ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp emphasized efforts to fight crime in his State of the State speech Wednesday, saying he would back up what had been a major theme of his reelection campaign with legislation.
The Republican, triumphantly sworn in for a second term, devoted a significant portion of his annual address to lawmakers to public safety, promising to make it harder for some criminals to get bail, enhance penalties for recruiting children into gangs and raise penalties for failing to report human trafficking.
“We will also continue to take violent offenders out of our communities,” Kemp said. “For far too many Georgians, the safety of their families and homes is put at risk by the unchecked crimes of street gangs."
The governor, who handily defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in November's election, has been trying to promote his vision of conservative government worldwide. In Wednesday's speech, he proclaimed a “new era” for Georgia, touting his stewardship of the economy and his plans to improve education, housing and health care, claiming a mandate from voters.
“You know, the campaigns have all been run, or at least most of them. And the people have spoken,” Kemp said. “They have given us our marching orders, and it's time to get back to work. So for the Georgians of today and tomorrow, let's get it done.”
Democrats countered Wednesday with an agenda that calls for a $15 state minimum wage, much larger pay increases for public employees, more education spending on poor students, a tightening of state gun laws, an expansion of abortion rights and an expansion of Medicaid health insurance to cover all adults. They argue that Kemp's proposal to leave much of Georgia's $6.6 billion in surplus cash untouched is starving the state of needed investment.
“This administration refuses to spend on critically needed services for Georgians,” said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat. "Depriving Georgians by purposely starving state agencies hurts working people. It stagnates consumer investment in Georgia’s economy, and ensures that Georgia’s prosperity is felt only among those who already have it.”
Having already given an inaugural speech and released budget plans, Kemp on Wednesday devoted his State of the State speech to urging lawmakers to act on priorities he had announced previously.
The governor's remarks on crime came days after an environmental activist was killed and a state trooper wounded during a confrontation over construction of an Atlanta police training facility. A Saturday protest over the shooting in downtown Atlanta turned violent, with masked activists lighting a police cruiser on fire and vandalizing buildings.
Kemp has promised swift punishment for those who took part in the violence, and held it up Wednesday as an example of why police need public support.
“That's just the latest example of why here in Georgia, we will always back the blue," Kemp said.
Democrats voiced support for some of Kemp's anti-crime priorities, but said they didn't want to “over-criminalize” behavior. They also countered that his support of loosened gun laws bears blame for increasing violence.
“Gov. Kemp talks about the crime and violence on our streets, but let’s be honest about what’s really going on," Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, said in a televised response to the speech. "Georgians can now carry a gun without a permit because of a bill the Republican majority passed. We need policies and laws that require common sense use of these weapons.”
The governor also reiterated promises he made in his inaugural address and recently released budget to provide $2,000 pay raises for teachers, university employees and public school teachers, and to provide full tuition for all HOPE Scholarship recipients.
Kemp portrayed his new proposals as building on his first-term accomplishments. He noted he had persuaded lawmakers to give $5,000 pay raises to public employees and teachers during his first term, buoyed by strong state revenues. Officials are projecting another $2 billion surplus this year.
“In total, we will have given hardworking educators a $7,000 pay raise in just five years,” Kemp said. “No other General Assembly or governor will have raised teacher pay by so much, so quickly, in state history.”
Democrats said they want to give all public employees additional $10,000 raises, not Kemp's proposed $2,000, a move that would cost at least $2.8 billion.
Kemp also wants to end the two-tier system of HOPE Scholarships starting next fall, paying full college tuition for every high school graduate with a B average for the first time since 2011. Now, regular HOPE recipients get 90% of tuition. Kemp has said restoring full eligibility would cost $61 million more in lottery proceeds.
“We are once again fulfilling Gov. Zell Miller's vision and returning the HOPE Scholarship and Grant awards to 100% of tuition,” Kemp said.
The governor did not mention his plans to give two rounds of one-time tax breaks using Georgia's billions in accumulated surplus funds. Top Republican lawmakers have already said they plan to support another $1 billion round of state income tax rebates, which would give the average taxpayer between $250 and $500 back. Legislative leaders are also supporting Kemp's plan for a $1.1 billion property tax rebate for homeowners, which Kemp says would give the typical homeowner about $500.
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