Kemp proposes $2,000 raise for Georgia teachers despite fiscal issues

Gov. Brian Kemp moved Thursday to keep one of his most-talked-about campaign promises by proposing a $2,000 pay raise for teachers next year.

Kemp called for the teacher raises despite months of pushing state agencies to cut their budgets, in part because of slow tax collections.

If approved by the General Assembly, Kemp will have, in less than two years, fulfilled one of his top 2018 campaign pledges — to give the state's more than 100,000 public school teachers a $5,000 raise. Lawmakers approved a $3,000 raise last year.

The $2,000 raise in the upcoming fiscal year — which begins July 1 — would cost the state about $350 million. If approved by the General Assembly, how much teachers receive will depend on whether school districts pass along the raise. Most did last year.

Kemp made the announcement at the annual State of the State address before a joint meeting of the Georgia House and Senate.

“This raise will enhance retention rates, boost recruitment numbers and improve educational outcomes in schools throughout Georgia,” he told lawmakers.

“By investing in our educators,” he said, “we can build a strong house … a place where everyone learns … and all Georgians have the opportunity to thrive.”

The governor’s $28 billion budget plan for fiscal 2021 does not account for the huge hit state finances would take if lawmakers vote to cut the top state income tax rate from 5.75% to 5.5%. Lawmakers reduced the rate in 2018 and set up a possible vote on another cut this year.

Reducing the rate again would cost the state — and save taxpayers — about $550 million. If lawmakers vote to cut the rate again, they will have to cut the budget or find another way to raise money.

Lawmakers have been looking for ways to raise more money since Kemp announced the budget cuts in August.

They moved quickly Thursday to raise more money through a measure that would force companies that sell products or services online or through apps that are provided by others — known as online "marketplace facilitators" — to collect sales taxes. The state could reap hundreds of millions of dollars from the change, according to estimates.

Kemp’s budget also includes about $45 million to fund a $1,000 pay hike for full-time state employees earning less than $40,000 a year.

Teacher pay raises are always popular at the Capitol, but Senate Democrats tweeted: “While we support the governor’s inclusion of the $2,000 pay raise for our K-12 educators, we should not forget that Georgia is 36th in the nation on per pupil spending. We must set a goal to reach at least the national average on student spending.”

Charlotte Booker, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators teacher organization, praised Kemp’s raise proposal.

“This shows that the governor understands not only are our teachers deserving, but it is critical that Georgia stay competitive in attracting and retaining quality, trained teachers,” Booker said.

About half the money for the raise comes from a reduction in what the state will need to put into the teacher pension system next year.

Kemp told lawmakers his budget proposal would fully fund the formula the state uses to decide how much money k-12 schools receive. It will be the third consecutive year the formula is fully funded after being shortchanged for more than a decade.

Tax collections have been slow since shortly after the General Assembly voted to cut the top state income tax rate in 2018.

The state reported Monday that collections are up 0.3% for the first six months of fiscal 2020, which ends June 30. Income tax collections alone are tracking about $300 million less than expected, analysts say.

Kemp ordered state agencies in August to cut their budgets 4% this year and 6% next year.

Through the state’s budget, taxpayers help educate 2 million children, provide health care to more than 2 million Georgians, build roads and bridges, manage parks, investigate crimes and incarcerate criminals, and regulate insurance firms and utilities, along with dozens of professions. The state issues driver’s licenses and helps pay for nursing home care for the elderly.

The budget is a statement of the state’s priorities — for instance, in issuing his spending cuts edict, Kemp exempted k-12 schools, most college programs, the public health care program Medicaid, and the agency that builds and maintains roads and bridges. Those areas make up more than 75% of state spending.

Kemp’s spending plan includes nearly $2 million for seven new positions in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Gang Task Force and resources to set up the statewide gang database.

It also includes $346 million in borrowing for k-12 school projects and $167 million for college construction. In total, the state would borrow about $900 million for construction and purchasing equipment, such as state patrol cars.

The governor recommended nearly $55 million to replace the Georgia State Patrol’s headquarters in Atlanta, $70 million to expand the convention center in Savannah and $6 million to construct a conference center at Lake Lanier Island.

Much of the money Kemp hopes to save from budget cuts will come by eliminating vacant jobs. Last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the administration planned to wipe off the books about 1,200 positions.

Under Kemp’s spending proposal, those positions would include Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors and marketing staff, child welfare and program eligibility workers, agricultural extension employees, GBI lab scientists and technicians, juvenile justice security staff, and workers to help veterans make sure they receive the benefits they earn.

The plan also includes cutting county health department grants by $6 million this year and $9 million in fiscal 2021 and reductions in spending for several public health programs. The Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, a favorite program of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and other leaders in that chamber, would take a cut.

So would accountability courts, which Kemp’s predecessor Nathan Deal greatly expanded to allow defendants to avoid prison time if they stay sober, get treatment, receive an education and find a job. The courts are set up for drug addicts, drunken drivers, the mentally ill and veterans who’ve been charged largely with nonviolent crimes and low-level offenses.

"The governor's plan would cut funding from every state agency, harm Georgia's progress on criminal justice reform and undermines successful programs," said Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Stone Mountain.

Kemp's budget adds money in several areas as well, including funding to establish a Sexual Harassment Division in the state Inspector General's Office. Kemp pledged to overhaul how the state handled sexual harassment complaints after an AJC investigation found the state's decentralized, haphazard method of handling such grievances resulted in a wide disparity of outcomes.

State lawmakers will begin hearings on Kemp’s proposal next week.

Kemp spending plan

While Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed $28 billion budget ($54 billion including federal and other money) cuts spending for many state agencies, it would also increase funding for education and some health care programs next year. Below are a few of the things in Kemp’s proposal:

— About $400 million to give $2,000 pay raises to certified school personnel — such as teachers — and $1,000 to state employees who earn less than $40,000 a year

— $346 million in borrowing for k-12 school construction and renovation projects

— $56 million in additional lottery-funded scholarships and grants

— $55 million to replace the Atlanta Department of Public Safety headquarters

— $50 million in borrowing to repair, replace and renovate bridges

— $6 million to build a conference center at Lake Lanier Island

Source: Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget plan

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