Tuesday, September 27, 2022
Sept. 27, 2022

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Kemp slammed federal stimulus, but he’s using it now to help win reelection

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ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp called the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill congressional Democrats passed in March 2021 a wasteful measure that didn’t give Georgia its fair share.

But ever since, he’s been using the billions of dollars the federal government has sent to the state as a vital tool in his reelection campaign.

That was on display again this week when he announced plans to spend more than $1.2 billion of federal COVID relief by handing out $350 each to up to 3 million Georgians enrolled in publicly funded Medicaid, food stamp and welfare programs.

Only a few days earlier, he said an additional $240 million in COVID relief money would go to expand high-speed internet services in rural Georgia — on top of $400 million already committed to the effort.

The press release announcing the spending didn’t mention it was federal COVID relief money paying for the expansion of services in parts of the state that are a key political base for Kemp and Republicans.

However, those are only the latest in a yearlong spending spree that has seen Kemp dole out money to Georgians using either the federal COVID relief grants he previously criticized or state tax surpluses built — at least partly — on increased federal payments to Georgians during the pandemic.

Kemp has, at the same time, made criticism of Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic policies one of the cornerstones of his campaign against Stacey Abrams. And he had long criticized the coronavirus relief package, which passed despite the opposition of every Republican in Congress, because it used a spending formula that he said short-shrifted Georgia at the expensive of Democratic-led states.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Republican governor was “talking out of both sides of his mouth.”

“He wants to spend like a drunken sailor to help his reelection at the same time he’s throwing bombs at Democrats in Washington who provided the money,” she said.

But John Watson, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman and top aide to ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue, said Kemp is sticking to his conservative values.

“Look, from a conservative standpoint and a Republican standpoint, thank God Governor Kemp is making strategic decisions,” said Watson, adding: “Otherwise we’d be spending it on treadmills for shrimp if Democrats were in charge.”

Under Georgia law, the governor has sole discretion over how the federal COVID money is spent. And his recommendations for spending the state surpluses are generally followed by the Republican-led General Assembly.

When he announced the checks to be sent to Medicaid, food stamp and welfare recipients, Kemp released a statement saying it was needed, “given the harmful effects of President Biden’s economic agenda, and to help offset family struggles due to 40-year-high inflation.”

That has frustrated Abrams and other Democrats, who say that the governor has used federal funding he opposed while at the same time bashing the president and currying favor with voters before an election.

Abrams spokesman Alex Floyd noted the incongruity, sarcastically summing up Kemp’s argument like this: “The Biden administration’s policies will help solve the disaster created by the Biden administration’s policies.”

He tapped into Abrams’ campaign message by blasting Kemp for not using the funds to expand access to public health programs and for the state’s slow pace of spending federal rental assistance money for those in need.

“Now, in the middle of a reelection campaign, he’s taking money he criticizes to stage more political gimmicks,” Floyd said.

But it’s far from the first time Democrats have been forced to watch as Kemp spent federal money to aid his reelection campaign effort.

Last fall, he used some of the COVID relief money to provide bonuses for first responders, such as law enforcement officers and firefighters.

He began 2022 recommending that the state refund part of the record state surplus for fiscal 2021 — which was padded by federal payments to Georgians — to taxpayers. The General Assembly approved the $1.1 billon income tax refund in March, and payments started going out this spring, before the GOP primary.

Kemp used the continuing surge in tax collections to push for bonuses and pay raises for teachers, state employees and even members of the General Assembly. Every part of state government — from the mental health agency and police departments to education — saw record funding.

The governor also announced federally funded COVID relief grants for water and sewer improvements, for high-speed internet projects and money to help businesses and nonprofits better recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

More recently, expecting another state surplus after yet another record year for tax collection, the governor said he wanted to spend $1.1 billion on a second income tax rebate to Georgians next year and $1 billion for a property tax break. Abrams, too, has pledged — if elected — to provide an income tax rebate.

Kemp also has continued a state gas tax suspension to help ease the impact of higher fuel prices — something he couldn’t afford to do without the state tax surplus.

Kemp and other Republicans have consistently hammered the Biden administration on inflation while praising Georgia’s economy. However, the higher cost of goods and services has helped pad state tax revenue — which relies heavily on income and sales taxes. What’s not good for consumers is good for state coffers in this case.

Kemp isn’t the only Republican swatting at D.C. while hoping to benefit from its policies and largesse. Republican U.S. House members have promoted new spending in federal packages they voted against.

For instance, at a Georgia Chamber luncheon in Macon last week, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, said the future of Georgia’s workforce is tied to the surge of investment in the state’s ports, which benefit from the new funding contained in Biden’s infrastructure bill that Carter opposed.

For Kemp, the spending is part of a broader argument he’s made a central pillar of his reelection campaign. He touts his stewardship of the state economy as helping insulate Georgians from the financial fallout of Biden’s leadership.

“Instead of spending your money on wasteful projects, we sent back to you a billion dollars to put in your pocket to help you fight through the Abrams-Biden inflation,” he told voters at a recent stop in northeast Georgia.

But Orrock said Kemp is merely buying reelection support by using federal taxpayer money from legislation he opposed.

“I think it’s not even debatable that’s what he’s doing,” Orrock said. “It’s tainted money, until it ain’t.”

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