By Maria Saporta
In an effort to focus on the issues rather than prickly politics, the Metro Atlanta Chamber had a Republican gubernatorial forum Tuesday morning and made sure there wasn’t an opportunity for the two run-off candidates to confront each other.
First on stage was former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who was interviewed by Bill Nigut, a former WSB-TV political journalist who is now the Southeast Regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
After about 35 minutes of Deal answering questions, he was swept off stage.
That’s when former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel got in the hot seat.
The tone and the substance of the forum was void of personal attacks between the candidates who will face each other in the Aug. 10 run-off election. The winner of that run-off will face former Gov. Roy Barnes, who is the Democratic nominee.
Although both candidates tout themselves as being conservative Republicans, there were several areas where they had differences of opinion.
How much federal support Georgia should seek was one of those areas.
“If you become dependent on federal stimulus dollars, you erode the state’s responsibility to balance its budget,” Deal said.
This past year, Georgia received about $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars, which won’t be available during the 2012 fiscal year that will begin next July.
Deal also said he was hesitant about accepting “Race to the Top” federal dollars for education.
“I’ll take their money, I just don’t want the strings,” Deal said, adding that the strings might not be “worth the money we are going to receive.” He then said he would prefer that Georgia use the resources that it has and not rely on the federal government.
Deal gave a similar answer when asked about how Georgia had been left out of the funding for high speed rail projects while neighboring states had been given the green light with significant federal funding.
“It is certainly a worthy goal to work for,” Deal said about high speed rail. But he quickly added that the state needs to figure out what would be the most efficient way to relieve congestion in the metro area, and he questioned whether high speed rail would prove to be cost effective. As he sees it, the first priority should be on a “good east-west connector” in middle Georgia.
Asked about Georgia losing out on the federal high speed rail dollars, Deal said it was important not to let the federal government “set our own priorities” for transportation.
Although Handel did not get a similar question on federal stimulus dollars, she was asked about the Race to the Top program, of which Georgia is now a finalist.
“As long as we are paying taxes to the federal government, Georgia has a responsibility to get its fair share,” Handel said.
She later was asked about the development of high speed rail in Georgia.
“We should make this a priority,” Handel said. “Think about Georgia 25 years from now. If we haven’t embraced transit more than we have… It’s a competitiveness issue.”
Deal and Handel also had differing views on tax reform.
Deal prefers cutting the corporate tax rate by a third, while Handel prefers phasing out the individual income tax.
Because corporate tax revenues only make up between 4 to 5 percent of the state’s budget, Deal said it wouldn’t be a huge hit on the state’s coffers. But it would make the state more attractive to companies looking to expand in Georgia.
Handel, however, said she would like to phase out the individual income tax rate in Georgia to be more competitive with other Southeastern states.
“If Florida, Tennessee and Texas can figure it out, we can too,” she said.
But in his portion of the forum, Deal explained that the income tax accounts for about half of the state’s revenues.
So reducing the corporate tax rate would not be “nearly as risky as those who talk about doing away with the personal income tax, which is half of your revenue,” Deal said.
Both candidates were strong proponents of the HOPE scholarship, and said that it needs to continue to be based on merit rather than need. Asked about a recent report that the state could soon run out of HOPE dollars, both candidates said the funds should focus on tuition and not other charges such as student fees and books.
Both also agreed that the state should encourage the development of small reservoirs as a way to address its long-term water needs. Deal also said the federal government should start giving the state credit for the treated water that it returns to its rivers.
Lastly, when asked about metro Atlanta being the economic engine of the state, both stopped short of saying they would treat the metro region any different than other parts of Georgia.
“I do understand the importance of the Atlanta metro region as an economic driver of our state,” Deal said, but added that other parts of the state also were important to Georgia’s economy. “We need not to foster the idea that there are two or three Georgias. I’ll represent all of Georgia, including metro Atlanta.”
Handel, who served as chair of the Fulton County Commission before running for state office, said she had a unique understanding of the needs of metro Atlanta. But she added that the “issues we are dealing with are too big and too complex” for there not to be cooperation among local and state governments.
Asked if she would have special consideration for metro Atlanta, Handel said: “Every part of the state is special.”