer and $500 for families will barely make a “dent” for many people struggling to pay their bills and high childcare costs, Butler said.
She argued the state setting a $15 minimum wage law would be much more beneficial for the long-term for families.
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