Athens -- Five Democratic candidates for governor vowed to protect education from further budget cuts if elected this November, even if their plans were not always firm.
Appearing together at the University of Georgia in a debate sponsored by the Democratic Party of Georgia and televised statewide, the Democratic hopefuls steered clear of shots at one another and made only veiled attacks on the state's Republicans. If a theme emerged Tuesday night, it was education comes first and it will lead the state out of recession.
The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute has estimated that Gov. Sonny Perdue's budget proposals for the current fiscal year and the one that begins July 1 include $839 million in cuts to direct funding for instruction through the Quality Basic Education formula.
House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), who has said for years that the state loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year in uncollected sales taxes, repeated that mantra Tuesday and said it could be a source of education funding. That proposal also was seconded by Attorney General Thurbert Baker and former Gov. Roy Barnes.
"We can start by collecting all the taxes that are due to the state," Baker said. "There is $250 million to half a billion still out there on the table."
Barnes, giving Porter credit for his work on the issue, said he would dramatically improve the current collection system. Georgia is the "only state in the continental United States furloughing teachers. Surely, if the rest of the country can find a way, we can find a way to educate our children," Barnes said.
Barnes also proposed cutting $10 million, including Perdue's budget proposal for an equestrian center in Perry. "The education of our children comes above that," he said.
Former Adjutant Gen. David Poythress said he would target the "17 special interest sales tax loopholes or gimmes passed in the last (legislative) session that cost the state almost exactly the same amount of money saved by furloughing teachers." Poythress also recommended improving the collection of state sales taxes, and vowed not to collect a paycheck as governor until the state's unemployment falls below 7 percent again (it is now above 10 percent).
Ray City Mayor Carl Camon said he would focus on the savings that can occur by having fewer students repeat grades, something he said could save $7 million a year.
With more than five months to go before the July 20 primary, the five candidates made little effort Tuesday to push voters away from other candidates, instead choosing to focus on their own plans for governing the state. At times, however, candidates did not answer direct questions asked about their positions on policies.
Baker, for example, was asked whether he supports a plan by GOP lawmakers to create new tax credits for companies that hire unemployed workers and to cut the state's capital gains tax. Baker said the state "has to do a better job of recruiting businesses and developing jobs in this state," but did not specifically answer whether he supports the so-called JOBS Act.
Yet Baker had a solid, and personal, response to a question about federal health care proposals. Baker said his daughter, a recent college graduate, has had diabetes since she was 5. He and his wife were concerned she wouldn't find a job after graduating and would have trouble finding health insurance because of her pre-existing condition.
"These are the challenges families have to go through," he said. "One million, seven hundred thousand Georgians don't have insurance coverage. ... This ought to be a priority for Georgia's government."
Porter nearly ducked a question on whether he supports the Sunday sale of alcohol in stores. After explaining it would not be part of his legislative package as governor and his Middle Georgia district doesn't support it, he said if the bill came up in the Legislature he believes it should be a county-by-county referendum.
Back on education, Barnes was asked if he would fight again for his proposal to require teacher accountability -- a proposal that apparently so angered teachers it cost him his re-election bid in 2002. Barnes said it's already been taken care of by No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation that requires accountability.
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