Editor’s note: The Marietta Daily Journal sat down with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp at the Capitol on Thursday to discuss the 2020 legislative session, which convenes Jan. 13. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MDJ: One of the reasons that you tapped former district attorney Vic Reynolds as your GBI director was to address the problem of illegal street gangs, of which Reynolds once told us there were gangs in every high school in Cobb County. How is the GBI working to make a dent in this problem?
Gov. Brian Kemp: We’ve had a great year with the Gang Task Force. It’s one of the reasons I tapped Vic to be the GBI director. He knows it is my priority to go after street gangs. We’ve got the task force up and running. He’s hired the initial staff, and they’ve really been doing great work. We’ve gotten a lot of interaction around the state with the prosecutors and law enforcement from all over the state that are asking for assistance and willing to be involved, which is great. It’s not a mandated thing. But we have much more work to do, and I know Vic will tell you that — you can call Vic and quote him on this, but he said, “Governor, we’re starting to move the needle.” So I know that he feels like they’re making some headway. But he also knows that we have more work to do, and they’re just keeping their foot on the gas. We have a big problem in the state, over 70,000 gang members. Literally, just like in Cobb County, you were saying, “gang members in every high school” — we have gang members in every county in our state. And no jurisdiction is not subjected to these people. They’re thriving in rural areas just like they are in our metro areas. And I knew that. I knew it because I’ve seen the press reports, I’ve talked to the local police, I’ve talked to the prosecutors. And like Vic said, we’re moving the needle. We have more work to do and we’re going to be focused on that this legislative session. Funding additional resources for the Gang Task Force and then also working on putting some more teeth into the statutes, to be able to go after and not only arrest these folks and indict them, but to get them prosecuted and get them locked up and off the streets.
Q: Lawmakers of both parties tell us the state budget will be the biggest issue before this session, principally because of your proposed cuts of 4% to 6%. With Georgia’s economy booming, why the need to make those cuts now?
A: Well, the state budget is always the biggest issue of the session, it doesn’t matter if it’s this year or not. … Our economy’s growing, we have a great economy in our state, we’ve got the lowest unemployment we’ve ever had in the state, we have the highest number of people working right now. So it’s almost counterintuitive, in some ways, but we’re just not having as many people coming into the workforce because we’re basically at full employment. So it’s very important for us to continue producing that educated workforce, which is a priority of mine. But we also have big growth holes that we have to fund in our state. We had a half a billion dollar loss of revenue because of the (income) tax cut from two years ago that’s been fully kicked in now. There’s about a $150, $200 million swing on the (title ad valorem tax) — basically the tag tax that passed — of lost revenue for the state. And you have all the enrollment growth on our K through 12 education and higher education with more students going into the system, more people on our health care rolls. Those costs continue to go up, so every year, it takes $1 billion dollars to fund that kind of thing, and in years past, we’ve had that billion-plus, $500 million or a billion, and we’re just not seeing that right now. I think there’s a lot of other reasons for that. You know, trade has definitely hurt in some regards for the ag community. Hurricane Michael. … But it’s just the fact (that) the revenues are the revenues and we have to balance our budget. But we’re using this as an opportunity to make state government more efficient, to streamline it, to really ask the questions of what are we mandated and need to be doing versus what are the things that are nice for us to be doing but not necessarily necessary? And those are the things that we’re cutting out so that we can fund our priorities like education. You know we’re committed to fully funding the formula funding for K through 12, which we’ve only done two years. And that’s been last year and the year before that. Gov. (Nathan) Deal started that, and it’s my priority to make sure that we do that again this year … fund the public safety initiatives in our state so we can go after street gangs and keep our kids and our families safe (and) continue to push the health care that we need to provide in the state to our people, especially the most vulnerable. And deal with transportation issues and all the things that people expect us to do in state government. So that’s what the budget will reflect and it’s going to be a great year from that perspective.
Q: I understand that that income tax cut, the one from, what was it, 6 to 5.75 (percent), that there’s a second tier that the General Assembly will be asked to approve in this coming session (from 5.75% to 5.5%). … It is your hope that that second tier does get approved, so that it goes down to 5.5%?
A: Well I think it depends on if there’s legislative support for that and how we would structure the budget, if we’re going to do that. And that’s something that we’re still working through. I’ve had great conversations with the speaker and the lieutenant governor in that regard, and we’ll have more details coming on that when we release the budget.
Q: While fiscal conservatives rejoice at cutting back any government fat, Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) suggests cuts would be unnecessary if the state didn’t have so many tax loopholes for special interests, Exhibit A being the film industry. Do you believe the current tax break for the film industry is too generous compared to other states’ and needs to be revisited?
A: I’m very supportive of the film industry in our state. … I know Sen. Tippins certainly has his thoughts and concerns on the film tax credit. There are a lot of different reports that have been out and some that are coming out, and I’m very eager to actually see the reports before I go commenting on the specific film tax credit. I think the credit’s been very successful because it’s very competitive with other states. I’ve asked people, “Should we make it more?” and they’re like, “No, it’s right where it needs to be to be competitive.” Now, there may be some that have a difference of opinion on that, but the Legislature helped craft it and they certainly have a voice in the matter. But I’m really reserving judgment on any of that until I can actually see the reports, see where they came from, see if they were truly an independent synopsis of the film tax credit.
Q: Let’s not pick on the film tax (credit), but just, say, special interest tax breaks in general in Georgia. I think Sen. Tippins’ point is, we give out so many that you would have the revenue that you needed if we didn’t give out so many. Is that something you agree with?
A: I think that certainly is the case. I think you also have to state the other side of that though — what does the tax credit get you in return? Is there a good return on investment of that tax credit? I would say that Sen. Tippins, I don’t want to speak for him, but I think we would both agree that we want taxpayers to have good return on investment on tax credits that were given. And that’s certainly my feeling.
Q: The first lady, your wife Marty Kemp, has made the blight of human trafficking a priority with the GRACE Commission, as you know. What will the legislation you plan to drop to attack this problem look like?
A: We’ve got two things that we’re going to work on with human trafficking, and the first lady’s done a great job to help raise awareness and support those folks that have been in the trenches for many, many years fighting to end human trafficking. It’s really touched us as a family and what we’ve learned is going on. The average age of these children is 14. I met with traffick victims that were trafficked from 9 to 15 (years old). It’s unreal what they go through. We’re going to be looking at putting some teeth in the statute to go after these folks that are basically kidnapping and enslaving these children. But then we’re also going to be working on how we help the victims once they can get out or we can get them out, how we can get them acclimated back into society, especially from an educational perspective, so that they can go get a good job, be a productive member of society and not have to fall back on, basically, a culture that has brainwashed into them to survive.
Q: Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, was successful in passing a sweeping adoption bill not too long ago. What additional reforms to Georgia’s foster care system and incentives for Georgia’s families to adopt foster care children would you like to see?
A: Rep. Reeves, who’s one of my floor leaders, has done just a great job; he’s a great champion for Cobb County and his district, but he’s done really great work on adoption reform. I certainly want to applaud him, Gov. Deal and the Legislature for their work they did two years ago. But there is more work to be done, and we’re working on that. That’ll be one of our signature issues this year, adoption reform. And really focused on foster kids: How do we get more people to be able to adopt foster kids? And our legislative proposal is going to be working on removing the bureaucracy and the red tape from that (and) also looking at how we can potentially reduce costs for the families that are doing this and really just shorten the period of time. … We’ve got to have a proper vetting process, but we definitely need to speed the process up, make it more affordable and also make sure we’re protecting the families that are going through this process (from) unscrupulous people taking advantage of their big heart and their wallet.
Q: You campaigned on giving teachers a $5,000 raise and delivered on $3,000 of that in your first year in office. When will teachers receive the remaining $2,000 installment?
A: I’m certainly committed to getting that done. How and when we do that are a big part of the legislative process. I certainly have my thoughts and priorities on when and how we do that. But that’ll be part of what our budget rollout is going to be here in a couple of weeks, when we can kind of put the final touches on what exactly the plan’s going to be for that. I’ve had great discussions with the speaker and lieutenant governor in regards to that.
Q: You replaced Georgia’s aging voting machines with new ones. As they’re being rolled out, we had some (pilots) in Cobb County. … Are you happy with the new ones? Any concerns, any problems?
A: Well I think that would be a better question for the secretary of state. You know, I basically (just) signed the legislation. The voting machine legislation has been in the works for two years and didn’t quite get done in Gov. Deal’s last year. It got done this past year. … It is, I thought, a good piece of legislation and then the secretary took it through the procurement process to select the vendor and has been in charge of the rollout, and the different pilots. But from what I’m seeing and reading, I think he’s done a great job with that. The feedback has been good. I spoke with him the other day … and he felt good about where they were on that. And we got a couple of special elections that are coming up that they’ll use them in. Every time they’re using it, I’m sure it’s getting better and they’re learning, and it allows the county folks as well to get acclimated to the equipment.
Q: I think I read somewhere that, while you object to casinos, you’re OK with voters voting on it.
A: No, what I said when I was asked the question … somebody asked me if I would support — I think it was a constitutional amendment for casino gambling — I said it doesn’t really matter. Or maybe they asked me what I thought, and I said it doesn’t really matter what I think about that, a constitutional amendment is veto-proof. So if the Legislature passes it, it will go on the ballot regardless of my personal feelings for that.
Q: The suburbs are becoming purple —
A: In your opinion —
A: Lucy McBath being Exhibit A. As this is the last legislative session before the important 2020 election, what key issues do you believe are important to suburban Republicans?
A: I think it’s the issues that we’ve been doing all of 2019 and 2020. I went through a very polarizing election cycle as most people that run for governor get to do. I think the issues that I campaigned on are kitchen table issues that all voters care about: having good teachers in the classroom, not having 44% of them quit within the first five years, and that’s why we did the largest teacher pay raise in history. Republicans, Democrats, independents and non-political people, they don’t want anybody shooting up our classrooms or having violence in our classrooms that our kids and teachers are experiencing. We passed a $30,000 school security grant … much of it is already being implemented and in use right now as we speak this school year in our K through 12 system for every single public school. We passed 21 health care bills last year, including the Patients First Act, where we’re working on lowering private sector health insurance costs, giving people a pathway to be on the state’s Medicaid program, but also a path to have access to a private sector plan so that they can move off the government health care but be able to afford and have their employer contribute to their health plan. Going after street gangs so people can be safe when they walk around their neighborhood. All of those are issues that are winning issues in suburban Georgia. I think as Republicans we’ve got to go out there — and this is what I’ve been doing over the last year — we’ve got to sell what we’ve been doing and what we want to do. And that’s one of the reasons that we’re doing these interviews, it gives us an opportunity to talk about the things that we did last year to move the needle, and then what we’re doing this year, and also remind people that this is what I campaigned on, this what I told you I’d do and this is what I’ve done. And I think if, if I do that, and the General Assembly, that has a great record in our state, as I mentioned earlier: lowest unemployment, 3.3%, most people ever working in the workforce, No. 1 state for business seven years in a row. As I mentioned earlier, we live in the greatest state in the country to live, work and raise our families, I think we’ll be just fine with suburban voters.
Q: Cobb Countians in particular were sad to see Sen. Isakson retire. … You had quite a bit of pressure on you to appoint his successor, choosing ultimately Mrs. Loeffler. Why did you pick her and what has the feedback been?
A: Well let me say this first: Johnny Isakson has been a great public servant and a statesman for our state, but he’s also been a good friend of myself and Marty’s family, and we certainly wish him the best. … But look, she’s a great pick. I had a lot of good people to pick from, a lot of people that are currently serving in Washington, D.C. that are great champions and warriors for our state up there. A lot of people that are serving in the Legislature that have served well here that I think would have been a good pick. People that are in my administration and other people that I’m close to. Some political insiders, some political outsiders. But at the end of the day, I felt like Kelly Loeffler was the right person for the right time. She’s a self-made woman, a business person. She’s a political outsider, she’s going to go to Washington, D.C. with the same mindset I think that the president and Sen. Perdue have, from that business perspective background. Very smart people, very accomplished in the private sector and I think that will serve her well. And I know she’s an extremely humble person coming from humble beginnings, working her way through school to being a very successful business person that’s been involved in business deals all over the world. And I think that’s going to serve our state well. I remember Sen. Isakson and (Sen.) Perdue both saying many times there are just not enough business people in the U.S. Senate. And she is a historic pick, you know, being a female. So I think that’s going to be great for our state as well. I think she’s going to make quite a name for herself and she’s going to be up there fighting hard for the things that our president and Sen. Perdue are fighting for in the U.S. Senate: a great economy, a strong military, securing our border and you know all the other things that they’re fighting for.
Q: And what has the feedback been from the grassroots?
A: Well, I think the feedback in general has been great. I mean there’s some of the grassroots, I get they don’t really know (Loeffler) that well. I tell a lot of the grassroots, because they may have forgotten this or they never knew it, but she actually chaired the victory program for (former Georgia GOP Chair) Sue Everhart, a great Cobb Countian. ... When Sue was chairman, Kelly chaired the victory program with (former state Commissioner of Economic Development) Craig Lesser. They raised a lot of money for the state party that helped our whole ticket, me included, when Gov. Deal got reelected. So she’s been in the trenches as a Republican for a long time, a lot of these other stories that, you know, say she’s not are just not factual. And I just tell people: She wants to prove herself. She knows that she’s got to prove yourself to the grassroots. She’s doing that every day, she’s traveling the state just about every single day, and giving them an opportunity to get to know her, and she’s telling them, look, I know I got to prove myself to you and that’s exactly what she’s going to do. And I’m very confident of that.
Q: Even some Democrats have praised some of the choices that you’ve made when appointing certain positions.
A: That won’t last. (Laughs)
Q: Will it last, the diversity of the people that you’ve been appointing — is that something that’s going to continue?
A: It’s so interesting that they say that. If anybody looks back at my history in the private sector and the secretary of state’s office, I’m just doing what I’ve done for the last 30 or 40 years. I mean, you look at the secretary of state’s office, we had minorities in leadership positions. We had minorities in key legal positions, we had females running different agencies. … So this is nothing new, we just want like-minded people that are hard-working and that will do a good job for our state. But look, I am a believer the Republican Party, we have a big tent, we’re not always good at showing people that, and I’ve just learned that instead of talking about it, it’s a lot better just to actually do it. And to put the people in there and let them go to work. … I mean there was a lot of great choices for the Cobb DA pick. I think any of the picks that I would have made for the people I was considering would have done a good job. But Joyette (Holmes, whom Kemp appointed as Cobb district attorney, is) doing a great job. And it’s a historic pick and it’s a great opportunity to have a black, female Republican win a state countywide race in Cobb County, because she’s doing a good job. I think when people see that it gives them an opportunity to — they may not want to be a Republican but it won’t make them afraid to vote for one. That’s what we’ve got to do as a party. We got to give people a reason to at least be open to voting for the policies that have really made our state great over the last 16 years.