Labor commissioner candidates spar over minimum wage hike

A cast of down-ballot contenders clashed Sunday in Georgia Public Broadcasting debates sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club. Vying for crucial leadership roles in the state’s agriculture, business and legal arenas, some of the candidates saw their first statewide spotlight in advance of the Nov. 4 election.

Labor Commissioner

Both candidates returned to the issues of minimum wage and unemployment.

Democratic challenger Robbin Shipp wants to see the minimum wage increased, to between $9.50 and $10.10, to address the rising cost of living. Republican Mark Butler says the state has added jobs and is in the midst of an economic revival — progress that could be stymied by any talk of mandated wage increases.

“When the economy improves, you will see that wages being paid to employees go up. We’re seeing it already right now,” Butler said. “Raising the minimum wage will no doubt help people, but it will only help them temporarily.”

Georgia’s unemployment rate rose to the nation’s highest, at 8.1 percent, in August, a month after Butler said the number was expected to go down. That prognosis was incorrect, leaving some state economists baffled as to how unemployment could rise even as jobs increased.

Shipp painted it as a failure of her opponent to forecast and address Georgia’s job needs.

“We have this large group of individuals who are categorized as chronically unemployed,” Shipp said. “Butler has failed in his responsibility to those people.”

Commissioner of Agriculture

There was plenty of heat between incumbent Republican Gary Black and his Democratic challenger Chris Irvin when it came to the issues surrounding crops and cows.

Black has touted successes that include the rise of Georgia Grown, a farmer-financed state co-op, and a complete digitization of Department of Agriculture resources, despite a strained budget. Meanwhile, Irvin, the grandson of long-time former commissioner Tommy Irvin, accused his opponent of letting safety standards fall to the wayside.

“If you look at our fuel inspection process, we have thrown away accountability,” said Irvin. He added, “The mass recalls of peanut butter that have led to deaths across the country … should be a concern of everyone.”

Both candidates agreed immigration issues have to be addressed to make sure crops get picked, despite a federal migrant worker program that has been called insufficient. Black has focused on improving local produce markets and mandated a later shipping date for Vidalia onions.

“Our packing date was very successful this year,” Black said. “We’ve been working with farmers because they know they’ve had a problem with early-season onions.”

A Fulton County judge ruled in April that Black overstepped his authority in the decision, a sentiment re-iterated by Irvin. He also hammered Black for an August night in 2013, when two top agriculture officials led an overnight training session that resulted in co-ed skinny dipping and a damaged state vehicle.

“It was your senior officer, under his guidance, in his own cabin, where they engaged in what was described as a ‘fraternity-like’ atmosphere,” Irvin said. “I would question the hiring practices and the leadership.”

Black said the one-time scandal was a non-issue.

“Within 48 hours, after all the facts were gathered, those senior members were dismissed,” Black said. “We will not tolerate a lack of integrity in our department.”

Attorney General

Republican incumbent Sam Olens reiterated his role as a non-activist attorney general, one who has defended the law of the land in areas of prescription drug abuse, medicaid fraud and sex trafficking.

“My primary job is not to replace the courts, but to defend the current laws,” Olens said. “We have to day in and day out protect the rights (of citizens).”

But Greg Hecht, his Democratic challenger, said the state’s top lawyer should take a more active role in ensuring under-performing agencies protect citizens. He believes that Georgia’s top legal arm should address mistakes made by Division of Family and Children Services workers that in part led to at least 25 child deaths in 2012. Olens said action would be better suited for case workers and law enforcement.

“The role of the attorney general under statute is to partially be the top law enforcement officer,” Hecht said. “Statutory power gives the attorney general the power to investigate and protect Georgians.”

The two squabbled over the exact role of the attorney general in areas such as gay marriage, which is legalized in some states but illegal in Georgia. The real conversation surrounded ethics though after Olens’ office was ordered to pay $10,000 in September — fines for failing to turn over a key memo in a whistle-blower lawsuit that cost the state millions.

Olens defended his office’s decision to withhold the document.

“In litigation, you don’t hand out every document that is relevant,” Olens said. “You hand out documents that are specifically requested.”