Kemp pushes to get tough on crime, add more worker housing in 2023 State of the State speech
The next couple months will see lawmakers hash out raises for state workers, stiffer penalties for some crimes and a new partnership for worker housing if Gov. Brian Kemp gets his way.
Kemp laid out his vision for this year’s legislative session and beyond Wednesday in his annual address to Georgians.
“I’m proud to report that because of the foundation we have built, together, over the past four years, because of the resilience shown by the people of Georgia, because of the resolve they continue to show, the state of our state has never been stronger and more resilient,” he said to a joint session of lawmakers in the state Capitol in Atlanta.
“This session, we will not only build on the monumental achievements of the past four years, we will set Georgia on a path of greatness for generations to come,” he added
Kemp began his second term this month with high popularity. He easily fended off Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams in November, and a new poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution released Wednesday shows the governor with a 62% approval rating, the highest in that poll’s history.
It’s not just political capital filling Kemp’s pockets; the state will enjoy a massive $6 billion surplus after filling up its rainy day fund.
In his speech Wednesday, Kemp touted his draft budget set to fully fund the state’s education formula and add an additional $1.9 billion between now and next summer.
The Republican governor’s plans include certification grants designed to help paraprofessionals become teachers, loan repayment programs for high-demand fields like nursing as well as $2,000 raises for all state employees including teachers.
“In total, we will have given hardworking educators a $7,000 pay raise in just five years. No other General Assembly or governor will have raised teacher pay by so much, so quickly, in state history,” he said.
Kemp has also pledged to increase HOPE Scholarship awards to match 100% of tuition at all state public colleges, which his office says will save the average full-time student $444 each year.
The governor announced plans for a Rural Workforce Housing Fund, which he said will work with local governments to develop housing for teachers and other workers.
“Transformational projects, good-paying jobs, and new investment are worth little if there aren’t options for hardworking Georgians to live where they work,” he said. “We’re talking about the people who are teaching your children, keeping your community safe, who provide life-saving support in times of trouble, and those who make the goods and provide the services that make a community such a great place to call home”
The Democratic Party responded to Kemp’s speech by praising his fiscal leadership, economic growth, and teacher pay raises. Democrats, however, criticized Kemp and his fellow Republican legislators for failing to move at the pace they say is needed to prepare the state for future challenges.
Sen. Elena Parent, chairwoman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, asked how the newfound prosperity could be considered successful if it has only reached a few businesses in metro Atlanta. The state has lagged behind with investing in technology. Low pay has also made it difficult to fill government jobs, she said. And the governor’s rosy claims about economic development are misleading, Parent said.
“We must work alongside Georgians across the state to co-design economic development plans, and support investments in business, technology and STEM jobs that work for Georgians in every corner of our state,” she said. “Right now, we’re simply not meeting that call. We currently have a dangerous shortfall of primary care providers, nurses, counselors, licensed mental health professionals, qualified teachers, staff for government agencies, and trained workers.”
Kemp has highlighted the state’s record $21 billion in corporate investment announcements over the last fiscal year that began July 1, as well as the thousands of new jobs created beyond metro Atlanta.
Over the next several decades, one of Georgia’s biggest challenges will be addressing the severe shortage of jobs by bringing on line what the state estimates will be 50,000 new manufacturing jobs to go along with many other professions.
Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said Democrats support $15 per hour minimum wage and a $10,000 pay increase for all state employees. Similarly, she pointed out that a large amount of taxpayer money for rainy day funds and emergencies remains untouched in a bank account, money the governor labels as a $6 billion surplus.
“Georgia is doing exceedingly well on some economic indicators, and we are swimming in funds made available to states by the Biden administration,” Butler said.
“The reality is that Georgia has reserves set aside for emergencies,” Buter said. “The rest is what is referred to as surplus: it’s taxpayer money. His administration refuses to spend on critically needed services for Georgians.”
Tough on crime
Referencing the Atlanta protests that turned destructive this weekend, Kemp said his administration will continue to push legislation to support law enforcement and stiffen penalties for some crimes.
“Just this past weekend, when out-of-state rioters tried to bring violence to the streets of our capital city, State Patrol, Sheriff’s Deputies, and the Atlanta Police quickly brought peace and order,” he said. “That’s just the latest example of why here in Georgia, we’ll always back the blue.”
Fighting human trafficking has been a major project of First Lady Marty Kemp, and the governor called on lawmakers to increase penalties for organizations that do not meet legal requirements to provide resources on spotting and stopping human trafficking.
Kemp also called for harsher sentences for people who recruit children into criminal gangs and pledged to take action against local judges who are too lenient when setting bail.
“While some may not take this issue seriously, I can assure I do,” he said. “We can and we must do something about the revolving door of criminal justice, and I look forward to working with this Legislature to get it done.”
Georgia’s Democrats called upon the state to invest more into violence prevention measures such as after-school programs and stronger gun control laws that could make communities safer.
“We need policies and laws that require common sense use of these weapons,” Parent said.
Kemp’s signature piece of medical legislation is his 2019 Pathways to Coverage, a limited Medicaid expansion with a controversial work requirement.
The plan was stalled by the federal government until last summer, when a judge gave the OK to move ahead, and Kemp said the plan could be underway this summer.
“Folks, we don’t have time to wait on Washington, and I don’t have much patience for D.C. posturing,” Kemp said “We are moving forward, and we are on target for a launch date of July 1 of this year. To meet that goal, I am allocating $52 million to stand this program up and connect those in need to its benefits.”
Georgia is one of 11 states that have not fully expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even after additional federal financial incentives were offered. The state continues to have one of the highest rates of uninsured people in the country.
Parent said because of Republican leadership, many Georgians are about to lose Medicaid coverage due to the expiration of the pandemic’s public health emergency.
The ongoing threat of hospital closures still looms, particularly in rural Georgia counties, where 47 percent of the 70 rural hospitals in the state are at risk of closing, Parent said.
The health care system in Georgia has consistently been among the worst in the country when it comes to mental health, maternal and infant mortality, and elderly care, Parent said. Meanwhile, she said, Republicans refuse to expand Medicaid to include more low-income adults, which would help stabilize Georgia by saving federal resources.
Kemp also announced a plan he said would allow pregnant women to access Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Kemp said women previously needed to wait until their children were born to apply for assistance.
This year’s address lacked the red meat issues that characterized last year’s address. In 2022, facing challenges from Abrams and former Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Kemp promised to go after popular conservative targets like so-called critical race theory and transgender sports participation.
Now with the target removed from his back, Kemp called for togetherness.
“During this session, we should be too busy to come down into the mud of politics. We have much work to do, and we need to get it done for the people counting on us,” he said. “The campaigns have all been run – or at least most of them – and the people have spoken. They have given us our marching orders, and it’s time for us to get back to work. So, for the Georgians of today and tomorrow, let’s get it done.”