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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp makes teacher raises top priority in state-of-the-state speech

Gov. Brian Kemp delivers his state-of-the-state address to a joint session of the Georgia Legislature.
Gov. Brian Kemp delivers his state-of-the-state address to a joint session of the Georgia Legislature. (Georgia Public Broadcasting)

ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said raising teacher pay is one of his top goals as he gave his second annual State of the State address Thursday, a stance that could put him on a collision course with legislative leaders who want to cut income taxes.

The Republican governor announced that his budget proposal includes a $2,000 pay raise for public school teachers, the second part of a campaign promise for a $5,000 teacher pay raise. Kemp was able to secure a $3,000 raise for educators last year.

But House Republicans have made cutting the state’s top income tax rate a top priority. In a year where state revenue collections have fallen short of projections, the competing priorities could foreshadow a coming battle over the state budget.

A cut in Georgia’s top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75% started in 2019, and another cut to 5.5% was planned for this year. Revenues from income taxes have flagged since last year’s cut, and a fresh one could cost the state government $550 million in the next budget if lawmakers make it retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year. House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said last week that he viewed delivering the tax cut as a “commitment” made to Georgia taxpayers.

Kemp called not only for a teacher pay raise, but for lawmakers to continue fully funding Georgia’s public school funding formula, which suffered a long period of reduced funding coming out of the recession, leading to teacher layoffs and furloughs.

“I’m so proud of our teachers and school leaders for what they do on a daily basis. And while we spend a lot of time honoring athletes and elected officials, these are the public servants who really deserve the credit,” Kemp said. He said the pay raise would “enhance retention rates, boost recruitment numbers, and improve educational outcomes in schools throughout Georgia.”

Kemp didn’t directly mention the state’s lagging tax revenue or the budget cuts he’s ordered, saying only that the state should “keep our budget balanced” as it’s constitutionally required to.

Kemp also touted plans to improve state adoption law, make reforms to medical billing and fight gangs and human trafficking.

Kemp also announced a plan to triple the adoption tax credit from $2,000 to $6,000, lower the minimum age for a person to adopt a child from 25 to 21 and launch a commission focused on the operation of the state’s foster care system.

“Our goal is simple, to keep our kids safe, to encourage adoption and ensure that every young Georgian, no matter where they live, has the opportunity to live in a safe, happy, loving home,” Kemp said.

Kemp trumpeted some initiatives that he won’t need legislative help for, like his push in conjunction with state Superintendent Richard Woods to alter Georgia’s use of the Common Core standards for teaching and learning in public schools. He also noted his effort to partially expand Medicaid and lower insurance premiums by paying some high-cost health claims, using authorization lawmakers gave him last year. Kemp will eventually need money for those initiatives, but his spokesman has said he won’t ask for any in the initial version of the budget year beginning July 1, easing some pressure on a stretched state budget.

Kemp honored former Gov. Nathan Deal and former U.S. Sen Johnny Isakson in his speech, suggesting a call for Republican unity as Democratic competition rises in the state. He also mentioned his appointment of GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler to replace Isakson, saying she will do an “incredible job” representing the state and its best interests.

The governor also announced that the University of Georgia will create a faculty position to research treatments for Parkinson’s disease. Isakson has the disease, which helped prompt his retirement.

State Democrats blasted Kemp’s performance, with an emphasis on his refusal to fully expand Medicaid as called for under the Affordable Care Act. “Kemp’s sham healthcare plan falls far short of full expansion by covering fewer people for a higher cost,” a statement for the Democratic Party of Georgia said.