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Gov. Brian Kemp: His Approach for Georgia

(AP)

“And things like rural broadband, having quality health care, just a good quality of life, good ability to get a great education—whether it’s going into a technical field college or university setting. We had a lot of different options for folks, and we’re slowly moving the needle.”

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp was sworn in as the 83rd Governor of Georgia in January of 2019. Prior to being elected Governor, Mr. Kemp served as Secretary of State of Georgia, a member of the Georgia State Senate, and worked in the private sector in construction. During his time in office so far, Governor Kemp has prioritized promoting a pro-business climate in the state, investing in rural communities, putting forward pro-life policies, and prosecuting illegal street gangs. In this interview, which is part of the Merion West one-on-one interview series, Merion West editor Erich Prince speaks with Governor Kemp at the Governor’s office in Atlanta. The interview focuses on economic issues in Georgia, Governor Kemp’s efforts to bring foreign investment into the state, and what other states might be able to glean from Georgia’s focus on creating a pro-business environment.

First of all, I wanted to begin by starting [with] education, and you had an op-ed, which I read in The Albany Herald last week, coinciding with the beginning of school. And you mentioned “Back to school, not the status quo” and that burdensome regulations and mandates make it difficult for teachers to actually teach and students being tested too much. And obviously education and a strong economy run hand-in-hand. Talk a bit more about what you’re thinking regarding education as the school year starts.  

Well, education and the economy do run hand-in-hand. Workforce development is one of the biggest issues that we have in our state; we know we’ve got to have a good education system to deal with those issues. And in today’s world, it’s not just college or technical [school]; it’s starting in high school, and people really need to be thinking about that. I think even in middle school, if we can get them to. I was having discussions on that today—to really make sure they understand the opportunities that are there available for them, and we have many different options and opportunities so that they can prepare for the future earlier. 

If anybody knows anything about us—if you were on the last session, we are definitely not scared to tackle the status quo. I think we did that in many ways during the session. Certainly with healthcare, fulfilling our promises on education with our teacher pay raise, school security. But looking forward—now that we’re past the first session and really getting into the governing mode—I also had campaigned on looking at standards, Common Core, too much testing. Too many mandates for the teachers in the classrooms and really freeing them up to teach our children. I think a lot of people feel like we’ve gotten to where we’re teaching to the test now, and it’s burdened everybody down so much that we’re kind of losing. We can’t see the forest for the trees if you will, and that’s what we’re working on now. We’re doing that in conjunction with the Department of Education with teacher groups. I’ve been talking to school superintendents about that, and we have a citizens group that we’re fixing to tackle that issue.  

That’s an important topic you bring up with teacher pay. And I know that was a big issue in North Carolina under Governor McCrory: wanting to do something about teacher pay, and that’s something that’s been a priority for you as of late? 

For me, it’s an economic question. I mean, we have—in one of the schools are dealing with—and as somebody that’s run executive branch agencies, retention is a tough issue. We’re always having trouble keeping good employees in other offices where I’ve been, to serve the citizens of this state, and they’re having the same problem in the classroom. And this is really why we designed the teacher pay raise the way that we did. 44% of our teachers are leaving the field within the first five years. So it’s really the younger teachers that we have a problem with. 

It’s hard work. They weren’t making much money, and they got a lot on them; and people are just getting burned out early, and they were like, “I can do something else and make the same money or make more money,” even if their passion was teaching. And that’s not good. It was happening in rural districts, urban districts, and suburban districts. So that’s why we designed a $3,000 across the board pay raise for every certified educator—and some other folks as well. So it helps people on the lower part of the payscale more than those that have been here longer, and it’s nothing against them. It’s going to be more meaningful to incoming teachers—and second, third year teachers to have that. 

And maybe it will also serve as an incentive for people considering going into it, [where they’re] thinking: “Okay, I’m going to be a little better compensated.”

And from what I hear from the educators: It’s also not just all about the money. It’s people thanking them for what they’re doing and believing in what they’re doing and trying to look at other things that will free them up, like these standards and testing and a lot of these other things. So we’re having great discussions; we’re being very transparent with the education community and with parents and teachers, and it’ll probably be a little bit of a boxing match in some ways, but everybody’s going to be at the table. And I think we can work through this and come up with some good solutions.  

And that’s a good point. You mentioned you hear from teachers who are talking about how years later they receive a note from a student talking about how it’s not obviously just a financial sort of thing and maybe a calling for plenty of people in wanting to go [into teaching].

Our teachers—now in today’s world—they’re just doing so much more. For a lot of these kids, schools and teachers and administrators in a lot of ways, unfortunately, are some of these children’s parents or their second parents or their mentors—and certainly people that they look up to. Many of them who are on free and reduced lunch and have other socioeconomic things that they’re dealing with or parents that are both working. It’s just a different dynamic [today]. And the teachers are having to deal with a lot of new issues: mental health being one of them. 

You mentioned that in your op-ed a little bit, and you’re looking into mental health issues among young people.

I did, and we focused some additional money for high school counselors because a lot of the schools are seeing problems that had been driven by folks that were inside the school. So you can’t lock them out. They’re already there. They had internal issues, and now we’re doing more to get those people help. Identifying: number one. Getting them help and treatment: number two. Teachers are not trained to take care of a mental patient, and they may be able to identify them; but we’ve got to have those other professionals to be able to do that. So we have a lot of work ahead on that, but we took a great step in the right direction. And those are the little things like the pay raise, [and] telling the teachers we know you need help with mental health issues. Same thing with the administrators. It just sends that message that we’re paying attention, we’re listening, and we’re working to make things better. And that’s really all people want from their government.  

And it seems that the mental health issue is becoming discussed nationally and by both parties. And this is I guess a local example of this in Georgia, as well as dovetailing with the national conversation?

Well, it’s, it’s a bipartisan issue for sure. All legislators on both sides of the aisle are concerned about; it doesn’t matter what party affiliation you have. Your local communities are dealing with mental health issues in your jails and your schools and your courts and on your streets of your local community every day. And I’m not the one that can say why this is happening, but as a father of formerly three teenage daughters—now, I have two, I know it’s an issue. It’s just an issue in today’s time, and we’ve got to deal with it.  

So now moving on to some of the more expressively economic things—when you spoke with us during the interview during the campaign, you described how you were running into various regulations when you were in construction and that a priority for your office would be to, “look into ridiculous and redundant or outdated government regulations.” And now you’ve been doing this with this Four Point Plan and looking to cut, “obsolete and unnecessary hurdles.” So could you talk about some of the regulations you’re looking at considering and how they might help to promote this pro business climate in Georgia? I see outside your office that picture on the wall of the various companies coming here, and that gets a lot of press—how do you see that intersecting with your effort at looking at regulations?  

We’re very proud of Georgia’s economic climate and our business environment. We’ve been the number one state in the country for six years in a row from a site selection standpoint. CNBC just moved us up a notch—from number seven to number six on best states for business. So we have a lot of great things going on here, but I ran for office the first time back in the early 2000’s because I was frustrated with government, and I’ve been in the private sector as a small business person for over 30 years, including today. So we’re still dealing with taxes, we’re dealing with insurance, we’re dealing with regulations and bureaucracy and red tape. And also being in government—on the government side—I’ve seen how that hinders people that we were trying to give better service to. And I did a lot to make that better when I was Secretary of State: tackling issues in our call centers to make more efficient use of private sector technology. We train people to manage that. We used information technology and IT services to do a better job—to do more work with less people. When you think about corporate filings, we changed the whole system in the Secretary of State’s office—our voter registration system, which started doing more work for the county election officials without more people and saving them work. That is the kind of things that we’ve done to cut bureaucracy, cut red tape, and make government more efficient. So as promised, during the campaign, I signed an executive order the first day I was in office at this desk right behind us here and created the Georgians First Commission.  

And you had mentioned that even in the campaign interview. That that was what you wanted to do the first day in office. And you mentioned that when we spoke even before the runoff of this longstanding plan. 

Yes, so it fulfilled that promise, and it appointed a lot of great small business folks from all over the state—a lot of different backgrounds. When you think about their businesses: an IT lawyer, innovation lawyer that’s helping startup businesses. We have a guy that owns a restaurant and is a real estate guy. We have a guy that owns hotels, and they’re from all over the state; and they’re literally going and talking to people every single day asking them, “What is it we need to be doing in state government to cut down on bureaucracy? Red Tape? Redundancy? Looking at tax environments.” Access to capital is a big issue with small business people. And so they’re moving the needle on that. They’ve got a great small business survey on their website. Just go to Google “Georgian First Commission” and you can go on and take the small business survey and give them your feedback. So those are the kinds of the kinds of things, the recommendations that they’re going to be coming back with is what we’ll be working on this session. And some of it maybe even over the next year or two to move us to build off where we are and takes to the next level and make Georgia number one for small business too.  

As far as larger businesses earlier this summer, we’ve heard about companies such as Wayfair and Invesco opening locations here. What are you hearing from people at companies as to why they’re choosing Georgia? What is some of the feedback you’ve received? 

I think there are several different reasons they choose the Georgia. Number one, we have a great business environment, so people want to come to states that have good tax climate, business friendly government that’s going to be consistent and very fair to work within. Not over-regulated but regulated enough that protects the consumer. Everybody wants that kind of thing. But also I think, our logistics are a big part of it. We’ve got the world’s busiest airport. We’ve got one of the fastest growing seaports. You can get to 80% of the U.S. market within two days on a tractor trailer haul. We have great workforce training programs. It doesn’t matter how many incentives the state’s willing to give out on the front end to get a deal. If the workforce is not there—and you don’t have people to produce the product that you’re going to be selling in the marketplace—it doesn’t matter how much money they give you; you’re not going to be successful. 

So I think that’s one of the reasons that Georgia for decades now has really been very competitive on foreign investment, growing jobs and having companies like Invesco—that could have really grown the 500 additional jobs anywhere in the country—decided to pick Atlanta. Newell, which I think was formerly Newell Rubbermade, just decided to move their corporate headquarters back to Georgia. Kia just did a big expansion introducing a new line with the Telluride. We have a South Korean battery company. SK Innovation is in the middle of doing the largest foreign investment ever in the state of Georgia: almost $1.7 billion, 2000 jobs, and that thing is going to grow so quickly. I think that both of those numbers will double within five to seven years. And then we’re doing a lot of small things in the rural parts of the state. 

Yes, I want to ask you about that. 

I’m a firm believer that we got to have opportunity for Georgians no matter their ZIP code. I’m very focused on that. The Department of Economic Development is focused on that. We’ve recently had announcements in places like Valdosta and Thomasville. I just cut the ribbon on a great new medical center in Moultrie. I mean that community—they raised a lot of money to participate in that. They’re all in. They realize how important that’s going to be—not only from an economic perspective in south Georgia but also having healthcare providers that are home-grown. Down in that part of the world it’s a big issue that we’re facing in our state. It helps with the quality of life. We’ve also had other announcements in Bainbridge and in Cairo as well in other rural parts of our state.  

Atlanta gets a lot of focus when we talk about the business environment, but you’re saying that there’s a lot of other things you’re excited about in other parts of the state. When I spoke to Senator Perdue last month, he was talking about the Savannah port for example, which you alluded to. There are some things going on—not just in Atlanta—that are very exciting from your perspective.  

Yes. And in the rural parts of the state, we’re focused on other issues too besides just job creation because there’s a lot of things that really go into help and kind of reverse the population decrease in some of those communities—and giving young Georgians the opportunity to stay there and have great opportunities versus having to move away. I don’t have a problem if people want to move away, but they shouldn’t have to. And things like rural broadband, having quality health care, just a good quality of life, good ability to get a great education—whether it’s going into a technical field college or university setting. We had a lot of different options for folks, and we’re slowly moving the needle.  

So I’ve followed the rural broadband issue a little bit in Colorado when that was being done. Could you talk about how that’s going in Georgia and what your hopes or plans are for it? 

I think it’s going great. We got a lot done during session. [It was with] a bill that had been held up two years ago that will give more providers access to being in that marketplace and have more competition out there for Georgians. But it’s not the end-all-be-all. This is still going take a while, but I’m excited about the bill that got passed. It’s going to help. And there’s a lot of people working on that issue. We also funded some money to the Department of Community Affairs to do some real mapping so we know who’s got what across the state. It’s hard to address the areas we need to when you don’t really know who has what service, and if they have service, how much do they have, and is it capable or not? Because if you have service, but it doesn’t work half the time, it defeats the purpose. You know, [for] a high school student or any educational level of student to have broadband to do homework and projects [is important to have] when they’re in their home.  

I took a look at the recent trip you had to South Korea, and I saw you had some video on social media of you speaking there. And [the trip] was covered in the press. What are some impressions you had from that trip, and what are your hopes about more broadly expanding international investment in Georgia? 

The reason we went to South Korea on my first foreign economic development trip was [that] we had a lot of deals that we’ve done and a lot that we’re working on. So we’re very optimistic about the future investments potentially coming from South Korea. Our Georgia-based companies do a lot of business over there—when you think about Delta airlines, Coca-Cola, and great companies like that. So they have great appreciation for that. But we’ve had South Korean investment in the state for over 30 years now. A lot of great companies. Ones that had been here for a while that are well-established doing great things.  

So you’re building on an established precedent of good relations there?

Exactly, I was going back and saying, “Hey, I’m the new governor, but the relationship’s going to be the same. It’s going to be great, like it has been for the last 16 years.” And [I was] thanking the SK innovation folks for their coming to Georgia and celebrating that in their country. But we met with three prospects while we were over there. We also met with Hanwha Q CELLS,  who has a plant up in Dalton, Georgia making solar panels. They were supposed to hire 500 people. They’ve already hired well over 600 people. 

So they’re already exceeding expectations?  

Yes. I think getting close to 700 that’s helping diversify the economy in northwest Georgia that traditionally has been driven by the carpet or the flooring market. So if residential housing or construction slows down, that kills that economy, but having another business up there helps diversify that a little bit. So it’s a great fit for us, and we’ve had smaller companies too, like Sangsin Brakes, who has a really some neat brake technology for tractor trailers. It was only a $20 million investment in Henry County, but it’s 200 jobs down there, which for that community, it’s like Invesco doing 500 here in Atlanta. So all of those things that was all South Korean companies, and we have some great things that we’re working on in the future. So I’m very optimistic. Hopefully, we’ll have—knock on wood—some new announcements coming soon.

I wanted to ask you about the state income tax, which I understand was recently lowered from 6% to 5.75%, and now there’s talks underway to bring it down further to 5.5%. And I remember there were some rumors floating around around 2015—in U.S. News and World Reports about and other [outlets]—about maybe South Carolina and Georgia looking to phase it down even further maybe towards 0%. What are your thoughts about the state income tax? Some folks like me from up north—I remember in North Carolina, for example, when I first moved down there, it was 7.75%, and they brought it down under McCory. So where do you see the debate on the state income tax in Georgia and [other Southern states]? 

I certainly support the tax cut we’ve had in Georgia. We’ve got another one slated for the first week in session. The legislature has voted on a resolution to further cut the tax the first week. I’m certainly supportive of that, but we gotta be able to pay for it. And that’s the one reason that we’ve taken a very conservative approach to our budgeting in the state so we can be able to fund our priorities: like tax cuts, teacher pay raise.

I’ve read about how you’re looking to bring down 4% from various agencies.

Yeah, 4% cut in the amended budget, which is this year’s budget. It’s tough work for the agencies, but I believe we can do it. Then an additional 2% and the 2021 budget, which once you make the amended cuts, it makes it a lot easier in the big budget. And I’ve been through that before. We’ve almost had to cut 20% of our budget in the Secretary of State’s office during the great recession and lost almost 30% of our people. So we had to figure out how to do more with less, and it wasn’t ideal; but there were a lot of good things that we did that made government more efficient. I know that our state agencies can do that, and that’s what we’re going to have to do in the future to fund our priorities in the state if we want to keep cutting taxes. And I believe that’s the intention of the legislature. 

So I want to bring up another topic that I had discussed also in the Georgia context with Senator Perdue, and he had recently attended a meeting with the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. [It’s about] the Republican Party’s outreach to Hispanic voters. And I was looking at an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports saying that among new Hispanic voter registration, that it was pretty comparable in Democrat versus Republican registration at 54% independent, 24% Democratic at 22% Republican. A lot of commentators look at the Hispanic community, very pro-life constituency, for example, a lot of pro-family sorts of priorities. What are your hopes for bringing more Hispanic voters to the Republican Party?  

I’m thinking that there’s a great opportunity there. I’ve been leading on that issue for a long time. A lot of different ways we’ve done voter registration advocacy in the Latino community, and we have a very robust foreign community. We’re the third largest Korean population in the United States here in Atlanta. And we’ve done a lot of things in that community [and in the] Latino community and other minority communities to push voter registration. But also those people are small business people. They’re pro-family; they’re pro-small business, and they love being in our country. They’re entrepreneurs. And so when you talk to them about keeping their kids safe at school, when you talk to them about making Georgia number one for small business—they hate regulation. So [it’s about] getting government out of their way where they can do their work.  

Those are things as they like. I just appointed the first Latino constitutional officer in the history of our state, John King, and a new Insurance Commissioner—great guy. He was a brigadier general and led several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s been working on building the border wall  Texas as part of a national guard group. He’s been a police chief. He’s walked the beat here in the city of Atlanta. So he’s got a great, great background. Strong leader. He’s doing a great job in the Insurance Commissioner’s office, and that’s going to reach a new dynamic for us and the Republican Party. You know, I think what we have to do is quit talking about it and we gotta lead by actions and find conservatives that are like-minded like John King.

And we’d seen president Trump, for example, outperform Governor Romney in Hispanic votes in 2016 versus 2012.  

I just think if we take that message directly to people and be happy warriors—I think we’re going to do just fine with with the Hispanic, Latino vote in the state of Georgia.  

Last question I want to ask you, Governor—later, I’ll be talking to Attorney General Carr, and I understand that doing something about gangs and human trafficking has been a big priority of the First Lady’s and your administration. Yesterday, in the airport, as soon as I got on the tram, [I heard about] human trafficking. What are some of your goals looking at those two issues and how they intersect with the economy and the general health of Georgia at-large?

Well look, here again is just me fulfilling a campaign promise. I promised people every stop I made in the campaign that I was going to go after street gangs and drug cartels, and that’s exactly what I’ve done—and what we’re doing, and we’ve assembled a great team to do that. I’d campaigned on creating a gang task force in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. I hired a new director of the GBI, Vic Reynolds, who’s a former Cobb County prosecutor. He has a great record on running gangs out of Cobb County. Even so much that neighboring counties complained to him and said, “Hey, you’re running all your gang members over here.” So I told Vic when he went to GBI, I want you to run them out of Georgia. So the governors [are] complaining to me about them being in Alabama or Florida or wherever, so he’s already hired a lot of great prosecutors.  

Chris Carr has also been very engaged on this issue as well and is a great partner with our office. So we’re working on things jointly there on prosecutions, and we’re not trying to mandate to local prosecutors that we’re taking over there. They’ll still have jurisdiction to; we’re just a resource for them, if they don’t have training. Gang prosecutions are very hard, very technical, and you need people that know what they’re doing. So if somebody doesn’t have that expertise in a local jurisdiction, they can call on on Vic and his team, and he will help them with that. If they want to get proficient on that, they’ll help them with training. They’ll also do the same thing with law enforcement. We can do joint operations doing prosecutions, and the attorney general’s office is involved too. So we’ve got a great team and sending a great message. 

Human trafficking is directly tied to a lot of these street gangs because [it’s] the same people that are selling dope or selling women and selling children, and it’s all driven by greed and money. These are very bad people. Marty and I both have met with girls that are teenagers that have been victims of trafficking since they were nine years old. Absolutely outrageous. It’s scary to think of that as a parent of three daughters, and my wife has gotten very engaged in that. She’s created the Grace Commission. I was hearing from some people the other day that there’s a lot of talk at the White House because Ivanka Trump has been very engaged on that issue—that they are hearing that Georgia’s leading the country on the efforts for human trafficking. I believe that because Marty’s just a great face for it. She’s very passionate about it. I’m certainly supportive of that. We passed a piece of legislation this year that I’m pretty sure will pass unanimously with bipartisan support that was really her initiative. So we’re doing a lot of great things in regards to that here in our state, and I’m very proud of that.

So at the end of your first seven months in office, any final messages as we close about the state of health of Georgia’s economy or the state at-large?

Well, I said during the State of the State that our state was solid as a rock. We have a great foundation to build off of. I’m very fortunate for those that came before me in that regard: Governor Deal and Governor Sonny Perdue. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We’ve got to build on that, and I’m fulfilling the campaign promises to do that. And I think by all accounts, people would tell you that we got quite a bit more done than most people thought we would do in our first session. So we’re off and running. [We’ve] got a lot of tough issues ahead of us, but we’re chopping wood everyday and moving the needle. 

I appreciate your time, Governor. A very interesting conversation, so thank you.  

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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