Governor Brian Kemp announced last week that he plans to return $1.6 billion in excess revenue to Georgia taxpayers. In the process, he probably accomplished two things. First, he robbed himself of the opportunity to pursue a groundbreaking strategic initiative that would secure him a prominent and well-deserved place in Georgia’s history books. Second, he has committed a huge amount of money to an effort that probably won’t do him much good politically.
Kemp is, of course, led by former U.S. Senator David Perdue, who now enjoys the backing of former President Donald Trump, and their May primary shootout is shaping up to be the bloodiest Republican fight in modern Georgian politics. . It was, after all, a Trump endorsement in 2018 that catapulted Kemp to the GOP gubernatorial nomination and arguably the governor’s mansion, but Trump was hurt when Kemp failed to reverse the Georgia’s 2020 presidential results and giving it 16 electoral votes. Hence Perdue’s endorsement and the Trumpian curse on all things Kemp.
In case politics entered Kemp’s mind and he thought sending a $250 check to millions of Georgians could undo the former president’s spell, I have bad news: there is very little in recent political history to suggest voters can be bought so cheaply.
Trump himself had his own name printed on the pandemic stimulus checks that were sent to all Americans in the spring of 2020 – then quickly lost re-election in November. His successor, President Joe Biden, managed to secure congressional approval for even bigger stimulus checks in 2021, but fared no better politically; recent polls have put his approval numbers at an all-time high.
What could Kemp have done with the $1.6 billion that would make a difference to the state and maybe even to his politics? For at least five years now, Georgian political leaders have been calling for the deployment of broadband internet in rural Georgia. It is essential, they rightly say, for economic development, education, health care and quality of life. The problem has always been money.
Based on cost data that has surfaced over the past two years, wiring rural Georgia with fiber optic cable would cost approximately $40,000 per mile or $4,500 per location. An analysis I conducted in October 2020 estimated the total cost of cabling all unserved areas of Georgia at approximately $2.3 billion; the AJC estimated it at $3 billion.
So the $1.6 billion Kemp received for Christmas won’t cover the full cost, but it would put a good dent in it.
I hasten to add, as I have in other writings, that I do not believe that high-cost landline phone technology should be the only Internet solution sought for rural Georgia. Even if Kemp spent the full $1.6 billion — and counting — on a rural broadband push, it would likely take more than a decade to get the job done. For communities where there is a truly urgent need, other technologies, particularly satellite, are now available and could be provided to rural Georgians within weeks or months; there’s no real reason why the state couldn’t reduce volume agreements with these vendors and subsidize these costs instead of investing money in hardware that will take years to deliver – and can happen too late.
For Kemp, the question really is how he wants to be remembered. Think back to past governors and it’s a bit surprising how few of them displayed major accomplishments that provided long-term benefits to the state and its citizens.
Zell Miller makes the cut with the state lottery and the HOPE scholarship. Ditto Roy Barnes for forcing a change in the state flag and getting rid of the Confederate battle emblem, which earned him a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award but cost him re-election.
As a young governor in the 1940s, Herman Talmadge imposed a groundbreaking three-penny sales tax on the General Assembly to build new schools and raise teachers’ salaries. Legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Shipp, who is not a fan of anyone named Talmadge, would later credit Talmadge with stopping Georgia from going down the same path of racial ruin than Alabama and Mississippi.
It’s probably too late for Kemp. It’s hard to back down from a public pledge to send money back to taxpayers, but this could have been his Nixon-to-China moment. He had the opportunity to make history as a governor who provided much needed internet service to rural Georgia.
Instead, in that capacity, he will be remembered as a politician of limited imagination who squandered an opportunity for $1.6 billion in tax refunds that most recipients will forget within weeks. , even a few days.