Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp begins 2nd term with new pay raise pledge

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks after being sworn in as Georgia's Governor during a ceremony on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (Brynn Anderson, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pledged a low-drama conservative agenda after being sworn in Thursday for a second term, calling for $2,000 pay raises for all state and university employees and public school teachers and more job growth focused on manufacturing electric vehicles.

It’s a vision copied from the 59-year-old Republican’s first term, steadily Republican, but not pushing the ideological frontier. Kemp said he will lead in the same fashion during his second four years after taking his oath of office at Georgia State University’s convocation center in Atlanta.

“We stayed focused on what mattered to real people, real families and real communities across our state,” Kemp said. “The deal we offered voters was that your state government should care a lot more about safe streets, good schools and good paying jobs than what the pundits are saying on the cable news.”

Also sworn in were other Republican statewide officials Kemp helped carry to victory in November as he thrashed Democrat Stacey Abrams. Taking office Thursday were Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, Attorney General Chris Carr, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, Labor Commissioner Bruce Thompson, Insurance Commissioner John King and schools Superintendent Richard Woods.

Kemp’s towering political successes have given him a national political profile, thriving as a Republican despite former President Donald Trump’s enmity. Kemp even basked in a presidential boomlet in the weeks after he beat Abrams. After taking his oath, he’s jetting off to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where his staff says he will tell global elites about how his conservative governance has promoted economic success.

Saying that “this old construction guy from Athens has never been more optimistic about our state’s future,” Kemp again placed his economic message at the center of his second term, staking his reputation on nurturing businesses and increasing jobs.

“Over the next four years, we’re going to be focused on growing Georgia, not growing government,” Kemp said. “That’s why we will invest state dollars by putting them back in your pockets, not using them to build new bureaucracy.”

Kemp reiterated his campaign promises to give another $1 billion of income tax refunds and to give a $1.1 billion property tax rebate. Kemp plans to use Georgia’s $6.6 billion in surplus cash to pay for those givebacks, as well as refill the state’s roadbuilding coffers after suspending gas tax collections for 10 months.

But the pay raise pledge will mean new spending, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to deliver raises to public employees, although Abrams had pledged much larger raises for teachers. Kemp said it was necessary to retain workers as the turnover rate among state employees soared to a record in the budget year that ended June 30. Kemp delivered $5,000 pay raises to teachers and state and university employees in his first term.

“From the classroom to the state patrol, if you want to keep good people in jobs critical to the safety and wellbeing of our children, our communities and the state as a whole, we must be willing to be competitive with state salaries,” Kemp said.

The governor said he would propose $150 million in one-time grants to improve school security, induce districts to help students catch up on things they did not learn during the pandemic and help classroom aides become teachers. Kemp also said he would focus on tougher penalties for criminals.

Citing a wave of planned factories spearheaded by two giant electric vehicle assembly plants and two big battery plants, Kemp said he wants to build on the $23 billion in announced projects to make Georgia the center of electrified transportation.

“By the end of my second term as your governor, I intend for Georgia to be recognized as the electric mobility capital of America,” Kemp said, embracing a goal that has been pushed by his economic development chief, Pat Wilson.

Just Wednesday, South Korean firm Hanwha Solutions announced plans for $2.5 billion in solar panel plants in Georgia.

Brian Robinson, a Republican political consultant who was former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s communications chief, said Kemp’s “political shackles are off,” particularly if Kemp does not plan to run for office again.

“He has the ability for a period of time to enact a vision, to do something that is a legacy project. He can think big, he can think bold, and deliver on change,” Robinson said, saying that window probably runs through the end of the 2024 legislative session, before lame duck status will cut into Kemp’s influence.

The peak achievements that define the most successful recent Georgia governors have been centered inside state government. Democrat Joe Frank Harris implemented the state’s current education funding formula and backed Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics bid. Democrat Zell Miller created HOPE college scholarships and prekindergarten funded by the state lottery. And Deal reformed Georgia’s criminal justice system and backed a tax increase for road construction.

But Kemp says he’s reaching for a long-term legacy project outside state government, in keeping with his economic focus.

“I believe our success over the next five, 10, 15 years will be thanks to the resolve, the character, the ingenuity of our people, our families, our communities, our businesses, not solely the actions of government,” Kemp said.

___

Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffamy.