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, at a projected cost of more than $380 million. It's the second part of a campaign promise for a $5,000 teacher pay raise, after Kemp was able to secure a $3,000 raise for educators last year. He also wants a $1,000 pay raise for other state employees making less than $40,000 a year, at a cost of $45 million.
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, s aid again Thursday that he views delivering the tax cut as a "commitment" made to Georgia taxpayers.
In his budget proposal, also released Thursday, Kemp projects strong growth in the income tax in the year beginning July 1. A spokesman didn't immediately answer whether that means Kemp isn't planning for the tax cut to happen.
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.
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.
The governor 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.
Senate Democrats said that they agreed with some of the governor's goals, including the teacher pay raise, but that they were anxious to see specific plans for how the proposals would be carried out.
"We were surprised at the entire presentation today, the State of the State seemed to lack a lot of specificity and depth," said Sen. Steve Henson, the Democratic leader of the state Senate. "And certainly the budget issue is one of the areas we would like the governor to come out as soon as possible and tell us exactly how he feels about the remaining quarter-percent tax cut that's sitting out there."
The state Democratic Party blasted Kemp's health care plan in a statement, calling it a "sham" that "falls far short of full expansion by covering fewer people for a higher cost."