The first of two debates Saturday in the race for governor is in the books, and while punches continued to be thrown, little new ground was broken.
Democrat Roy Barnes, Republican Nathan Deal and Libertarian John Monds met in a live televised debate on Channel 2 Action News at 12:30 p.m. They’ll gather again at Fox 5 at 5 p.m. Both debates are a prelude to the final face-off Sunday evening live on Georgia Public Broadcasting.
In the first round today, Deal decried what he called Barnes’ negative campaign and proceeded to land several jabs of his own. Barnes, meanwhile, replied that Deal and the Republican campaign against him has been as negative, if not more. Monds, meanwhile, said he’s the only candidate trying to keep the focus on issues facing Georgians.
Meanwhile, when the subject turned to those issues, Deal and Barnes both promised to work to protect the HOPE scholarship program, and the state-funded Pre-K program, both of which are funded by lottery accounts that are showing signs of stress.
Both Deal and Barnes said they favor keeping the current merit-based HOPE awards rather than moving to need-based scholarships.
“I think we need to keep it merit-based,” Deal said. “It’s worked very well in that regard.”
But, he said, he realizes there are concerns that lottery money for scholarships is running low.
“Do I think we’re going to have to be very careful?” he said. “Certainly.”
Barnes said if it becomes necessary, he would favor using tax dollars to keep lottery programs afloat.
“If we have, if we have to, we ought to go to the general fund to keep HOPE and Pre-K alive,” he said.
But Monds was less enthusiastic about lottery programs and said students who need help paying for college ought to have access to jobs to earn the money.
“If they fall short on being able to afford college, they should be able to find a job and pay the cost of their own education,” Monds said.
The next governor will also be in office when the General Assembly redraws district lines for all seats in the House, Senate and Congress. Barnes has said he favors creating an independent commission to handle reapportionment, and answered criticisms of how he influenced that process when he was previously governor from 1999 to 2003. Barnes has b een accused of “strong-arming” the process to benefit Democrats.
“There are plenty of sinners on reapportionment,” Barnes said noting that Republicans redrew districts under Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2005. “Both sides have sinned on this.”
But Deal rejected the idea of an outside commission redrawing the lines.
“I think we have a commission,” he said. “It’s made up of the House and Senate. Those are the ones we traditionally use. I will not be a governor who strong-arms the General Assembly.”
Monds, too, said a commission isn’t necessary.
“We stick with the Legislature,” he said, adding that any independent commission would still come under political pressures.
The candidates turned on each other when allowed to question each other. Barnes asked Deal why a company he is part-owner of was several years late in paying nearly $400,000 in sales taxes on the airplane he’s using in his campaign, and why a tax lien shows the company currently still owes about $4,000.
“There you go again,” Deal said. “The sales taxes have all been paid.”
But Barnes was undeterred.
“If we had to depend on Mr. Deal’s payment of taxes we couldn’t run the state,” he said. “If you can’t pay your own taxes, how can you expect to run a state effectively, efficiently and with honor and integrity?”
Deal questioned Barnes’ representation of a woman who sued the state in a failed attempt to overturn Georgia’s Voter ID law, saying it cost the state millions to defend the program. Barnes said he was representing a blind woman who was told she had to have a driver’s license to vote, noting that blind people don’t typically drive.
“She offered to sign an affidavit” swearing as to her identity, Barnes said. “We put people to death on sworn testimony all the time. And yet, that was not good enough.”
Deal said while the case was “sympathetic,” the law “is not aimed at those individuals, and this was a case where she had no standing to challenge it. The real issue here is are we trying to create an environment where people who cannot show us who they are, whether they’re citizens of this country are going to be entitled to vote in this country.”
In the next round, Barnes asked Deal to defend his votes while serving in the U.S. House against legislation aimed at requiring equal pay for women who do the same work as men.
Deal said the bills “were a trial lawyers dream. It wasn’t about equal pay. It was about being able to give a trial lawyer such as Mr. Barnes the right to go in and sue small businesses over a federate statute.”
But, Barnes said, “you’re either for equal pay for equal work or not.”
During questioning from the panelists, Deal was asked if he would put his personal finances and assets into a blind trust, as Barnes did when he was governor. Deal said he “absolutely” would, and said he is in the process of dealing with his own precarious financial situation. Deal faces a $2 million loan coming due in February, a debt related to the failure of a sporting goods store opened by his daugther and son-in-law.
“I have just liquidated a substantial portion of [assets] in just the last few weeks,” Deal said. “I have a contract on a sale of a building where the business is located. The rest is being financed.”