MARIETTA — Secretary of State Brian Kemp says other candidates for governor may have great rhetoric on the campaign trail, but voters should ask themselves if they can trust those candidates to actually implement their proposals.
“Who do you really trust to implement that and to do what they're saying?” Kemp said in a recent interview at the MDJ’s offices. “There's a couple people running (that say) they want do away with the state income tax. They want to double infrastructure spending. Well, doing away with the state income tax is $12 billion a year. … So if you're going to get rid of $12 billion and double what you spend in DOT, that's going to be at least another billion, maybe two. Where are you going to get rid of $14 billion? You going to raise the sales tax? You going to cut government?”
Kemp said his campaign is all about practical proposals that can actually be accomplished.
“That's why I'm being realistic with people, saying I'm going to implement a spending cap. You know a governor can do that. The Legislature's going to vote for that. … And when you look at our plans, they're reasonable things that can be done. And I have a record of saying that and even more importantly, a record of doing that.”
Kemp faces five other candidates in the May 22 Republican primary: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, former state Sen. Hunter Hill, businessman Clay Tippins, restaurant owner Eddie Hayes and state Sen. Michael Williams. Author Marc Urbach was previously in the race but has dropped out.
The MDJ’s interview with Kemp was conducted March 8 and has been edited for space and style.
Q: If you were writing Atlanta’s or the state’s offer to Amazon for HQ2, what would it include?
A: I think to be in play with Amazon, people like that, you’re obviously competing with other states. … Certainly Gov. (Nathan) Deal’s done a great job of getting some good folks here when you think about the Caterpillar plant, Baxter (International). ... For me, as governor, I would definitely be pursuing things like that that are potential game changers for our state, especially in specific areas where we want to maybe do something to market that part (of the state) or that industry or that type of technology to send (the message) to the rest of the countries in the world that Georgia is a player, just like we did with Baxter and the bio-pharmaceutical (industry). ... But I’ll also be a governor that is going to ask, ‘What is the return on investment in that?’ and you know, we got to make sure “the juice is worth the squeeze.” ... So I’m certainly supportive of the Amazon bid. I think if we get it, it’ll be great. But there will also be challenges with that that the state will have and some of the locals. But also think, and I’m a firm believer in this, that if we don’t get it, that’s fine too, because we have so much good stuff going forward.
Q: On incentives in general, not even just for companies of Amazon size, what is your take on the role that the state should play attracting new businesses?
A: I think it depends on what the project is. It’d be hard to answer that question because I don’t think that’s like a ‘Yes, we should do,’ or ‘No, we shouldn’t do incentives.’ I think it would depend on what the project is, where it’s going, what the benefits of getting something like that are and what the detriments of it would be. And you’re just in a world where you’ve got to compete to get some of those things — it doesn’t mean we have to get every one of them, but if there is something that we want that would be good for the state, then I think you have to be involved in that market.
Q: What is your take on everything that happened with the Legislature regarding the Delta tax issue and the NRA?
A: Well, I came down, unlike some other people, in a very principled place on that. I got in the race when I announced right here in Cobb County that my campaign was going to be based on putting Georgians first, ahead of the special interests, the politically correct, the status quo and those that are here illegally. And I basically said then, as I’ve been saying with the Delta tax break, that we don’t need to do special interest tax breaks — it’d be better to do tax reform for everybody and make sure the tax reform is broad base, which certainly the underlying legislation was. We can thank President (Donald) Trump for that. But when I got in, I said one point in my four-point plan is to fundamentally reform the way state government spends taxes and operates, and you start that with implementing a spending cap. ... We need to continue to budget conservatively, especially when we’re in the good times. ... I just don’t think that there’s support, and I’m certainly not supportive of giving a company that made $3.6 billion last year — (and) just gave a billion to their employees — a $40 million fuel tax exemption. We’re not giving that to the trucking industry. That’s what I said in regards to the bill, and others have made that whole thing a lot more political than it really should have been. I think if the people would’ve just balked at the tax cut, you know, it would have been a different scenario, but that’s part of a campaign.
Q: What changes, if any, would you support to Georgia’s gun laws?
A: I think definitely on the mental health side of things, I would be open to that. I don’t know that anything else people are talking about really solves the issue of people shooting somebody. If it’s not a gun, it could be bomb, that can be a Molotov cocktail, it could be a vehicle. What if somebody went and poisoned the lemonade during lunchtime? I mean, they just, you know, I don’t know that that really solves the issue.
Q: Do you support arming public school teachers to help with school safety?
A: I don’t have a problem arming educators or people in the school system that are properly trained to be able to handle some type of firearm or weapon as long as the local control in the local community agrees with that. I don’t think you need a state-mandated, top-down approach on that. But I wouldn’t want to mandate that. That being said, I do have concerns too because I’ve heard a superintendent the other day talking about how at least 10 times he has had physical altercations with students in high school that were completely out of control, that just completely lost it, and physically tackling them to the ground. And he said he was a firm believer that if he had had a gun, if he was allowed to carry in school and had a gun or a firearm on his ankle, I completely believe that the students would know who’s carrying in school, because there’s no secrets in school, which I get that.
Q: Gov. Deal put together an education reform commission a couple years ago to take a look at K-12 funding and a potential (change to the funding) formula. Nothing seemed to come out as a result. Is that an issue you would take up as governor? And if so, how would you change the formula?
A: We need to do it. It isn’t an easy issue. I really wouldn’t want to speak to specifics of what I would want to change, but there’s all kind of gripes out there. There’s always the issues of the ‘winners’ and the ‘losers,’ but I have a track record of working through tough issues like that and getting things done and as governor, I would figure out a way to do that.
Q: So you would open up the QBE formula for reform?
A: I would definitely work on it. I said I would do that. I’ve talked with some people that feel like we could get that done and that’ll be something we’ll be working on.
Q: Cobb County is going to forgo $144.5 million for our 5 mill share for 2018, and it means high class sizes, lower teacher pay. … If you do revise the QBE, can you make sure that Cobb doesn’t lose that $144 million?
A: I think that’s the tough work of the formula, right? ... I think getting some people together to talk about this one thing, but also think implementing a spending cap, which is part of our plan. The priorities of the spending cap are for us to fund the things in government, we need to be funding correctly: public safety, education, healthcare, transportation — those key things, start putting our money where it needs to go. We built a lot of buildings for educational purposes all over the state that aren’t being used or they’re being not used that much. Looking back on that, to me, if we’d have taken that money and put it with the student or put it with the school, we might not have as big of problem with $144 million in Cobb.
Q: Gov. Deal had proposed the opportunity school district a few years ago, but voters rejected that. Then he got a more watered down version of it through the Legislature, called it the chief turnaround officer. Do you support the state intervening in chronically underperforming schools or should (that) be more up to the local authorities?
A: I voted for the opportunity school district, but that’s not the approach I would have taken had I been governor. ... I personally think we need more local control on our schools and if people have bad schools in their communities, they need to fix it. And if they don’t, people are going to walk with their feet, they’re going to leave your community, they’re going to go somewhere else. But for those people that are trapped in that community, I think we do as a state need to give more flexibility, more choice, and trust the parents to be able to deal with that. ... I will be a strong supporter of public education as governor — properly funding, taking mandates off the schools trying to get some of these testing requirements that’s really too many from what I hear from teachers. I have no issue holding educators and school systems accountable, but we can’t continue to tie their hands so much that they don’t have time to teach. ... I think we need to give flexibility and areas like that where there’s more school choice, whether it’s charter, whether it’s some type of education savings account where you had those failing schools. I’m not the candidate in the race that’s advocating that statewide and trying to under-mine our public school system because we have some great public school systems, we’ve got great educators, great superintendents that are working really hard out there, and some of them are just dealing with tough demographics, quite honestly. But you also have areas where you have failing schools and there is no other option. So those parents, what are they to do? Most of them only have one choice and that’s a homeschool, and that’s certainly not for everybody, especially if you have two working parents. So I think we need to be able to have flexibility in more local control, and part of our plan to fundamentally reform state government, part of that deals with regulatory reform, cutting government regulations and red tape and kind of freeing the market up, freeing innovation up. And I think we could do the same thing with education.
Q: There are projections that our state could grow by four million people in 15 years and that most of the growth is going to be in the metro area. What is your plan to manage such growth so that we’re not tripping over one another?
A: We’re already bumping into one another without the growth. Obviously from the metro perspective, we’ve got to continue to deal with transportation ... I’m certainly supportive of county approaches and regional approaches to dealing with congestion ... and will be a governor that would support things like that where there’s some sort of regional SPLOST for transportation or whatever, but also understand that people that aren’t living here don’t want to pay for Atlanta’s congestion relief. But I do think the state can be involved in doing projects that do have the best return on investment, and one of those that’s in the long range plan for DOT is to four-lane from Macon over to LaGrange and then take 27 and make sure it’s four-laned all the way up to Chattanooga so you can get a lot of that truck traffic and container traffic that doesn’t have to come to Atlanta diverted around the metro area where they’re not getting onto 285, they’re not coming through the Downtown Connector.
Q: The General Assembly passed a metro Atlanta transit bill (transit legislation that passed out of both chambers was ultimately cobbled together, approved by the General Assembly and signed into law). Any thoughts on what passed?
A: I support the idea behind (them), putting something together, because I do think there needs to be a targeted approach and I think they’ll work through that and they’ll come up with something that works, and if they don’t then I would certainly be amenable to continuing to work on that as governor.
Q: Maybe setting the transit bill aside, what in terms of transit and transportation projects does metro Atlanta need to improve its traffic flow and efficiency? And what, if anything, do you see Cobb’s portion of that being?
A: I think from Cobb’s perspective, there was a reason I announced here. I think this is a huge area for our state with just so many good things going on here. I think there’s a lot of opportunities. The mayor (Marietta’s Steve Tumlin) and I were talking about the mixed-use at the airport (Dobbins Air Reserve Base). ... I’m sure there’s probably some concern about that too, but I do think that creates a pretty unique opportunities. When you think about how we’re going to grow, it’s not always what Atlanta or the Capitol wants — we need to be thinking about the local communities. ... I feel like I know the state better than anybody else is running for governor. And I’m not beholden to what everybody down at the Capitol may think is the right thing and I am running a campaign that’s putting Georgians first.
Q: Is Georgia in need for religious freedom legislation? Why or why not? If so, what kind of new laws are needed?
A: I think it would depend on who you’re asking. I’m in support and will sign a bill that just simply references the federal statute that would codify that better language into state law. I think there are some compelling arguments that the legal folks that are on that side of the issue make as to why that would be beneficial — some, I’m supportive of that. That does not mean I would sign the bill that Gov. Deal had before. ... I think the legislation that Deal vetoed, a lot of the conservative evangelical religious leaders that I’ve talked to felt like that bill was more about the personalities than it was the policy, and that’s what happened, and obviously it got politicized. I think four years ago if there had been a piece of legislation like that, it would’ve been signed (and) this would have long been over with. That’s what I’ve told people that I would sign and I believe we’ll have a Supreme Court ruling pretty soon that may dictate some of that. I think that may be this summer.
Q: Is Georgia in need for legislation protecting LGBTQ populations and their rights? What would you propose?
A: I don’t believe we do. I think they’re already protected. I’ll certainly be a governor that is not going to let anybody be discriminated against, whether it’s (LGBT), Christians, Jews, anybody. We have a really good track record of that in the state, and I will continue that.
Q: If you’re elected governor, would you support bringing casinos to the state of Georgia?
A: I’ve been on the record for quite a long while as opposing that. When I look at the juice versus the squeeze, I just don’t see it being beneficial. I think there’s a lot of negative things that come with that and we’re not a state that really needs that to be successful like a state like Mississippi or maybe Alabama.
Q: If elected, will you pledge to never sign into law a tax increase of any kind?
A: I’ve never budgeted for one yet. My intention is to lower taxes, not to increase. I’m not a big pledge signer — I’ve let my word do my talking over the years. I would rather just tell people I’ve never voted for a tax increase. My plan is to implement a spending cap and continue working on reducing taxes.
Q: According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, Georgia contracts out with two private prison companies. There’s about 8,000 people incarcerated across four facilities that they have. … If you’re elected governor, would you continue Georgia’s practice of contracting with private prisons?
A: What I would support would be looking at the return on investment for doing contracts with private prisons — what’s the state’s cost if we’re building facilities and manning them, versus what the private sector solution might be. I think in some ways, it’s good to have some competition out there. But my philosophy on that is what we need to be locking the bad guys up. I’ve been supportive of the accountability courts that Governor Deal has been pushing in criminal justice reform — I think there’s a need for that, I’d be supportive of that in the future.
Q: There was a bill in the state Senate that calling for voting machines to produce paper ballots, creating an auditable paper trail. (The bill failed to get out of the session, nor did any other such legislation pass). Where do you come down on that issue?
A: I’m fully supportive of going to a verifiable paper audit trail. ... Before this ever got on anybody’s radar this session, we piloted a project this fall in the city of Conyers that would be an option for a potential system that Georgia could go to in the future that had a verifiable paper audit trail, so you vote on a ballot marking device just like we do now, mark your ballot on the touch screen. When you hit submit, it prints your ballot out and you physically put it in your hands and you look at it and you see how your ballot’s marked, and if it’s not marked correctly, you give it to the poll worker, they spoil it and you start over. If it is how you wanted to vote, you take that ballot over to a high-speed scanner, you scan that ballot, it will count it electronically — similar to what we do now — and drop that ballot in a locked ballot box. So you have the best of both worlds there — you got the speed of counting quickly with the electronic count, but you also have the paper backup. ... If you were to move to a system, either that system or something similar to that, when you pass the law, you could dictate how recounts would work. Right now, if it’s less than 1 percent, you can request for a recount. You may say in the future, if it’s less than 1 percent, but greater than a half a percent, you could request the electronic recount, but if it’s less than a half percent or a quarter percent or whatever the number would be, you could request a hand recount where we actually look at the paper again, or you can just have all recounts be with the paper. … The problem with going strictly back to paper, like some of the conspiracy theorists want, to where you’re marking a bubble-filled ballot with a No. 2 pencil, number one, you can have people that are irate because it takes so long to vote ... you’re going to have some outraged voters because the system we’ve got now, you can move through there pretty quickly, but even worse than that is what with all paper ballots, that’s where the most fraud is that we see — (in) absentee ballots, which are paper ballots. I mean, not terrible issues, but that’s where most of the problems (are). The thing that concerns me about circling back to paper is you can make ballots appear or disappear very quickly. All it takes is one or two bad election workers.
Q: Georgia has open records and open meetings laws that apply to counties, school districts and cities, but the General Assembly itself is exempted from that. If you’re elected governor, would you work to change that law to have the General Assembly come under that law?
A: I’m all for (it). I was the secretary of state that came into office, ran on doing a zero-based budgeting, line-item budgeting, whatever you want to call that, where we justified every dollar that we spent in the agency. We put our budget up on the website for everyone to see. We post our expenses monthly so you can see everything we’re spending in the secretary of state’s office with state dollars. If I’m going to a conference, you’ll know where I’m going, what I spend to do that — whatever it is, it’s on there. So we’re as transparent as anybody out there. I’d certainly sign that bill if it got to my desk. I don’t think it ever will, but I would sign it.
Q: What grade would you give Gov. Deal for his eight years in office?
A: He’s done a great job. I’m definitely giving him an A. He’s been a steady leader, he’s tackled problems that were important to him, part of his political agenda, which I think any governor should do. Mine are different than his, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Every governor is going to have their different priorities.
Q: Politicians like to tout their accomplishments, but what’s something that you’ve made a mistake on or were wrong about and what did you learn from it?
A: We’ve had several things that happened on my watch where we probably made the wrong decision. I had an employee that screwed a ballot up one time. I had to go on TV and just say, “Hey, look, this is our fault, we got it wrong, we apologize, and we’ve got to get it fixed.” I tried to implement a bill to really reform the licensing boards back when we were in a recession, because we were getting our budget, we’re getting cut so bad, we had to do some things to streamline government. And I took on a pretty big task and got it handed to myself by the lobbyists and the special interests, so that was probably a wrong move that hurt me politically a little bit early on, but I was doing the right thing, I was trying to solve the problem without asking for more money, and that’s what I campaigned on.
Editor’s note: Times-Journal newspapers invited gubernatorial candidates to the MDJ for interview sessions over the last two months. The interviews for leading candidates were transcribed and edited to a Q&A format. Some candidates did not accept the invitation.
The gubernatorial Q and A’s are appearing in print on the following schedule:
— May 1: Stacey Abrams (D)
— May 2: Stacey Evans (D)
— May 3: Casey Cagle (R)
— May 4: Hunter Hill (R)
— Saturday: Brian Kemp (R)
— Monday: Clay Tippins (R)