Lest anyone think his mind has wandered to another job, Gov. Brian Kemp last week released a very detailed package of veto messages and one signing statement, the last official words anyone gets to make about this year’s legislative session.

There are 14 vetoes and 33 pages of line-item vetoes and directions to disregard language in bills. None of the vetoes have to do with any blaring social issues or big budget changes. Most are concerned with whether the legislature overstepped its bounds with respect to other state agencies and the state constitution, not whether the legislation was a good idea.

Kemp vetoed a bill that would have required legislative approval for any tuition increase of greater than 3 percent in the university system because the state constitution gives that authority to the Board of Regents. A bill that would have removed the requirement for low-income Fulton County residents to renew their homestead exemption every two years was vetoed because it didn’t provide for a referendum on the change, as required by the state constitution. Overall, if his decisions show any particular bias, it’s toward respecting the customary guardrails of state government.

The closest thing to a controversial legislative issue is addressed in the single signing statement Kemp chose to write. It’s about fishing, something close to the hearts of many Georgians.

Shortly before the close of this year’s session, on the advice of Attorney General Chris Carr, the Department of Natural Resources signed a consent agreement with a private property owner, Four Chimneys LLC, which sought to prevent the public from fishing on property it owns along the Flint River. Under the agreement, DNR was directed not only to reverse the department’s longstanding policy with regard to fishing along navigable waters in the state but to issue a press release repudiating its former positions.

That led to a last-minute push by House and Senate leaders, allied with several environmental groups, to pass a bill restating the public’s right to fish on navigable streams, which the state spends a substantial amount of money to keep stocked with fish. With the active support of the governor, whose office had not been notified of the decision to concede in the case brought against DNR by Four Chimneys, the bill passed in that nebulous period which has grown past the legislature’s traditional midnight sine die deadline.

Four Chimneys is taking the position that the court settlement preempts the bill, and a study committee has been appointed to consider amendments to the bill. But Kemp’s signing statement, in which he writes that the legislation protects “a privilege that has been assured Georgians for generations,” is the closest thing to a victory lap to be found in this release.

Most of the release is devoted to a fine-tooth — that is, expenditures mostly in the hundreds of thousands or low millions — review of the legislature’s work this year. In some cases, budget increases are eliminated or reduced because they replace federal money that is already being spent. In others, expenditures are erased because they don’t anticipate future increases in program cost, or can’t be justified under an agency’s constitutional charter.

One sentence which recurs again and again in the line-item explanations is: “The General Assembly seeks to fund these increases by reducing required base funding for Medicaid, which is likely to create a shortfall in the program.” That hints at the most difficult budgeting decisions the General Assembly is likely to face in the future.

Nothing in last week’s release would ever come up in a presidential campaign, even if he were to be lured by the increasing mention of his name. But these workaday explanations demonstrate an attention to detail which has been one of Kemp’s strongest, and least noticed, attributes as a political leader. Like him or not, he minds the store.

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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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