Candidates discussed states rights, the fair tax, illegal immigration and mercury in Georgia's freshwater fish during Friday night's Statesboro Republican Primary Gubernatorial Debate. About 325 citizens and supporters came out to Statesboro High to hear five of the seven GOP candidates for governor stake out their positions on statewide issues.
Insurance commissioner John Oxendine, former State Sen. Eric Johnson, businessman Ray McBerry, former State Sen. Jeff Chapman and former Congressman Nathan Deal took turns answering questions submitted by members in the audience. Joe McGlamery, president of the Statesboro Herald, served as moderator and posed the questions.
Candidate Karen Handel did not take the stage for the debate, citing her aversion to sharing a stage with McBerry due to an incident eight years ago involving what she calls an "inappropriate relationship" with a then 16-year-old girl. McBerry denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged in the incident.
The Statesboro Herald sponsored the debate and it was broadcast live over the Internet on the paper's website www.statesboroherald.com and simulcast on Georgia Eagle Media radio stations WWNS 1240 AM and WHKS 94.9 FM.
In opening statements, Johnson promoted small government and conservative values; McBerry emphasized his focus on states' rights and that he is not an elected official; and Oxendine talked about his experience in being able to implement a budget. Chapman reminded voters he was willing to stand up against his political party when he felt it was wrong, and Deal touted his ability to be a leader who is prepared to be Georgia's CEO.
Education was also a popular topic, and when asked to talk about costs of higher education and the future of the HOPE Scholarship, Johnson said students should work hard to be qualify and then keep the scholarship. Currently, a student must maintain a B average in order to qualify. Chapman echoed his sentiments, stating that eligibility requirements for the scholarship should be reviewed.
McBerry said HOPE funds should never be used for anything other than scholarships, and certainly not for " children of illegal aliens." Oxendine said he believes HOPE should be " preserved for all students, not just public school students." Deal also said eligibility requirements should be examined to ensure the long-term viability of the scholarship.
A question about states using federal stimulus money to compensate for declining revenues drew a passionate response from McBerry, who said he is not in favor of Georgia taking stimulus money because "you also have to take it with strings attached."
Oxendine said Georgia needs to begin doing a better job of collecting taxes, adding that millions of dollars in sales tax paid by citizens never reaches state coffers. He also suggested better management of state agencies, and said he has experience in streamlining his office as insurance commissioner.
Chapman said prioritizing the budget would be a better solution that relying on federal stimulus funds. Deal agreed, saying we need to "grow jobs" and Georgia should "stop being dependent on the federal government to bail us out." Johnson said "cutting taxes is easy. Cutting spending is hard, and I've done both." Tightening the belt is the better answer, he said.
Another question dealt with how Georgia could create new jobs and keep illegal aliens from taking those jobs.
"I really like what Arizona has done," Oxendine said. "I am not against immigrants, only illegal ones," he said. Chapman agreed that illegal aliens are a problem, as did McBerry. Deal said the Federal government lacks the will to deal with the illegal immigration issue and illegals cost the state "hundreds of millions" annually.
Another question dealt with the level of mercury in Georgia's freshwater fish. All candidates agreed that the source of the mercury should be found, and since coal mining and processing is suspect, alternative means of energy should be used.
All candidates also said they supported charter schools and alternative means of education for students. They all supported the Fair Tax instead of state income tax, except Johnson. Oxendine called income tax " fundamentally wrong," and Chapman pointed out there are $9.6 billion in sales tax exemptions in Georgia - many of which need to be examined. Deal said he co-sponsored the Fair Tax legislation years ago with John Linder in Congress. McBerry drew a strong response from the audience when he called income taxes and property taxes "vestiges of socialism and Marxism."
But Johnson said a Fair Tax would have to be done nationally, not just in certain states, in order to be successful. People would simply resort to shopping on the Internet or going to lower-tax states to shop, he said.
In an unscientific straw poll taken after the debate, McBerry was selected as the winner with 42 votes. Deal received 37 votes, Johnson 26, Oxendine 12, Chapman 6 and "No winner" was checked on 17 ballots.