(Watch the video from the debate by clicking here.)
State representative hopefuls Dave Belton and Aaron Brooks squared off in the season’s first forum, debating how the state should handle education and taxes moving forward and lobbying for front-runner status in a three-way Republican primary race.
When 10-year state Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, announced he would not be seeking reelection late last year, Belton, Brooks and Ester Fleming Jr. all jumped into the race for the District 112 seat, which covers much of eastern Newton County and all of Morgan County.
The News and Newton Conservative Liberty Alliance hosted a forum Friday at Peachtree Academy for the candidates. Brooks and Belton attended, but Fleming said he had a prior commitment.
State of education
With only two candidates, portions of Friday’s forum were done in debate style, and the opening topic was the state of education in Georgia and education reform.
Belton, who is a school board member in Morgan County, said the state of education in Georgia wasn’t as bad as many made it out to be, and he advocated for community involvement as the best method to improving the public school system, while Brooks said school performance would only improve through increased competition between public and private schools through more school choice options.
Belton said the public education "gets a really bum rap," and listed off some statistics to support his notion the public school system wasn’t failing. He said the number of Georgia seniors passing their Advanced Placement (AP) tests doubled last year to 21 percent, just above the national average, and said Georgia ranked 17th in the number of AP scholars.
He said many people don’t think Georgia’s schools are doing well because of low SAT scores; however, Belton said the perception is warped because 80 percent of Georgia students take the SAT, while there are 30 states in which around 9 percent of students take the SAT.
"We’re comparing our average students to their cream of the crop," Belton said.
Looking at ACT scores, Georgia ranked 17th in the nation, Belton said.
He said his focus is on public education because 96 percent of students in Georgia go through public education, and he said that was the best way to prepare the future workforce for the advanced jobs of the future.
Brooks said he was a supporter of increased school choice, citing the fact Georgia spent more per student than any other state in the Southeast and "yet, still had the lowest graduation rate."
"Everywhere (school choice) has been tried, we’ve seen vast improvements," Brooks said, citing the state of Indiana’s program as a model for Georgia.
Brooks said he didn’t support minimum standards, saying they resulted "in common mediocrity."
He wanted to see communities develop their own standards and be in control of their own education. He said increased school choice would lead to the higher performance Georgia’s residents have been screaming for.
Belton said standards are needed to compare performance and said many private schools had no standards. Brooks argued comparing students’ performance once they get to college would be the most effective measure.
Belton said he supported school vouchers, if done in a limited way, while Brooks was more in support of tax credits. Brooks also said he felt people who don’t put their kids in public schools should get the state portion of their property taxes refunded.
Tax reform and the budget
Brooks said the state’s current tax system was "absolutely hurting" Georgia when it came to attracting businesses and he supported abolishing the state income tax and replacing it with a consumption or Fair Tax. (A simple definition is a system where increased sales tax rates replace income tax.)
Brooks said the nine states that didn’t have state income taxes saw a 75 increase in their state revenues between 2001 and 2011.
Belton agreed with no income tax, citing his time living in Texas, which also doesn’t have a state income tax. He said it’s a tough thing to replace the income tax, but he said the state needs leaders willing to fight that battle.
Brooks said he’d like to see zero-based budgeting (a process where a department or organization builds its budget from the ground up) implemented at the state level every four years. Belton said he agreed with zero-based budgeting.
Where the two disagreed was about whether Georgia is business-friendly.
Brooks said the state came in 34th in the nation in the American Tax Foundation’s business tax climate ratings. Belton countered, citing a site selection magazine that ranked Georgia No. 1 in business climate and said a big positive was the state’s workforce program, Quick Start, which helps large industries find the workforces they need to get started in Georgia.
However, Brooks said the state needs corporate tax reform. He said North Carolina’s big tax reform movement last year helped it surpass Georgia’s competitiveness. He said the fact Georgia needs to offer huge tax credits to attract industries was a signal the tax code needed to be changed.
Belton agreed with the need for reform, but said, considering the area he serves, he was most concerned with his three priorities of seeing positive economic growth with quality jobs and protecting farmers and he said those would be his focuses.