Just four days into office, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp delivered a State of the State speech to outline his legislative and budgetary priorities for the year.
Next year’s proposed budget will include pay raises for teachers and state employees. Kemp also used his first address to ask for an increase in mental health funding and the creation of an anti-gang taskforce.
He opened the speech with a parable from the Bible about two builders.
One built his house a rock.
“But the second builder was foolish,” Kemp said. “He built his house on sand. There was a great storm, and his house washed away.”
Georgia, the governor said, is built on a rock.
Small Business, Teachers, State Workers
He pointed to the state’s economic growth, a low unemployment rate and the burgeoning film and cyber business sectors.
But one place to keep building is with small businesses, he said. The governor has established a Georgians First commission that will spend the next year or so reviewing ways to cut red tape for business owners.
One of the biggest and costliest proposals for fiscal year 2020 (which begins July 1) is a $3,000 raise for Georgia teachers, plus a 2 percent increase for school bus drivers, nurses and school nutrition workers.
“This is the largest pay increase for teachers in Georgia history and serves as a sizable down payment on my promise to ultimately raise pay by $5,000,” Kemp announced to applause.
Kemp also confirmed earlier proposals. In a speech on Wednesday, Kemp announced $69 million in a one-time school safety grant, or about $30,000 per public school in Georgia, and half a million for an anti-gang task force.
A few new priorities emerged in his address, including a 2-percent merit-based salary increase for state employees.
School Safety, Medicaid
On the school safety front, the governor announced $8.4 million in additional funding to employ mental health counselors in public high schools.
“These professionals will engage with struggling students and provide critical resources to prevent disruptive and aggressive behavior,” Kemp said. “They will inspire, mentor and keep our students safe.”
And there will be a million dollars for the Department of Community Health to explore Medicaid waivers to expand access to health care.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” the governor said. “Seventy-nine counties have no OB/GYN. Sixty-four counties have no pediatrician. Nine counties have no doctor. Insurers are leaving the state, and hardworking Georgians are struggling to pay their premiums.”
A Medicaid waiver is a provision in Medicaid law that allows the federal government to waive rules that usually apply to the Medicaid program. The intention is to allow individual states to accomplish certain goals, such as reducing costs, expanding coverage or improving care for certain target groups.
But, in the Democratic response to the State of the State, Sen. Harold Jones II (D-Augusta) said the only answer to fixing health care in Georgia is through Medicaid expansion, not waivers.
“As a state, we have tried to fix this problem,” Jones said. “We have used tax credits and incentives to spur investment as a way to cover health care costs. Yet people still remain uninsured and hospitals remain closed.”
State Democrats applauded Kemp’s proposal for raising teacher pay, but they say it doesn’t make up for the years when education was underfunded.
Democratic lawmakers also proposed a community school plan that increases support for students outside of the classroom, and a program that allows stability for Georgians to pay back student loans.
Jones said his party supports efforts to reduce gang violence, but cautioned the governor to consider how he approaches the issue.
“Fear-mongering is not the way forward," Jones said. "Nor are the harsh tactics of the drug war that decimated African American communities in recent years."
The senator closed his remarks by acknowledging the need to compromise with Republicans to accomplish their goals, but some things were non-negotiable.
“We cannot compromise on ensuring that the right to vote is protected and the election process remains fair,” he said. "We cannot compromise on a woman’s reproductive health choice and we will never punish persons for choosing who to love.”
The proposed state budget was released Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers will hold several days of hearings on the governor’s $27.5 billion spending plan next week.