By Elaine Owen, Editor
Gov. Brian Kemp made a substantial down payment on his campaign promises Thursday (Jan. 17), recommending that teachers get a $3,000 raise and state employees a 2 percent pay hike.
If the budget Kemp proposed in his State of the State message is approved, the raises will put more money in the paychecks of more than 200,000 educators and state employees in Georgia.
Kemp’s budget plan for fiscal 2020, which begins July 1, also includes borrowing $150 million for a new voting system in Georgia and $100 million for bridge projects. Officials said it also funds the K-12 school formula, which was shorted for more than a decade before Gov. Nathan Deal added money to it during the 2018 session.
The new governor promised a $5,000 teacher pay raise on the campaign trail, but the price tag—about $700 million—had budget writers concerned. The $3,000 pay raise Kemp proposed (in his speech Thursday) is a substantial down payment on the promise he said he’ll still keep and something the governor said is vitally needed because so many teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years on the job.
“To recruit and retain the best and brightest in our schools, we must remove heavy burdens in the classroom and keep teacher pay competitive,” Kemp told lawmakers in his State of the State address.
The governor called it the biggest raise in state history. (Gov. Zell Miller pushed 6 percent pay raises for four years during his second term in the 1990s.)
The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute estimates a $3,000 raise for each teacher would cost about $418 million.
The state’s two largest teacher groups, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Georgia Association of Educators, applauded the proposal.
Kemp also touted plans to allocate money to each Georgia public school for safety measures and an anti-gang task force within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He’s seeking $30,000 for each public school in the state—a total cost of $69 million—to enact safety measures determined at the local level. Kemp also said he plans to address mental health in schools and provide extra resources.
One particular resource he mentioned is to put $500,000 in initial funding toward the new GBI anti-gang task force.
In addition to money for teachers, public schools and safety, Kemp also included millions more for hazardous waste cleanup, trauma medical care, water project planning, addiction treatment and for a 3 percent increase in HOPE scholarship awards.
Georgia’s newly elected Republican governor also said that he was setting aside $1 million to create a waiver plan that would give the state more flexibility in using federal Medicaid funding.
Kemp, who has frequently assailed Medicaid expansion, said the waiver would “expand access without expanding a broken system that fails to deliver for patients.”
While Kemp did not elaborate about what the waiver might include, his office issued a statement saying that the funding was for a consultant to assist in reviewing options and developing a plan and that “the ultimate goals are lowering costs, increasing choice, and improving quality and access.”
Medicaid strategies that some Republican-led states have talked about include partially expanding the program to cover only residents below the poverty line, a less generous option than provided by the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), which extended eligibility to many people just above poverty as well.
Partial expansion would be less costly for states, but it’s unclear whether the federal government has the legal authority to grant such a waiver. It would almost certainly draw a court challenge, as have some Medicaid work requirements approved under the Trump administration.
Georgia is one of just 14 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid as prescribed under the ACA, also known as “Obamacare.”
The expansion of Medicaid was initially intended to be national, but a 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court made it optional for states. Most of the states that have not taken up expansion are Republican controlled.
Georgia’s previous Republican Gov. Nathan Deal opposed Medicaid expansion on the grounds that if federal funding ceased, the state would be left to pay the full costs.
Kemp said the state of health care in rural Georgia was particularly concerning. He said, “Seventy-nine counties have no OB/GYN. Sixty-four counties have no pediatrician. Nine counties have no doctor.”
In recent years, some Republicans in Georgia have become more receptive to the idea of expanding Medicaid access by seeking a waiver, but have also called for restrictions like a work requirement.
Democratic lawmakers say they are pushing for wholesale expansion of Medicaid.
In response to Kemp, Democratic State Sen. Harold Jones said that Medicaid expansion, not a waiver, was the right path forward for Georgia. Jones said expansion was the only way to help struggling families and struggling hospitals.
Kemp’s address avoided some of the more controversial conservative pitches of his primary campaign, including pledges to sign tough abortion restrictions and a “religious freedom” bill that critics says allows discrimination against gays and lesbians, and to “track and deport criminal illegal aliens.”