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Posted: July 30, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Patriots’ Table conservative group hosts State Senate 17 GOP forum

State Senate 17 Republican runoff candidates Todd Hilton and Rick Jeffares are pretty similar philosophically. They’re both staunch conservatives who see eye-to-eye on most issues.

Where they differ the most is in their respective backgrounds. Hilton is a lifelong educator who believes the state government needs his voice to make better informed decisions about education policy and funding. He is currently technology director for Social Circle City Schools.

Jeffares has years of experience working in municipal government as a city manager and water director in various local cities. He believes his knowledge of city government and expertise as a small business owner of a water preservation company make him the most qualified candidate. He resigned from his term as a Henry County Commissioner to run for state senate and owns J&T Environmental Services.

"We’re both conservative; it’s all about our backgrounds. I think I’m qualified to address education issues, and I think we need that voice," Hilton said. "I plan to get something done in my first two years of office. I have something to say and I will fight whether I’m in office or not." 

Jeffares echoed Hilton’s thoughts, but said he can bring the voice of local government to the Georgia Senate. Both said they would support the other regardless of who won.

Jeffares encouraged residents to simply vote, as runoff elections typically have much lower turnout than even Primary Elections. Voter turnout for the June 20 Primary in Newton County was around 20 percent. The runoff election for State Senate 17 Republicans and other party seats will be held Aug. 10.

To help residents prepare for the runoff, the newly formed conservative advocate group Patriot’s Table hosted a question-and-answer forum for Hilton and Jeffares at 7 p.m. at the Little Red School House, located next to the Covington Y on Newton Drive. More than 50 attendees listened to the candidates answer more than 30 questions about the economy, education, ethics, illegal immigration, taxation and other issues.

The candidate’s responses will be broken down by those categories.

The Economy

and State’s Budget

Attendees asked a variety of economic questions about what budget items should be cut, how the budget could be balanced, whether another around of stimulus money should be accepted and how else the economy could be stimulated now and in the future.

Hilton said he felt many state departments were top heavy, but he said public safety and education should not be cut any further. He said the budget could be balanced by cutting pork barrel spending. He criticized the stance of U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Macon) who he said opposes the idea of pork, but still secures millions of dollars for his district.

Hilton said the economy could be stimulated by offering industries more competitive incentive packages but they shouldn’t be given a blank check and need to reinvest in the communities in which they locate. He said families and communities need to come together to support each other. He spoke about a job forum he started on Facebook where job seekers can connect with businesses that are hiring. He said the federal stimulus package created a temporary fix by putting people to work, but those jobs are now resulting in a permanent burden. He said if the government let Americans keep more of their money that would be a more effective stimulus program.

Jeffares agreed public safety and education shouldn’t be cut but said transportation could stand to be decreased even further. He said the new bill which will create regional Transportation SPLOST programs could cover many of those costs. He said Georgia’s roads are in a lot better shape than many other states and could withstand a few years of decreased funding. He said special interests payments need to be cut. He said the state should increase its cigarette tax to increase revenue and consider raising the gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised in years and is fairly low.

He said the state hasn’t fought hard enough to attract industries and said incentives need to be increased. Atlanta’s airport and the state’s highway system put the state in a good position to attract industry, he said. Jeffares said stimulus money should only be accepted in the future if its goes to infrastructure improvements, like roads or light rail development. He said he would love to see railroad infrastructure built, though he realizes the costs may be prohibitive. Finally, he said small businesses need to start getting some tax breaks, because they are getting little help despite being major job providers.

Education

Attendees asked whether the U.S. Dept. of Education should be abolished, if teachers’ unions help or hurt the system and if school vouchers should be allowed.

As an educator, Hilton has made education issues his top priority. He said 60 percent of the state budget is devoted to education, yet the Georgia General Assembly contains few professional educators. Hilton said the federal government should have never formed an education department, because it provides states with very little money, yet mandates many requirements. He said the states should be in charge of education.

He said the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, has damaged the education system. Hilton said the NEA may have been a positive force previously, but now it has become more focused on protecting jobs than improving education. He said it has become a monster than controls politics. He later added that he believes the state and local school system need to undergo personnel audits.

Regarding school vouchers, Hilton said vouchers can be a positive tool, but he doesn’t like the current system because it drains the public school of many higher-performing students. He said it’s sad that communities can’t fix the problems at existing schools and are resigned to moving students.

Jeffares also said education is a top priority for him. He agreed that the federal education department should be abolished and said the public needs to tell the federal government they’re tired of the current system. Jeffares said he’s never been a union person in general and believes that in today’s world they are often just pocketing members’ monies.

He said school vouchers can work and school choice should exist. He added that as the number of private schools increase, competition in the marketplace will increase and will hopefully improve both public and private school performance.

Ethics and Legislator Pay and Perks

Both Hilton and Jeffares said legislators should never be exempt from any state laws and that salaries should be lowered for legislators. They also both said term limits should be implemented. However, Hilton said two-year terms should be replaced by four-year terms to avoid legislators having to constantly be in campaign mode. He said he will not serve more than eight total years and thought that was a reasonable limit for all legislators. Jeffares said instituting term limits would eliminate the problem of seniority ruling politics and would eliminate professional politicians.

When asked about his primary financial support for his campaign, Jeffares said friends, family, a couple of golf tournaments and a concert made up the majority of his contributions. He said he receives financial support from around the state because he has made many friends through his water preservation business. Hilton said friends and family have been his largest supporters, as he has not actively asked for any donations. He said Jeffares has outspent him six to one in the campaign, because Hilton believes in running a fiscally responsible campaign.

Illegal Immigration, Taxation, Other Issues

Both candidates said illegal immigration needed to be prevented and that amnesty should not be an option. Jeffares suggested large fines for businesses that hire illegal immigrants, while Hilton said the state may also need to revoke businesses licenses.

Hilton said the Fair Tax was a perfect tool, but he believed the state legislature would find a way to pervert its formula and end up using it against the residents. He said government needs to be fixed first. Jeffares he supports the Fair Tax but still needs to have some issues worked out. He said he also support increasing the sales tax but is mindful of not wanting to hurt small businesses.

They also both said the state should consider repealing the state income tax, but any change would have to be phased in.

They also both said they supported strong second amendment rights and said that gay, lesbian and transgender residents should not be given any special rights.

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