FILE - Georgia Governor Brian Kemp

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp

(The Center Square) – Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday he plans to return $1.6 billion to Georgia taxpayers.

The governor's rebate proposal would give single tax filers a $250 refund and $500 to couples that filed jointly. Kemp said the refunds would come from the state's revenue surplus.

"Last fiscal year, because we kept Georgia open and fought alongside you all in this room to keep businesses and communities afloat, the state collected a record budget surplus," Kemp told business leaders Wednesday at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's Eggs and Issues.

"I believe that when government takes in more money than it needs, surplus funds should be sent back to the hardworking men and women who keep our state moving forward. Because that is your money. Not the government's."

Georgia ended the last fiscal year with a $3.7 billion surplus, according to a state financial report. The state's financial outcome at the end of the year was vastly different from what Georgia leaders expected.

Kemp instructed state agencies in August to maintain current spending levels over the next two years as a cautionary measure. Kemp also directed the agencies to cut spending during fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Now he is hashing out plans to make the dollars work.

Under Kemp's plan, Georgians filing taxes this year will receive a refund credit.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, who leads the Senate Committee on Education and Youth, said Kemp, who is running for reelection, should be using some of the money to fill gaps in education funding.

"Kemp's proposing refunding money to taxpayers in 2022. Yay for this election ploy, but did you know we have a $500 million hole in our education budget and state taxes in [Georgia] are not high?" Parent said in a tweet. "Future prosperity is not built on this."

The governor said Wednesday that education, health care, and public safety still were a priority. He said he would ensure the state's HOPE scholarships cover 90% of college tuition for first-year college students instead of the current 75%. Kemp said the program's expansion would cost an additional $25 million.

Kemp also said he wants to restore $262 million in austerity cuts to the University and Technical College systems, which he said would allow the schools to stop charging students special fees. Key university officials said students have been paying hundreds of dollars in fees each semester to help schools with debt accrued from the last recession.

Parent applauded the proposal but added the damage would not have been done if the cuts were not made in the first place.

The governor said he would push for tax exemption for veterans' retirement income. Georgia lawmakers have been pushing similar legislation over the past few years. Fiscal analysts said it could result in millions of dollars in lost revenue.

"These men and women deserve more than our words of appreciation, even though we have many to give," Kemp said. "They deserve action that shows our gratitude. One of the key points of my platform has been to enact a retirement-income exclusion for retired military."

The governor is expected to lay out all of his legislative priorities Thursday during his state of the state address. His proposal for spending also will include a $5,000 pay raise and an increase in benefits for state employees.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.