Gov. Brian Kemp seeks to draw political contrasts in his State of the State speech

Gov. Brian Kemp used his State of the State speech to draw contrasts between his Republican philosophy and Democrats in an election year when the presidency and all of Georgia’s state House and Senate seats are on the ballot, but the Republican Kemp himself doesn’t face the voters.

Combined with that heavy dose of politics is good news for the pocketbooks of state employees and public school teachers. Kemp says he wants to give a 4% cost of living increase to public employees and an equivalent $2,500 raise to teachers. That’s possible because the state is on track for another multibillion-dollar surplus despite slowing tax revenues, and has banked nearly $11 billion in extra cash in previous years.

Echoing his economic message from his 2022 reelection and his pledge to put “Georgians First” from his 2018 campaign, Kemp on Thursday painted his policies as bringing opportunity and prosperity, while calling on voters to reject “Washington D.C.” because of high inflation and overregulation.

“They will see what we’ve achieved together at the state level to make Georgia an even greater place to live, work and raise a family,” Kemp said. “And they’ll see the hardships Washington, D.C. has brought into every home and placed on every kitchen table across our state.”

Kemp contrasted his economic record, including low unemployment, big industrial announcements and billions in tax rebates and tax cuts with inflation and high prices that he said are squeezing Georgians.

“These are the people that Washington, D.C. has left behind,” Kemp said. “Because for every challenge our nation faces, the federal response is to spend more, regulate more, tax more, and come up with yet another government program meant to cure every ill.”

That national message lines up with the political profile Kemp has built after weathering the storm of COVID-19, overcoming Donald Trump’s attempt to torpedo his reelection and then vanquishing Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams for a second time.

Kemp cultivates a profile of a steady conservative who doesn’t alienate moderates. In some ways, he’s enjoying the fruits of his second term, including a trip next week to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for a second year in a row.

But Kemp is also tending a political organization that suggests future plans. His organization plans to support Republican candidates in this year’s state legislative elections, but also could help Kemp if he were to run for U.S. Senate or even president.

In line with that political future, Kemp framed themes Thursday to rally Republicans and dismay Democrats, making his strongest push to date for a school voucher bill and emphasizing support for a much-disputed police and fire training center.

The governor was a late supporter last year of a proposal that would give a $6,500 educational savings account to parents to pay for private school tuition or homeschooling supplies. But he voiced full-throated support Thursday for a bill that failed to pass because 16 House Republicans voted against it.

“Our job is not to decide for each family — but to support them in making the best choice for their child,” Kemp said.

Kemp again hit on support for the training center — derided as “Cop City” by opponents — by honoring state Trooper Jerry Parrish in his speech. Officials say Parrish was shot and wounded by Manuel Paez Terán in January 2023 when officers were trying to clear protesters occupying the property that includes the training center.

A report identified Parrish as one of six troopers who fired guns at Paez Terán, who was inside a tent. The troopers who fired on Paez Terán weren’t wearing body cameras, and Paez Terán’s family and other activists have expressed skepticism about law enforcement’s account of the shooting.

But Kemp voiced no doubts, continuing to proclaim his support for the training center, an issue his aides believes makes some Democrats look anti-police.

“As long as I’m your governor, there will be no gray area or political double talk,” Kemp said. “We will support our law enforcement officers. We will support our firefighters and first responders. And the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center needs to be built — period!”

Kemp also emphasized law enforcement support for by proposing an additional $3,000 pay raise for state law enforcement officers including troopers and prison guards atop the 4% raise for all employees. He also called on lawmakers to repay police officers’ college loans.

The governor promised a substantial increase in spending on mental health, increasing crisis center beds and paying more to mental health workers and service providers.

But Kemp also said he would spend to reduce the state’s debt, proposing $500 million to reduce the unpaid liability in the pension fund that covers most noneducation state employees.

Kemp defended his record on health care, even as his partial expansion of Medicaid has come under fire, signing up fewer than 3,000 people over its first six months. Kemp didn’t mention the Pathways program, which offers insurance to low-income adults who meet work, education or community service requirements. Instead, he focused on his much more popular backing of subsidies that has helped bring down premiums and persuade more insurers to offer coverage in rural areas of the state.

Notably, Kemp also didn’t outline a position on whether Georgia should make a fuller expansion of Medicaid coverage to low income adults, as state House Speaker Jon Burns says he wants to explore.

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