Commentary

Brian Kemp misses his Nixon-to-China opportunity

January 23, 2022 5:45 pm

Gov. Brian Kemp unveiled a plan at a Jan. 12 Georgia Chamber of Commerce event to use $1.6 billion to pay for tax refunds to Georgia earners. Guest columnist Charles Hayslett says the money would be better spent expanding broadband access. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp announced last week he plans to give $1.6 billion in surplus revenues back to Georgia’s taxpayers. In the process, he probably accomplished two things. First, he deprived himself of the opportunity to pursue a game-changing strategic initiative that would guarantee him a prominent, and well-deserved, place in Georgia’s history books.  Second, he committed a massive amount of money to an effort that probably won’t do him much good politically.

Kemp is, of course, being primaried by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who now enjoys the backing of former President Donald Trump, and their May primary shootout is shaping up as bloodiest Republican fight in modern Georgia politics. It was, after all, a Trump endorsement in 2018 that catapulted Kemp to the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination and arguably into the governor’s mansion, but Trump got his feelings hurt when Kemp failed to somehow reverse Georgia’s 2020 presidential results and hand him 16 electoral votes. Hence the Perdue endorsement and the Trumpian curse on all things Kemp.

On the off-chance that politics entered Kemp’s thinking and that he thought sending a $250 check to millions of Georgians might undo the former president’s hex, I have some bad news: there is very little in recent political history to suggest that voters can be bought so cheaply.

Trump himself famously had his own name printed on pandemic stimulus checks that went to all Americans in the spring of 2020 – and then promptly went on to lose re-election that November. His successor, President Joe Biden, managed to get congressional approval for even larger stimulus checks in 2021 but has fared no better politically; recent polls put his approval numbers at an all-time low.

What might Kemp have done with the $1.6 billion that would make a difference for the state and maybe even for his politics? For at least five years now, Georgia’s political leaders have been calling for the deployment of high-speed internet to rural Georgia.  It’s critical, they rightly say, to economic development, education, healthcare and quality of life.  The problem has always been money.

Based on cost data that has bubbled into public view in the last couple of years, hardwiring rural Georgia with fiber-optic cable would cost about $40,000 per mile or $4,500 per location. An analysis I conducted in October 2020 put the total cost to wire all the unserved areas of Georgia at about $2.3 billion; the AJC ballparked it at a full $3 billion.

So the $1.6 billion Kemp got for Christmas won’t cover the whole cost, but it would put a fair dent in it.

I hasten to add, as I have in other writings, that I don’t believe high-cost landline technology should be the only internet solution pursued for rural Georgia. Even if Kemp threw the entire $1.6 billion – and more – at a rural broadband push, it would probably take most of a decade to get the work done. For communities where there’s a truly urgent need, other technologies, especially satellite, are available now and could be provided to rural Georgians in a matter of weeks or months; there’s no real reason the state couldn’t cut volume deals with those providers and subsidize those costs instead of plowing money into hardware that will take years to deliver – and may be too late arriving.

For Kemp, the question really is how he wants to be remembered. Think back over past governors and it’s a little surprising how few of them posted major accomplishments that provided long-term benefits to the state and its citizens.

Zell Miller makes the cut with the state lottery and the HOPE scholarship. Ditto Roy Barnes for ramming through a change in the state flag and getting rid of the Confederate battle emblem, which earned him a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award but cost him re-election.

As a young governor in the 1940s, Herman Talmadge pushed through the General Assembly a revolutionary three-penny sales tax to build new schools and raise teacher pay. The legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Shipp, no fan of anybody named Talmadge, would later credit Talmadge with keeping Georgia from going down the same road to racial ruin as Alabama and Mississippi.

It’s probably too late for Kemp. It’s hard to reverse field on a public commitment to send money back to taxpayers, but this could have been his Nixon-to-China moment.  He had an opportunity to go down in history as the governor who delivered much-needed internet service to rural Georgia.

Instead, on this count, he’ll be remembered as a politician with a limited imagination who frittered away a $1.6 billion opportunity on tax rebates most of the recipients will forget within a matter of weeks if not days.

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Charles Hayslett
Charles Hayslett

Charles Hayslett is a retired journalist and public relations executive who has been researching rural Georgia’s problems for the past several years. He blogs about his findings at www.troubleingodscountry.com and hopes to live long enough to put all together in a book.

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