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Gov. Brian Kemp reflects on COVID-19 battle, touts economy in 2021 State of the State address
Gov. Brian Kemp
Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp delivered his annual State of the State address Thursday, a speech that began 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 reflected heavily on the crisis created by the virus but also celebrated some victories. He argued 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.

Kemp wants to use some of that money to boost teacher pay, pledging a one-time supplement of $1,000 per teacher and other employees to help bolster school reopening efforts. Kemp has promised to increase teacher pay by $5,000 during his first term, of which he's already delivered $3,000.

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.

He highlighted his early — and often criticized — push to reopen Georgia's economy, saying the decision "allowed Georgia's small business community to live to fight another day and some of our largest companies like Kia and Bridgestone to have record success. It has never been clearer that we must honor our commitment to the job creators in this state."

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 sought 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 didn't pass up a chance to tout Georgia's ranking by Site Selection magazine as the No. 1 state for doing business, touting the more than $6 billion worth of industrial announcements made so far this budget year, with more than 16,000 jobs pledged.

With Kemp releasing his budget Thursday and tax collections on track to run as much as $1.5 billion above predictions, Kemp said his proposal recommends $647 million to restore funding to schools systems and fully fund enrollment growth. He also wants $573 million allocated in next year's budget.

The focus on economic development especially aims for rural areas, home to some of Kemp's strongest supporters. Kemp said his budget includes $40 million to establish a "Rural Innovation Fund" for rural Georgia businesses. He's also asking for $20 million this fiscal year and $10 million a year looking forward to improve rural broadband, "so local leaders can continue a growing and vital partnership with the private sector and quickly improve internet access for the people of rural Georgia."

Reflecting on the protests for racial justice that occurred in 2020, Kemp said he wants to follow up on last year's passage of hate crimes legislation and reform the state's citizen's arrest law. That statute came into sharp focus following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man who was shot in a coastal Georgia subdivision after a White father and son spotted him running in their neighborhood.

"We can again send a clear message: Georgia is a state that protects all of its people and fights injustice wherever it is found," Kemp said.

Kemp closed by reflecting on a tumultuous 2020, while saying the decisions made now will help steer the state's future.

"I know that many in this room and those watching are worn out, tired and burdened. It's a new year, but it all feels the same. There is no doubt that this new normal isn't really normal and, frankly, it's not clear when things will return to business as usual," Kemp said. "But my fellow Georgians, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make strategic decisions now that will impact generations to come."