SAVANNAH — Republican Nathan Deal said Tuesday that as governor he'd be willing to consider casino gambling in Georgia, while Democratic rival Roy Barnes said he's reluctant to legalize potential competition for the state lottery.
The gubernatorial hopefuls were each asked whether Georgia should expand gambling beyond the lottery during a Savannah tourism forum in which the candidates took separate turns on stage.
Deal, who won the GOP nomination in a runoff last week, noted other states have had "both successes and monstrous failures" in legalizing casinos and other forms of gambling.
"I think there are potentials," Deal said. "We should look at it with an open mind and we should not say 'no' just because of any particular bias one way or the other. I'm willing to keep an open mind about it."
Barnes was more hesitant and pointed out that he pushed to ban video poker in Georgia as governor in 2001.
He said he's concerned other forms of legal gambling would siphon money from the state lottery, which funds HOPE scholarships. The lottery has been successful, Barnes said, because it's a "state-supported monopoly."
"I just have a problem with allowing us to become a casino state, to be frank," Barnes said. "I am going to be very cautious about anything that competes with the lottery."
Deal is counting on strong support from Christian conservatives, who largely oppose gambling initiatives.
The gubernatorial rivals on Wednesday agreed on many things. Both said local governments should be able to decide for themselves whether grocery and convenience stores can sell beer and wine on Sundays. State law currently bans such sales.
Barnes and Deal also agreed that deepening the shipping channel to Savannah's port would be a priority, considering larger ships will begin using the Panama Canal in 2014.
And they said the harbor deepening should take priority over building a new port, to be jointly operated with South Carolina, on the Savannah River that serves as a shared boundary between the states.
The candidates did offer differing views on how to boost revenue from state sales taxes.
Barnes said he favors eliminating most sales-tax exemptions the state has granted for specific items — from Girl Scout cookies to prosthetic limbs — and reducing the overall tax rate.
"If you had no exemptions, you could cut the rate in half and bring in more money than you have now," said Barnes, who noted some exemptions would likely remain.
Deal said he'd focus instead of doing a better job collecting sales taxes, saying too many of those dollars fall through the cracks.
"I'm certainly willing to go back and look at the exemptions in place," Deal said. "But we should remember those exemptions were put into place for a reason."
The forum Wednesday was supposed to be the first time Barnes and Deal faced each other on stage as their parties' respective nominees.
Organizers said Deal's campaign ultimately balked at the idea. So each candidate got 30 minutes alone, sharing the spotlight only with a moderator.
Barnes said afterward he'd have preferred a face-to-face format.
"I think there's something lost when you don't have an exchange of ideas people can see," Barnes said. "It didn't bother me."
Deal, fresh off a bruising Republican runoff campaign, said his campaign didn't think tourism was an appropriate "debate subject. It was a discussion subject."
"We had said that we did not want to do debates until October," Deal said. "Once you do one, everybody starts asking that they want to schedule a local debate in their community."