Kemp using previously criticized federal stimulus dollars as his reelection tool
In March 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp called the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill congressional Democrats passed a wasteful measure that didn’t give Georgia its fair share. But once funds were released to Georgia, Kemp changed his tune and has been unabashedly using the billions of dollars the federal government sent to Georgia as a vital tool in his reelection campaign.
Kemp had long criticized the coronavirus relief package, which passed despite the opposition of every Republican in Congress. Democrats say that Kemp is now using federal funding he opposed, while at the same time criticizing Democratic President Joe Biden’s economic policies, as he tries to secure votes before the general election.
Given his prior stance, it is unbelievable to many the yearlong spending spree Kemp has been on as he doles out funds 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. Money remaining from a COVID-19 relief package that congressional Democrats approved is now being used by Kemp to get the attention of voters.
Some say Kemp selfishly held these federal funds since 2021 and failed to distribute them to persons and programs that needed assistance in real-time. Now that the election is less than 90 days away, Kemp has found a use for the federal funds, just in time to cash it in with Georgians as they cast their ballots.
Kemp announced a distribution this past week, saying he will use $1 billion in federal aid to distribute payments to people in need in the form of one-time $350 payments. Kemp claims the funds will go to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents: those enrolled in state benefits programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as food stamps), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The governor’s office estimates that about 3 million Georgia residents could benefit from the move, but again, the question behind why Kemp did not provide these funds to them in 2021 remains. Democrats say individuals needed the funds when they were released and that Kemp played politics in holding the funds until now. They say Georgians are smart enough to know that the funds came from the federal government, not Kemp.
A few days prior, Kemp announced that an additional $240 million in COVID relief money would go to expand high-speed internet services in rural Georgia. This amount is in addition to $400 million already committed to this effort. Others interested in how the federal funds are spent are calling foul, saying if Kemp truly wanted broadband in these underserviced areas of the state that he would have ensured that access to broadband was put in place three years ago when he first came into office. What Kemp is doing now is trying to gain votes by dangling ‘internet access carrots’ out in front of people in the parts of the state where he wants votes.
Upon announcing the plan, Kemp said in a video accompanying the announcement, “We will continue identifying ways to put money back into the pockets of hardworking Georgians.”
Kemp’s 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.
Alex Floyd, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, said the governor hasn’t done enough to expand access to public health programs or fully spend federal rental assistance money for those in need.
“Now, in the middle of a reelection campaign, he’s taking money to stage more political gimmicks,” Floyd said. 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.
To be eligible for the payment, a Georgia resident must have been enrolled in a state benefits program as of July 31. Residents enrolled in more than one program will only receive one cash payment. The Department of Human Services will contact Georgia residents who are eligible via the state’s online portal for benefits.
Critics continue to point out that Kemp opposed the relief package and was critical of the funds he is attempting to use now, however, under Georgia law, the governor decides how the federal money is spent.
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.
Said Abrams spokesman Floyd about Kemp, “Now, in the middle of a reelection campaign, he’s taking money he criticizes to stage more political gimmicks.”
Last fall, Kemp used some of the COVID relief money to provide bonuses for first responders, such as law enforcement officers and firefighters. In 2022, Kemp recommended 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 billion income tax refund in March, and payments started going out this spring, before the GOP primary. Kemp used the surge in tax collections to push for bonuses and pay raises for teachers, state employees, and even members of the General Assembly. The governor also announced federally funded COVID relief grants for water and sewer improvements, high-speed internet projects and money to help businesses and nonprofits better recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.