ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp’s State of the State address touted what he called “unprecedented success,” despite unforeseen challenges of the pandemic.
In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia remained open for business, bringing record levels of jobs and investment, he said.
“We now have the opportunity to build a safer, stronger Georgia for all who call the Peach State home,” Kemp said.
Kemp’s address Thursday highlighted some of his proposed budget initiatives in education, health care and public safety, though much of it was attacked by Democrats in a subsequent press conference.
The proposed Fiscal Year 2023 budget includes the final installment ($2,000) of a $5,000 teacher pay raise Kemp unveiled in 2018.
“Parents, teachers and administrators across our state are doing their best to help students overcome learning loss due to the pandemic," Kemp said. "Students from all walks of life are confronted with mental health struggles. Teachers are asked to do more and more every year."
Kemp said he will also recommend a one-time $2,000 pay supplement for full-time, state-funded instructional staff, support staff and school administration, in addition to a one-time $1,000 supplement for school bus drivers, nurses, nutrition workers and part-time employees.
Other education-related highlights in Kemp's address included adding $425 million to “fully fund schools” and restore austerity cuts made during the pandemic; and Kemp indicated his plans to oppose the teaching of critical race theory in schools, even though CRT is not a part of public school curriculum in Georgia.
“I also look forward to working with the House and Senate to pass, and sign, a parental bill of rights in our education system and other pieces of legislation that I strongly support to ensure fairness in school sports and address obscene materials online and in our school libraries,” Kemp said.
Democrats said the controversy in many states over critical race theory is not an issue, though Republicans have called the concept divisive.
"We have a made-up issue that's been manufactured to support cultural war and distract persons in our state from the real issues students and teachers face with budget shortfalls," said Democrat Sen. Harold Jones II during the Democrat press conference. "It's remarkable that made-up issue would come first, when we fail to give teachers the support they need and threaten to punish them for teaching accurate facts about American history. We're pushing good educators out of the profession."
Kemp touted the expansion of the number of health insurance carriers that now offer plans on the individual market. The state’s $139 million investment in the Georgia Access helped reduce premiums by an average of 12 percent statewide, he said.
“In 2019, only 26 percent of Georgia’s counties had more than one carrier offering insurance on the individual market,” Kemp said. “Now, in 2022, 98% of all counties have more than one carrier — which means expanded choice and lowered costs for hardworking Georgians.”
Health care initiatives proposed by Kemp intend to add 1,300 health care practitioners in the state. Those initiatives, Kemp explained, include an allocation of $1 million for the University System of Georgia to expand nursing programs up to 500 students annually, and funding for the state’s Technical College System to grow its partnership with Allied Health to serve up to 700 additional students annually.
“My proposal will also invest $2.5 million for 136 residency slots and allocate $1 million to Mercer University to address rural physician shortages,” Kemp said.
The governor said the budget anticipates expanding Medicaid coverage for new mothers from six months to one year, and includes $28 million for a 10% provider rate increase for all foster parents, relative caregivers, child caring institutions and child-placing agencies.
Democrat lawmakers attacked Kemp’s lack of effort to fully expand Medicaid with the state’s $1.6 billion budget surplus. Georgia is one of more than 10 states that hasn't done so, despite available incentives from the federal government.
“COVID-19 has been a demonstration that all Georgians need health care,” Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler said. “An unexpected injury or illness to families can be financially devastating. ... You still have hundreds of thousands of Georgians uninsured.”
Crime and public safety
Kemp touted his intent to support constitutional carry legislation Thursday, which he said would help Georgians feel safe and secure. Legislation, if approved, seeks to do away with a permit requirement for gun owners.
“What’s the benefit of making it easier for people to carry concealed weapons, aside from allowing Kemp to score political points from the far right, that he’s hoping to stick with him in his primary (election). It takes the rights of ordinary people to feel safe in public places,” said James Beverly, House minority leader.
Kemp highlighted other planned anti-crime initiatives, which include funding to launch an anti-gang unit in the Attorney General’s office, as a supplement to the GBI’s recently launched anti-gang task force.
Kemp’s proposal includes $7 million to upgrade GBI crime lab equipment and add 32 crime lab and medical examiner’s office staff to address increased volume; $3 million to support an additional trooper class of 75 cadets; and adding funding to provide 1,000 Georgians free tuition through the Technical College System of Georgia for obtaining law enforcement or criminal justice degrees. The budget also proposes a $5,000 raise for state law enforcement and employees.
Budget hearings will begin Tuesday, Jan. 18.