State Senate candidates push for education dollars

mlee@macon.comOctober 20, 2012 

  • Senate District 25 candidates

    Darrell Black

    Age: 59
    Party: Democratic
    Occupation: Small-business owner
    Political Experience: Never held elected office

    Burt Jones
    Age: 33
    Party: Republican
    Occupation: Insurance company owner
    Political Experience: Never held elected office

ATLANTA -- Voters in a state Senate district running north from Bibb County will choose a freshman legislator in November.

But forget about polarized politics. The Democratic and Republican candidates identify similar problems in underfunded schools and unemployment, and they politely offer different solutions.

Democrat Darrell Black of Milledgeville and Republican Burt Jones of Jackson are campaigning for the state Senate District 25 seat, which includes all of Butts, Jasper, Morgan, Putnam, Greene and Baldwin counties, plus parts of Jones, Bibb and Walton.

Both have been examining state funding of schools, and both have criticisms.

“The state needs to fund schools more,” said Black, quoting the old saying, “if you think education is expensive, try a world without it.”

He points out that under Democratic leadership, the state paid a greater share of the K-12 bill than it does now. In the mid-’90s, the state paid generally more than 50 percent of each school system’s bills. In 2010, the figure was about 38 percent.

“The state continues cutting funding, and that’s not the way to make the scores and results better,” said Black.

Indeed, the state of school funding makes Jones wary of the charter school referendum that’s also on the ballot this November. If passed, it would allow the state to issue charters to these publicly financed, privately run schools. Right now, only local school boards can approve charter schools.

“I don’t have a problem with charter schools,” said Jones. “But we’re talking about adding new schools to a system that is already basically underfunded right now. ... I don’t see how we’re going to fund more schools out of the same pot.”

More money for anything has been a tough sell for the past few years in Georgia. Tax receipts in Georgia are recovering, but not enough to bring state spending back to its prerecession level. Gov. Nathan Deal has asked most state departments to draft budgets for next year trimmed by 3 to 5 percent, though K-12 education is exempt.

On the hunt for funds, Black dismissed a Democratic reputation for favoring taxes. “It’s difficult to get a tax bill through the Legislature, so don’t worry about raising taxes,“ he said.

Instead, he said, Georgia can do a better job of catching tax-dodging stores by sending in local auditors.

“The local authority already comes in and audits me every four or five years on inventory tax, so it’s not a big deal,” said Black, owner of Flooring America in Milledgeville. An honest business like his, he said, has software that can easily print out sales tax figures in two minutes, but the state has never come to double check on him.

There are plenty of stores that indeed collect sales tax, but they never pass it to the state.

A pilot study of Hall County released in 2010 found nearly 1,000 businesses that did not even have a state sales tax number, so they were not remitting state sales tax.

Jones is looking toward new businesses for the district. He runs JP Capital and Insurance, an insurance and real estate business that is part of a larger family company, Jones Petroleum. He also serves on the Butts County Water Authority Board.

Jones said he’s got experience bringing businesses to the district, citing his selling a big rig sales, service and corporate office center in Butts County to Peterbilt.

“We reached out” to Peterbilt’s parent company in Washington state, said Jones. “They liked the facility, they liked what the county would be able to provide them in water and sewage.” Now it employs about 100 people, he said.

That kind of coordination between business and government is something Jones wants to continue if elected, “to try to create a favorable community that would entice retail operators or distribution-type” companies.

For Black, economic development policy is tied directly to schools and postsecondary training.

“Generally people relocate to districts where they have good schools, a work-ready job force or people highly trained in technical fields.”

That, he said, is what’s powering growth in places such as North Carolina.

“We can’t compete on the low-end manufacturing with China. We’ve lost all the basic manufacturing. ... Development’s going to be more high-tech.”

Jones has the cash advantage in the race, having raised just over $189,000, as of the Sept. 30 disclosures, about half of it his own funds.

For Black, donations total about $8,000. But Black may have geography on his side, as his home turf is Baldwin, the most populous county wholly in the district.

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