By JEFF AMY and BEN NADLER, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Brian Kemp is expected in his annual State of the State address Thursday to begin sketching out reelection hopes on a strong economy, shadowed by Georgia‘s soaring COVID-19 death toll and historic Democratic wins in the state for president and two Senate seats that shifted the balance of power in Washington.
Marking the halfway point of four years in office, the first-term Republican will have victories to celebrate, arguing that the state’s economy is growing and its budget picture has brightened considerably since lawmakers made $2.2 billion in cuts last year, fearing a revenue collapse due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While battling the outbreak, Kemp has emphasized that he’s waging a two-front war to “protect lives and livelihoods.” Georgia’s unemployment rate has mostly remained below the nation’s after hitting an all-time high of 12.6% in April. And Kemp is unlikely to pass up a chance to tout Georgia’s ranking by Site Selection magazine as the No. 1 state for doing business. Also expect him to mention the more than $5.2 billion worth of industrial announcements made so far this budget year, with more than 14,000 jobs pledged.
“It’s an opportunity to spike the football and say we’re really leading on this,” said Ryan Mahoney, a political consultant who has worked for Kemp.
Kemp has been on the defensive in recent days over the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts, with widespread frustration at a lack of availability after Kemp expanded eligibility to anyone 65 or older and a vaccination rate that federal figures rate as the second worst among states. And Democrats have vowed to make him pay on his overall approach to the pandemic, with Georgia recording the third-highest rate of confirmed infections over the last week.
The governor will be seeking to make inroads on other issues that he’s frequently criticized on. He’s seeking money for a partial Medicaid expansion, which could help shield him from Democratic attacks seeking a fuller rollout of health insurance.
Kemp has been under fire from President Donald Trump and some Georgia Republicans for not doing enough to overturn Biden’s victory in Georgia. Some of that energy has shifted toward a clampdown on absentee voting, an issue that could dominate the legislative session. Kemp may be able to meet halfway the hardcore Republicans who believe without evidence that large numbers of fraudulent absentee votes were cast for Biden, shoring up his diminished political standing in an effort to fend off a possible primary challenge. Kemp in November announced that he wants voters who cast mail-in ballots to have to prove their identification.
“Voters casting their ballots in person must show a photo ID, and we should consider applying that same standard to mail-in balloting,” Kemp said in November,
With Kemp releasing his budget Thursday and tax collections on track to run as much as $1.5 billion above predictions, Kemp may also have the chance to offset big cuts to K-12 education made this year. However, both Kemp and lawmakers have ruled out a chance for a teacher pay raise. Kemp promised teachers a $5,000 raise, and thus far has been able to deliver $3,000.
The focus on economic development especially aims for rural areas, home to some of Kemp’s strongest supporters. Already on Tuesday, Kemp said the he would propose “substantial” spending to expand fast internet to underserved rural areas “to ensure Georgians have access to high-speed internet, no matter their ZIP code.”
“In the spirit of building out a budget that reflects our priorities as a state, we are making key investments to revive our economy, champion rural growth and maintain Georgia’s place as a leading competitor for job creation and investment,” Kemp said in a speech before the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
He also said he would propose an additional $1 million for tourism marketing, and $10 million apiece to improve the ability to move freight and improve rural roads.
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