Three months and one legislative session into his term, Gov. Brian Kemp met with the Times-Journal editorial board for a question-and-answer session.
Georgia’s 83rd governor talked about disaster relief for farmers, the abortion bill, medical marijuana and the politics of his first 90 days in office.
Editor’s note: Times-Journal’s interview with Kemp was conducted April 10 and has been edited for space and style.
Q: What are your general thoughts on how the session went?
A: Man, it was great. I mean, (it) went better than I could have ever expected. (It was) historic in a lot of ways. Number one: the largest teacher pay raise in state history that, quite honestly, the whole legislature got behind. There was a little bit of a disagreement on how we would do that between the House and the Senate and what I had rolled out, but at the end of the day we came up with some pretty creative things in the conference committee to be able to get back to my position of doing the whole $3,000 (raise) this year.
... A really historic vote that ended up being bipartisan in the House on the Patients First Act on health care, which is moving us in a sole direction on health care. I think that’s one thing that I really wanted to take the lead on and make sure we got done because after watching Republicans say we need to repeal Obamacare and then they couldn’t do it and they didn’t have a plan if they were going to repeal it. We felt like we really had to get our team all together pulling in one direction because there was like eight or 10 people that wanted to do different health care bills, and we felt like this was the way to go. And so we had some really preliminary discussions with the legislative leadership and then with the members and got everybody on board doing that. ...
Q: Were there any bills that you were personally supporting that failed to get to your desk?
A: Well, certainly the jet fuel tax issue with Delta. I was disappointed that didn’t get done. We worked very hard on that. Delta knows that. I felt like we had a really good compromise there. We were getting something out of Delta with the half a percent tax on it that would have created about $3 million a year, which isn’t a whole lot of money, but when you use that to leverage federal funds, it’s a nine-to-one match. And that is a good bit of money, and that would have all been going into rural airports. So I thought it was kind of a win-win for everybody because Delta is not paying anything right now and they could live with that. It keeps them competitive with everybody else, which is important for us from a business perspective, our business environment in the state. ...
Q: Last year when this happened, Gov. Deal used executive authority to give all airlines the tax break. Do you plan on doing anything like that?
A: Well, I think if you look back, I believe that what he did may not be available to us anymore because of the legislation that passed last year. We’re still kind of working through that to see what options we have, but we got a little bit of time to work on that before it expires. But I will say this: the bill still out there, it’s still available for passage in the Senate next year, so it’s not a lost cause just yet.
Q: So you largely stayed out of the airport takeover discussions. And I think you were quoted in some media recently as saying sometimes you’re just thankful that nothing passes. ... What were your thoughts on that discussion and where did you come down?
A: I wouldn’t say that I largely stayed out of the airport issue. I would just say that I didn’t have a whole lot to say publicly about it. I was talking to everybody on both sides, and like I (have said before), I completely understand (the) reasoning for going down this road with some of the things that have happened at the airport. I think there needs to be accountability. I think there are concerns about what has happened in the past. That being said, I do feel like the mayor is working very hard to bring some transparency to that process to give assurances to people that that’s not going to happen again. But at the end of the day, I also understood the concerns that the speaker and a lot of members of the House, and even some people in the Senate that weren’t saying a whole lot, that if we do this too fast and we’re not really thinking about everything, you could potentially damage one of the greatest airports in the world. And that was a concern for me.
Q: Monday at the Cobb Chamber Breakfast, you said that you were proud of the LIFE Act. So do you plan to sign it and when?
A: Well, I wouldn’t want to say a whole lot about that right now. But as you know, I was very supportive of the LIFE Act, and we’re doing a bill review on it just like we do everything else. There was quite a lot done on that bill as we moved through the process. But your readers and Georgia citizens should know that I’m very supportive of that.
Q: How long do you have to sign the bill?
A: I think we have until May 10th. ... And it’s always customary for the governor’s legal folks and the whole policy team to go through literally every line and make sure there’s just not something in there that’s crazy that would be something that somebody missed.
Q: That issue has sucked all the air out of the room. ... It just seems the rhetoric is turned up.
A: Well, I think what the Democrats are saying is just an overreaction quite honestly. ... I understand this is a tough issue. A lot of people disagree on it, and I am OK with that. There were some Republicans who didn’t vote for the bill. I’m OK with that. I understand. I kind of disagree with some of their reasoning, but you know, it’s a tough issue, and I’m not going to beat somebody up for voting for what they think is right. But this is something that should not surprise people. That’s what I campaigned on. People are going to find out that Brian Kemp is going to do exactly what he told people he would do. ... What I’ve tried to explain to people is look, even if we disagree on this specific bill regarding life at the heartbeat, which I support and a lot of other Georgians do as well, I understand there’s a lot of people that don’t support this. They may think it goes a little bit too far, and that’s fine, but we’re also supporting and valuing life in a lot of other ways in Georgia. That’s something that is a value of our state.
... I just wish people would write about all that we’re doing on human trafficking as much as they’re doing the LIFE Act because my wife has started the Grace Commission, Vic Reynolds at the GBI, ... I can promise you he is going after gangs, sex trafficking, human trafficking with a new sense of vigor over at the GBI’s office. We are already post-session working on furthering adoption reform, kind of building off of what the Legislature did last year, looking at foster care reform. We’re dealing with mental health issues, and we’re going to go after gangs and drug cartels. ...
Q: When do you believe life begins? At conception?
A: That’s what, like Georgia Right To Life — they didn’t support, they came out against the bill because they didn’t like the exceptions. And I just think that’s a crazy stance to take. I understand their position.
Q: But your personal view is life begins at conception?
A: Yes, and ends at natural death. ... But from a practical person that has legislated before, I know that you just have to move the needle. And this is — — look, (Rep.) Ed (Setzler, R-Acworth) didn’t want to do the exceptions, but he wanted to get the bill passed. And we did that. And I think putting the medical futility in there, too. Another thing that’s unfortunate that (media) keeps writing about is that the heartbeat, which you know, begins at six weeks, so they keep using six weeks. And that’s really not what the bill says. It’s when it’s determined by your doctor. So the people that make the argument that you, ‘I couldn’t detect a heartbeat at six weeks when I was pregnant.’ Well then ... you would have an exception until your physician could detect a heartbeat, if it was seven weeks or eight weeks.
Q: Did you expect the kind of national storm that this issue would create?
Q: You saw this coming?
A: Oh yeah. No, no doubt. But I’ve been in the national storm for two years. I mean, it’s all relative.
Q: And if you sign it, you’ll see a court case coming?
A: Like 10 minutes after, probably.
Q: What are your thoughts about that? There’s been other similar bills that have been tied up for years in courts, in Iowa, Kentucky, a few other places.
A: Well that’s the plan from the left, but I think we were very tactful about our legislation. It does give benefits to the child in the womb, which by the way helps support the mother, so all those people that are saying that we’re doing bad things to women, you know, they’re not talking about us given this assistance not only to the pregnant mother but to the child at the heartbeat detection. And we feel like that can be very helpful for us to differentiate some of the things that are in other bills.
Q: Going back to Vic (Reynolds, form Cobb District Attorney appointed by Kemp to head the GBI). ...
A: I know what you’re going to ask me now.
Q: ... You’ve created a lot of chatter over here at the courthouse. Do you have a timetable to replace him?
A: No, I don’t. We actually talked a little bit about that yesterday. I’ve been dreading that decision in some ways. There’s a lot of really good people that are well-qualified for that. But I kind of felt like that there was a lot of early chatter, and I think it was a little bit disruptive. So I’ve been taking my time. (Acting DA) John Melvin is doing a great job. I think he’s kind of settled all that down, and now that (the) session’s over, it’ll give me a little more time, not only on that position, but others that we have to fill, to start interviewing people and really dig in and get the person that would be best suited for that. ... probably the toughest decision I’ve had to make was who would be ... the commanding officer for the National Guard. I mean, we had a very, very qualified field, and it’s the same way in the Cobb DA’s ... appointment.
Q: What are your thoughts on the medical marijuana cultivation bill and how that settled out? That one went to conferences as well, didn’t it?
A: Yes, it did. It was a long conference, too. You know, the speaker and the lieutenant governor and I, and all the legislative leaders that we’re working on that issue, we were all working on that, which is a little bit unusual, I think. Most of the time, it’s the legislators doing that with just direction from the different parties, but we were all actually in the same room ... got a lot done. You know, some people feel like the House bill was where we needed to be, and some people felt like the Senate bill was too restrictive. And we ended up somewhere in between, which I think is probably a good fit. I have very mixed emotions on that bill. I do believe there’s people in the industry that are pushing the medical side to lead to recreational marijuana, which I’m absolutely against. You won’t see that happen on my watch as long as I’m governor. That concerns me greatly. I think that’s a bad way for us to go.
Q: Why is that a bad way for us to go?
A: I just believe it creates a lot of problems. I mean, we just got a business in Georgia that didn’t expand in Colorado, and I asked him why and that was one of the main reasons — having a hard time with their workforce. And I just don’t think we’re ready for that, yet. I think it would create a lot of different problems. And you know, we’re seeing that in some of the other states that are out there. But I do know this: I’ve talked to enough families and seen enough of these children that are getting help and it seems to be working. And hearing other stories of where it is (working). Even though there’s a lot of people in the medical side that say there is no clinical value to this. If you’re talking to folks, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s not helping some. We need to do more clinical-based research.
Q: So how did Rep. Bert Reeves, (R-Marietta, who Kemp appointed to be one of his House floor leaders) do?
A: Bert did great. Man, he was very excited. We had a great team of floor leaders, a diverse group. ... We had a really great team. But you know, Bert did a lot of good things. We’re going to be working with him on a lot of other issues, like human trafficking, post-session adoption reform, and he’s really good on those issues, very passionate about them. He did a great job.
Q: ... Now that the session is over, what are some of the main things you’re planning to work on?
A: Well, doing exactly what I said I would do. ... We’re going to start working on what we need to do next session. We had a very aggressive agenda this year. I think we got a lot more done than people thought we would, but now we’re already digging in on really reforming, streamlining and looking at ways (to) make state government more efficient.
I think a lot of people don’t really understand, and I know I’ve told you all this many times, but we’ve done that in the secretary of state’s office. We’ve made it more efficient, we spent less money. We put in new systems that provide better service. And we’re going to do the exact same thing through the rest of the executive branch. I mean, our Office of Planning and Budget is already working on that. There’s just a lot of things, like when you look at the budget as we went through it, every agency had some IT project going on. It was $250,000 here, a million and a half there. I mean, you start adding that up, it’s a tremendous amount of money. And you’re like, ‘Where’s all this money going? What are they doing? Who’s making the money? You know, how much of this are consultants taking off the top?”
... And then we got a lot of other big issues on our plate. ... It’s taken a lot of my time dealing with D.C. on this whole disaster relief thing. Absolutely ridiculous that they cannot get a bill passed up there to help our farmers. And our folks down there are literally dying on the vine. I will say that Sens. Isakson and Perdue, I had been working constantly with them. They are doing everything in their power to get a deal done. It’s just the Democrats don’t want to play ball with them. And they probably won’t come out and say this because they’re still hopeful that they can get something done. It’s all politics. I mean, they are worried about another $12 billion of funding for Puerto Rico that probably won’t be spent before the next five years, and they’re holding up a disaster bill where we have people that can’t even plant and the deadline is April 15th for a lot of these guys. And Puerto Rico has already gotten like $40 or $60 billion worth of funding. This whole bill for all these states, including Georgia, is only $13 billion, and they’re holding it up over Puerto Rico. I’m just like, it’s ridiculous, but it’s all presidential politics.
Q: Is there anything that can be done at the state level to help these guys?
A: We’ve already helped them. I mean, the special session I think spent $250 million, but you’re talking about $3.5 billion in a $27 billion, $28 billion budget. I mean, we don’t have that kind of money. We only have $2.5 billion in our rainy day fund, which that’s a lot. I shouldn’t say only. We didn’t have anything 10 years ago. So it’s just an amount of money that we did another $20 million in the budget this year because the Legislature, the money they had for these low interest rate loans, they scraped up some more dollars, which we didn’t propose in the budget because they had just done the special session. So two or three months later, when the Legislature got ahold of it, there was still a need. And they scraped up, with our support, $20 million for the farmers. So the state has done a lot. ... We moved early. We’ve shown our commitment to help our farmers, but we need D.C. to act. Look, it’s not just us. Alabama got hit, Florida got devastated, South Carolina, North Carolina is part of it for previous storms. It’s not just us, you’ve got a Democratic governor in North Carolina, you’ve got a Democratic senator, Doug Jones, in Alabama. I can assure you they don’t care about Puerto Rico — not that they don’t care about it, but Puerto Rico has gotten plenty of help.