Deal and Carter have testy opening showdown

The forum on Monday was supposed to focus on education, but Gov. Nathan Deal and Democrat Jason Carter also traded jabs over economic philosophy and taxing policy in a touchy first showdown between the candidates. The governor even took a shot at his opponent’s famous grandfather.

The event, the first time the two rivals have shared the stage this campaign, offered each a showcase to press their education agenda. The governor said he preserved k-12 funding and engineered the largest education funding increase in seven years, while Carter attacked the funding system as a tired “shell game” that hurts students.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators’ forum wasn’t meant to be a debate, but there was a constant attack-and-volley between the two candidates. They bickered over education funding, a potential charter school expansion and Georgia’s stubborn jobless rate. And they saved some of their harshest words for after the forum.

The brunt of the argument focused on a familiar topic to both candidates: Carter’s pledge to create a separate education budget that he said would ensure a significant boost in classroom funding. Deal called it empty rhetoric and took Carter to task for voting three times for budgets that included education funding cuts he now criticizes.

“Rhetoric without results will never educate a child,” Deal told the crowd of educators. “This campaign is too important to be allowed to be dictated by simple rhetoric and promises. You need to know the hard answers.”

Carter said he voted for the first three budgets in the spirit of bipartisanship, but that a tour of hard-hit schools while serving on a Senate task force changed his mind. He contends he could pay to increase school funding by cutting more wasteful spending and cracking down on tax cheats.

“I promise you after I went and saw the impact of the draconian cuts that have come out of Atlanta the last few years, it’s impossible to support the budgeting process,” he said of the statewide tour.

The two clashed over Deal’s economic policy, which Carter has long said has been a “grab bag” philosophy that has slowed Georgia’s recovery from the recession. Deal countered that his tax overhaul package, which included a repeal of the state sales tax on energy used in manufacturing, is starting to pay dividends.

The governor also repeated his willingness to study a Louisiana program that has led to a vast increase in charter schools. He said “we all owe it to the children in the state” to vet such ideas, even though they have unnerved many administrators.

“If you’ve got better ideas,” he told the crowd, “my ears are going to be open.”

Carter, in turn, said the emergence of the idea, which surfaced last week at a campaign event, “underscores to me that we don’t have the kind of coherent vision that we need.”

“It’s good to innovate,” he added, “but we’ve got to have a focus.”

The forum started on a surprisingly testy note between the two candidates, who polls show are locked in a tight contest. (Libertarian Andrew Hunt was not invited to attend.) Carter said Deal presided over what he said was the “worst contraction” to education funding in state history, and Deal quickly pressed him to explain his voting record.

The governor later attacked his opponent’s grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, saying that education funding decreased in the Democrat’s last year in the Governor’s Mansion.

The rhetoric grew even sharper after the event when Deal criticized Carter’s plan to boost education funding.

“You’re going to have to cut something of what we spend money on now, or you’re going to have to have a new revenue source,” he said. “And collecting taxes is at best a one-shot proposition and they certainly wouldn’t be a long-term solution. If they were so easy to collect, they would have already been collected.”

Carter, for his part, said he was positioning himself to be the state’s “true leader” on education.

“I hope it doesn’t stay personal,” Carter said, adding: “Governor Deal can attack me personally and he can attack my family if he wants. But ultimately what I think people want to hear is what this is going to be like for the state in the future.”

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