- Associated Press - Thursday, January 14, 2021

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp made a lengthy defense of his record fighting the COVID-19 pandemic while highlighting a strong economy and promising $1,000 bonuses for teachers and more money for education Thursday in his State of State address.

Kemp’s speech, made at the halfway mark of his four years in office, could be seen as a roadmap to the first-term governor’s reelection campaign. That task has been complicated in recent months by historic Democratic wins in the state for president and two Senate seats that shifted the balance of power in Washington, as well as internal Republican attacks on Kemp.

Sanitizing his hands before starting, Kemp spoke for more than an hour to a House chamber half-full because of the coronavirus. He appealed to hope for better times while acknowledging the toll of the virus, including the deaths of more than one in every thousand Georgians.

“This state, while battered, is not broken,” Kemp said. “A better, brighter future is right around the corner. Yes, we still have challenges ahead, a virus to beat, an economy to rebuild and restore. But my fellow Georgians, the state of the state is resilient, and we will endure.”

Democrats remained critical of Kemp’s handling of the pandemic, blaming him for being slow to shut down initially and too quick to allow nonessential businesses to reopen.

“The governor asked us not to relitigate 2020, but 2020 has led to worsening conditions because we didn’t do what we needed to do,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, a Macon Democrat. “This is a choice he made for all Georgians.”

Kemp announced that he wants to use $240 million in federal coronavirus relief, mostly controlled by the state Board of Education, to pay a one-time supplement of $1,000 for every teacher and school employee. Kemp has promised to increase teacher pay by $5,000 during his first term, of which he’s already delivered $3,000.

The speech was nearly devoid of divisive political issues when tensions are high in Washington and Georgia. Kemp made no mention of Republican efforts to limit or restrict absentee voting, after endorsing a plan to require photo ID for mail voting in November amid attacks by President Donald Trump and his allies on the state’s election results.

“It’s time to put differences aside, put 2020 in the rearview,” Kemp said Thursday. “Let’s stand together as Georgians and clear the destruction caused by the storms of life. Let’s clear away the conspiracy theories and the division.”

The governor 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.”

Kemp has been on the defensive over the state’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Thursday, he sought to make inroads on health care, seeking money for a partial Medicaid expansion the Trump administration already approved. Democrats again swiped at him for not seeking a fuller expansion of health coverage.

“It’s not what he talked about, it’s what he didn’t talk about,” Beverly said. “It’s why we haven’t expanded the Affordable Care Act.”

Kemp did not pass up a chance to highlight Georgia’s ranking by Site Selection magazine as the No. 1 state for doing business, touting more than $6 billion of industrial announcements made so far this budget year, with more than 16,000 jobs pledged.

With tax collections on track to finish up to $1.5 billion above predictions, Kemp’s budget released Thursday recommends $647 million to restore funding to schools systems. He also wants $573 million allocated next year. Those amounts would remain below the full amounts outlined by Georgia’s funding formula.

The focus on economic development targets rural areas, home to some of Kemp’s strongest supporters. Kemp’s budget includes $40 million to establish a “Rural Innovation Fund” for businesses. He’s also asking for $20 million this budget year and $10 million yearly in the future to improve rural internet access.

Reflecting on 2020’s racial justice protests, Kemp said he wants to build on last year’s passage of hate crimes legislation by reforming the state’s citizen’s arrest law. That statute came into sharp focus following the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man shot in a coastal Georgia subdivision after a white father and son spotted him running. A prosecutor initially declined to press charges, saying the men were making a citizen’s arrest.

“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.

“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.”

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