ATLANTA — Laying out a plan for "a safer, stronger Georgia" that includes more money for teachers and schools and an effort to crack down on crime, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp made his case for reelection Thursday.
"By keeping our state open for business, bringing record levels of jobs and investment, and fighting to put hardworking Georgians first, we now have the opportunity to build a safer, stronger Georgia for all who call the Peach State home," Kemp told lawmakers and other state officials in his State of the State speech.
The speech came as Kemp is challenged for reelection by Republican candidates who allege he didn't do enough to overturn Donald Trump's electoral loss in Georgia, and Democratic nominee-apparent Stacey Abrams, whose narrow 2018 loss to Kemp vaulted her to national prominence.
Kemp aims to show voters what he can deliver, hoping to use the legislative session to elevate his standing. His proposals, laid out in the speech and in recent days, include bombarding teachers, public schools, universities and their employees and state employees with more money. Kemp also wants to provide $1.6 billion of state income tax rebates, but didn't mention that in his speech.
"I have fought hard to live up to the commitments I made on the campaign trail and ultimately do the right thing, even when no one was watching," Kemp said.
The governor appealed to conservative voters by saying he wants to end the requirement for permits to carry concealed weapons, protect students from ideologies, ban transgender girls from playing school sports, create a parents' bill of rights, and remove obscene materials from school libraries and online resources.
Opponents were dismissive of Kemp's program. Senate Minority leader Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, panned the plan as "all about politics and very little about the real work of helping Georgians." Democrats criticized Kemp for not expanding Medicaid health insurance, loosening gun rules, not doing enough to fight COVID-19 and ginning up cultural issues to excite Republican partisans.
"Unfortunately, our governor is choosing to prioritize putting guns in hands over shots in arms," said Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat.
Republican primary challenger David Perdue attacked Kemp's plan as "an election-year spending spree."
"Only a career politician like Kemp would wait until an election-year primary fight to finally pretend to be a conservative," said Perdue's campaign spokesperson, Jenni Sweat.
Abrams' campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo said Kemp could only finance a "thank-you tour" because of federal COVID-19 aid pushed through by Democrats and said his inaction on Medicaid and COVID-19 "won't help Georgians thrive."
But the governor's efforts could help him with conservatives. Kemp said Thursday that he wants to "protect our students from divisive ideologies — like critical race theory — that pit kids against each other."
Critical race theory examines the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions and that they function to maintain white people's dominance. Republicans have made it a catch-all buzzword for teaching race and American history in public schools.
The governor last week announced support for abolishing permits to carry concealed guns. On Thursday, he said it's part of an effort to "ensure every Georgian feels safe and secure in their communities."
Kemp's agenda also includes anti-crime initiatives including creating an anti-gang task force in Attorney General Chris Carr's office to complement the one established by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Kemp said state assistance is needed because "in too many jurisdictions across our state, soft-on-crime local governments and prosecutors have been unwilling to join our fight to rid their communities of these criminal networks."
Kemp also said he wants to spend $7 million to upgrade the GBI crime lab and hire more lab technicians and medical examiners to perform autopsies. Kemp said he would seek funding for more state troopers and ask technical colleges to offer tuition-free law enforcement and criminal justice degrees.
Democrats have targeted Kemp on COVID-19, saying he has mishandled the pandemic. Kemp on Thursday again defended his choice for an early business reopening and minimal restrictions afterward, citing low unemployment and new industrial announcements.
"Georgia is on the move because we chose freedom over government shutdowns," said Kemp, who also has backed lawsuits against federal vaccine mandates. "We trusted our citizens to be part of the solution — instead of part of the problem."
Kemp also noted decreased premiums and more choices in Georgia's federal health insurance marketplace for individuals because of state subsidies. His plan to partially expand Medicaid has been blocked by President Joe Biden's administration, however, because it includes a requirement that recipients work.
"While the Biden administration plays politics, in Georgia, we're making health care more affordable for millions of our citizens," Kemp said.
The governor also said he wants to extend Medicaid coverage of mothers after birth to one year, up from the recently approved six months.