Gov. Brian Kemp vowed Thursday to give Georgia teachers the second installment of a $5,000 pay raise, despite what promises to be a tight budget year.
The Republican governor told a joint session of the General Assembly his fiscal 2021 budget proposal will include a $2,000 increase for public-school teachers, who got the first $3,000 of the two-step raise last year.
“This will enhance retention rates, boost recruitment numbers and improve educational outcomes in schools throughout Georgia,” Kemp said during a 31-minute State of the State address. “By investing in education, we can build a strong house, a place where everyone learns and all Georgians have an opportunity to thrive.”
The timing of the teacher raise had been in doubt going into the 2020 legislative session that began on Monday. State tax collections came in far below expectations during the first half of the current fiscal year, which prompted Kemp to order most state agencies to reduce spending by 4% during this fiscal year and 6% in fiscal 2021.
On Thursday, the governor didn’t mention specific cuts he is recommending in his budget proposals.
But he peppered the State of the State speech with proposals to increase spending in areas he considers priorities, including adoption and the fight against criminal gangs and human trafficking.
Kemp asked lawmakers to triple Georgia’s adoption tax credit from $2,000 to $6,000 and lower the age qualification for adoptive parents from 25 to 21. He also announced plans to launch a commission to look for ways to improve the state’s foster care system.
“Our goal is simple: to keep our kids safe, to encourage adoption and ensure that young Georgians – no matter where they live – has the opportunity to live in a safe, happy, loving home,” he said.
While the governor was less specific on what he wants to do on gangs and human trafficking, he promised to push for tougher legislative measures aimed at street gangs and human traffickers.
“Gangs and drug cartels are fueling another public safety crisis,” he said. “Every day, hundreds of people are bought and sold for sex in our state. … We must advance legislation that closes loopholes that leave children vulnerable to exploitation.”
Kemp also endorsed an effort already underway early in this year’s General Assembly session to prohibit so-called “surprise billing” in Georgia, which occurs when patients are charged extra for a service provided inside their insurance plan’s network by an out-of-network specialist.
“We have hardworking Georgians who by no fault of their own are on the brink of bankruptcy because there’s no transparency in health-care billing,” he said. “Families are living on a prayer because the system is rigged against them. This year, we will implement long-overdue reforms that put our families first.”
Finally, Kemp announced the state will honor newly retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., by creating a Johnny Isakson Professorship for Parkinson’s Research at the University of Georgia. After 45 years in public service at the state and federal levels, Isakson announced in September he would leave office at the end of last year, citing health problems including Parkinson’s disease.
“Through this partnership, we will use technology and innovation to break new ground,” Kemp said. “With the grit and resolve of Johnny Isakson, we will move one step closer to a cure.”
After the governor’s speech, Senate Democratic leaders said Kemp’s talk was thin on details about major issues this year like the state’s budget cuts.
Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson said lawmakers need more insight on what revenue-raising measures the governor would support beyond an online sales tax, which cleared both chambers Thursday afternoon.
“We were surprised that the State of the State seemed to lack specificity and depth,” said Henson, D-Stone Mountain.
Other Democratic leaders in the Senate took aim at Kemp’s budget cuts as well his anti-gang initiative.
Senate Minority Whip Harold Jones said Georgia already has tough anti-gang laws and needs more funding for judges and prosecutors to enforce them.
“What is not needed is any new draconian efforts,” said Jones, D-Augusta.
Other Democratic senators speaking at a news conference Thursday called for full Medicaid expansion and for restoring the HOPE scholarship to cover full student tuition.