Following a Wednesday news conference at Cobb’s Jim Miller Park, Gov. Brian Kemp sat down with Times-Journal Inc. staffers to discuss the state’s vaccination rollout, his legislative priorities and the state of the GOP. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Some teachers have expressed they are terrified of going back in the classroom. When will teachers be vaccinated?
A: Well, I think Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey and I were very clear on that point (this morning). In fact, I elaborated on that, that link about where we are, why we’re in that kind of place, how we need more vaccines. … We’ve had thousands and thousands of teachers in the classroom, as well as administrators, lunchroom workers, school security officers, resource officers and many other people working in schools all across the state since August and September. We’ve given the tools to the schools, I believe, for them to open safely. In fact, the new CDC director tweeted today about (how) schools don’t need vaccinations to be able to operate safely in this environment. But I’ve been a local control governor, so I haven’t tried to pressure the schools; I’ve tried to give them the tools they need. I personally think they should be going back in person.
Look, I want teachers to be vaccinated tomorrow. And I would do that if we had the doses. But the fact of the matter is, and the data and the science on this is, the folks that are most vulnerable to (COVID-19) are the ones that (are being vaccinated as per CDC guidance). … So we’ve got 2 million people that are in that subset of the 1A expanded criteria. And I would note that Georgia expanded the criteria to the 65 year olds even before the CDC recommended it, because we had supplies out there in parts of the state that weren’t being used because of the hesitancy of some of those frontline workers, especially in our long term care facilities. …
But I hear them, I understand. … And as soon as we can get more supply, we will absolutely open it up. I mentioned that this morning, and we’ll start vaccinating teachers and a lot of other people quite honestly, (who) are essential workers, when you look at either a designation or just a common sense definition: people that are working as a clerk in the grocery store — they’ve been on the front lines for the whole pandemic, working in this environment — restaurant workers are wanting it, you know, many, many other people. So we’re gonna do that just as quickly as we can.
Q: There are a couple other vaccines in the pipeline, such as the one made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. What’s your best estimate as to when those might be not just federally approved but available to Georgians?
A: Well, I think that’d be a question for the White House and the Coronavirus Task Force at the federal level. We just do not know that. I think I mentioned this morning that our supply chain, that 150,000-plus doses … that we’re getting every week from the Biden administration is going to be set for the next three weeks. … I’m hopeful just any day, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and perhaps others will get the emergency approval from (the Food and Drug Administration)…. I’m hopeful that that comes sooner rather than later, but also don’t want to give people high hopes. Dr. Toomey and I both have tried to be very transparent, but also honest with people and encourage them to continue to be patient and continue to follow the guidance. It’s very important, especially with these variants, that people are wearing their masks and practicing social distancing. …
Q: There’s some money for the vaccine (distribution) system, in a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that President Joe Biden has proposed. There’s also money for that in a $600 billion counter offer made by Senate Republicans. I’m wondering whether you’re familiar with the details of both proposals, and where you hope lawmakers ultimately land when it comes to the next round of COVID relief?
A: Well, we’ve heard nuts and bolts of both plans. We continue to be in touch with our friends in Congress that are representing the state of Georgia either in the United States Senate or the United States Congress. I mean, where they end up who knows, I think they’ll get something done. But money’s not our problem right now. The past relief bills that we’ve gotten, they’ve helped our state. The thing that I was most concerned with in the last package that passed (in December) was having flexibility to carry that over into this calendar year, which we’re in now. That has given us the ability to do the temporary facility at the World Congress Center, which has been up and running supporting, especially our metro hospitals, but really, our hospitals all over the state. We have a lot more bandwidth in our plan, if we needed to do more. It doesn’t look like right now we’re gonna have to do that, thankfully, it was getting to the point where I was really worried about that for a couple of weeks, but our hospitals have done a hell of a job really managing this crisis with over 2,000 more COVID patients over this last peak, (this) post-holiday spike, if you will, then they had to deal with back in the summer. …
But you know, I’ll continue to watch the package. But our issue right now is not funding. Our issue is we need more vaccines, and there’s only one place we can get them, and that is from the Biden administration and their Coronavirus Task Force. And I don’t say that derogatory in any way. I believe that they’re trying to get every dose as they can out to the states as fast as they can. From everything I know, that has been a very equitable process. They’re treating all the states the same as far as the distribution on the population that is eligible for the vaccine. It’s not necessarily per capita, how big the state is, it’s more per capita to how large that population of who meets that A1 expanded criteria, that have 65 years of age.
Q: You just introduced a bill meant to get more people to become teachers and to diversify the ranks of teachers. Could you tell us why?
A: When I campaigned … I made a lot of commitments to educators in our state, because I believe our economic development, our jobs outlook, the health of our economy and our state going forward is going to depend on a good workforce and to have a good workforce in today’s world, people need to be educated, whether it’s a skilled trade, whether it’s a degree, a post secondary degree, depending on what people want to do.
And we did listening sessions all over the state … and one of the things that we heard was, we need more teachers, our teacher pipeline was not where it was. I’ve also heard a lot of frustrations about how hard it is to get certified as a teacher, especially for folks that may be going into a second career. … So the pipeline bill is really targeted at trying to help get more of these folks like … our veterans into the teacher pipeline, prioritize them. It also is going to allow retired teachers to come back and be able to work and get paid at the 100% level, not have to only do that part-time. That is going to be somewhat of a teacher’s retirement bill. So it’ll have to be a two-year process as all retirement bills are.
On that legislation, we’ll get it dropped this year and hopefully get that part of it passed next year. The rest of it, I feel like we’ll get done this year, that would incentivize those retired teachers that maybe aren’t ready to quit working to come back after a cooling off period and be able to teach in these areas that we have the demand there, these high-need-area classes, whether it’s a lot of the critical math, reading, special education and other (courses) to help our developmentally disabled students and others. Those are really, really hard places to find teachers in, and so this will help be able to open that field up more and get more resources in the classroom, which will help for decades to come. … We have 40 co-signers, on one of those bills in the Senate. And as you know, there’s only 56 members of the Senate. So it has broad bipartisan support. We’re really excited about that.
Q: Another topic under discussion in the legislature is sports betting. What have you heard from constituents on this topic and, and also from folks who specialize in addiction?
A: I’ve not been a big fan of gambling. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have casino gambling, horse racing and other things. There is a push for sports betting, which obviously there’s been court rulings in regards to that. So we’re kind of watching the legislative process on that, to see whether that’s a general bill, a constitutional amendment. If the General Assembly passes a constitutional amendment, it doesn’t have to have the signature of the governor. It’s veto-proof, if you will. And it’ll get it to the voters to decide.
As you know, we’ve had all kinds of gambling bills over the last several years that have been talked about, and everybody focuses on them, and none of them have moved.
My main concern … is, if it were to happen one way or another, where that funding would go. And to me, preserving the great HOPE Scholarship program would be the place that I would insist that happen. I know early on, especially on the casino bills, that pile was getting split up, some was going to health care, some of it was going to … HOPE, some of it was going to other places trying to satisfy legislative wants, if you will, to get enough votes to pass it. … I’m going to fight like a dog to protect the HOPE Scholarship in Georgia.
Q: The Republican Party seems fractured. One example being what’s happening in Congress with some GOP lawmakers wanting repercussions for Liz Cheney for voting in favor of impeachment and others wanting sanctions against Marjorie Taylor Green for trafficking in conspiracy theories. You’re running for your second term next year. Where do you see yourself on this GOP spectrum?
A: Well, that sounds like Washington D.C. as usual, no matter what party’s in charge. I would definitely not be able to speak to what’s going on in Washington, but I’m glad to speak about what’s going on in Georgia. I can tell you that myself, Lt. Gov. (Geoff) Duncan, (House) Speaker (David) Ralston, Speaker Pro Tem(pore Jan) Jones, Leader (Jon) Burns, Leader (Mike) Dugan, President Pro Tem(pore Butch) Miller, you know, the rest of my colleagues down here in the General Assembly, met with two longtime Democrats down here yesterday about things that we’re working on together.
The thing that’s been disappointing for me post-election has just been where the focus has been as we went through the runoff, and now that we’re even over the runoff. I think a lot of people have lost sight of really what a good night Republicans had on Nov. 3 when you look at the General Assembly, and the folks that were running for state offices. They were running on the agenda that we have enacted, and I’ve worked with those individuals over the last two years. If you add up all the Republican state Senate candidates in the state and all the Democrats, the Republican state Senate candidates got 53% of the vote. The state House candidates, if you do the same thing … those individuals did very well. A lot of people thought they would lose those races, they thought we were going to lose control the House, the Democrats would be in control.
We didn’t have any losses in the (state) Senate, the majority stayed exactly the same. We lost three seats in the House, but we beat the minority leader. So we had a net loss of two where there was people thinking that we were going to have double digit losses in the House, and you’d have a Democratic speaker right now. And then you had (Republican) Jason Shaw, Public Service Commission candidate that ran statewide. … Jason, had a Democrat and a Libertarian in his race, and he won without a runoff. So the generic ballot in Georgia is still very good for Republicans.
But we can’t be distracted, we got to stay focused on the message that matters. That’s why I’ve been focused on doing exactly what I told people I’d do … (from) support education in Georgia … to making sure that we have safe neighborhoods, going after violent crime and drug cartels and street gangs, making sure that we’re moving the needle on affordable, accessible health care in Georgia.
You know, I always got frustrated with Republicans, speaking of D.C. — Republicans in D.C. always wanted to repeal Obamacare, but they never could pass a replacement plan. And so people accuse Republicans of just being against everything and not being for anything, and I was not going to let that happen on my watch. We passed over 50 healthcare bills in the last two years. …
So we’re going to continue to do more of the same. And that being said, I look forward to running on my record. Look, I hear them, I hear folks that are frustrated. I hear people that don’t have confidence in the election system, we’re absolutely going to deal with those in a common sense way. From my perspective has always been make it easy to vote, hard to cheat. And let’s have secure, accessible and fair elections in Georgia. And I think most Georgians want that no matter what side of the aisle you’re on, and we’re going to work on that this year to make sure that people have confidence in the process. And I believe that when we go through that process in 2022, running on my record, we’ll have a very successful night.
Q: I was sitting in the audience when Sarah Palin came to Marietta to rally for Senator (Kelly) Loeffler. I think that was in December. And I could not believe the audience members, I was listening to what they were saying. And the things they were saying about you — that you should be tried for treason for not overturning the election. I couldn’t believe this kind of rhetoric. How do you win those folks back? Or is it even possible to win those folks back?
A: Oh definitely. I think it’s possible to win them back. I mean, look, a lot of people have been misled. They’ve been lied to from people, they don’t know the real truth. I was being called out by many people to do things that I simply didn’t have the authority to do. As I told people, many times, I put my hand on a Bible and took an oath to follow the laws and the Constitution of this state and the Constitution of the United States. And that is exactly what I’m going to do. And it’s what I did, and that’s what I will continue to do.
To me, the laws and the Constitution are a lot bigger than any one person or party, and that includes me. And I think at the end of the day, I will be rewarded for that. I think a lot of my conservative friends got caught up in that frenzy and in other things, but also they just — unfortunately don’t have all the facts. And that’s really what I’ve done post election, just continue to talk to people that were angry, explain to them my position, but also remind them everything that I’ve done. You know, I’m the guy that sued the Obama Justice Department so we have a citizenship check when people register to vote in the state. When I was secretary of state, I had our P.O.S.T.-certified investigators at Fulton County, at Clayton County and some of these other persistent problem counties, watching that process. But I wouldn’t be able to speak to what Secretary Raffensperger and what his folks were doing that night. I’ll let him answer that for himself.
But, you know, I did a lot of those things. I fought Stacey Abrams, I fought a lot of these lawsuits, literally for almost a decade, when nobody really cared. … But I’m the governor now, I’m not the secretary of state, and the Constitution gives those authorities to the secretary of state to administer the election. …
But just to, you know, reflect back on some of the things that people were requesting me to do. You know, they wanted me to investigate voter fraud. I do not have the jurisdiction to do that. I did offer the GBI up to the secretary if he asked … I didn’t have the ability to order a signature audit. And if you go back and look at the record, I called for the signature audit as early as anyone in Georgia, because I really felt like that could give the secretary a way to instill confidence in the absentee ballot process by just doing a pilot of a precinct, a county, you know, a couple of counties, couple precincts, whatever he thought was a good amount to do, and to let people just see whether it was fair or not … as you all know, what the results were.
Q: Going back real quick to issues at the Capitol. I was hoping you could tell what your three priorities are for this year. And then also speaking of the budget, I know that there were some dire predictions when coronavirus first blew up last year. How is the state’s budget doing right now? You said earlier that money isn’t really the issue as far as COVID relief goes?
A: Our revenues have been incredible. It is amazing what Georgia has done, because of the way we fought for lives and livelihoods, methodically reopened our economy, have kept that going during peaks and valleys through the pandemic. And while other states are laying off teachers and law enforcement and other people we’re restoring funding to education, we have no budget cuts, no furloughs this year unless it’s for efficiency matters that one of the leaders of the agency wants to do and I haven’t really heard much of that. So the budget is one. Also having a bond package that continues to promote shovel-ready projects to keep people in Georgia working. … We funded back a big part of the (education) funding formula that was cut last year during the recession. We’re continuing to protect life at all stages in Georgia, working on adoption reform, … our great first lady is doing more than anyone in the country on human trafficking. We got a few more human trafficking bills this year, to continue to support that and put an end to that evil modern-day slavery here in Georgia. So really, it’s more of the same from us.