JEKYLL ISLAND — Six Democrats running for governor debated Thursday whether more legalized gambling in Georgia is the way to bail out education, while Republicans sparred over whether teachers and hospitals should be tasked with helping catch illegal immigrants.
Still, with only about five weeks left until the July 20 primaries, candidates from both parties mostly refrained from hard-hitting shots at their opponents during debates at the Georgia Press Association’s annual conference.
Democrats were most sharply divided by a new proposal from Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who wants to legalize electronic bingo machines to raise money for schools. Baker says the idea is natural extension of the lottery-funded HOPE scholarships and would raise $1 billion a year for elementary, middle and high schools.
“I’m the only candidate here that will tell you what we ought to do for education, but also how we’re going to pay for it,” said Baker, who says the money will go to reducing class sizes and paying for a longer school year.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes said he wouldn’t discount the idea, but questioned bingo machines would really raise that much money. He also worried more legal gambling might siphon money away from lottery sales that fund HOPE scholarships.
“My greatest concern would be how does it cannibalize the lottery,” Barnes said.
State Rep. DuBose Porter said allowing state-sanctioned bingo machines “loses the integrity of the lottery that we’ve tried to protect.” And Democrat David Poythress called it a “highly regressive” tax — meaning bingo would sap more money from the poor.
Baker used Barnes’ noncommittal response to his bingo plan to take one of the few jabs traded among Democrats.
“Roy, we need you to hurry up and make up your mind on this,” he told Barnes, the presumed frontrunner.
Democrats Bill Bolton and Carl Camon also opposed bingo. Bolton said funding education through gambling takes money from poorer Georgians to benefit the rich. Camon said he doesn’t think the state “cannot gamble its way out of debt.”
In a separate debate among five Republican contenders, former state Senate GOP leader Eric Johnson clashed briefly with ex-congressman Nathan Deal over how far the state should go in rooting out illegal immigrants.
Johnson says he’d require schools and hospitals to verify the citizenship of students and patients to keep illegal immigrants from receiving services.
“When we are furloughing teachers and increasing class sizes, we should not be educating the children or taking care of the health needs of illegal immigrants,” Johnson said.
Deal, like most of the other GOP contenders, said he’d support a Georgia version of a controversial Arizona law giving police broader authority to check peoples’ citizenship status. But he said he didn’t want to drag teachers into the fray.
“I don’t think we have to burden already overburdened school teachers with being immigration enforcement officers,” Deal said.
Republican state Sen. Jeff Chapman said the state and federal governments need to do a better job enforcing immigration laws already on the books.
Notably absent from the debate was Republican Karen Handel.
Handel announced in April she would no longer share a stage with Ray McBerry after allegations surfaced he once had a relationship with a teenage girl.
She stuck to her word Thursday after McBerry accepted an invitation to debate at Jekyll Island.
McBerry, who denies any wrongdoing, didn’t raise the relationship allegation and wasn’t asked about it.
But McBerry took a dig at his absent opponent when he introduced himself by saying: “I’m going to be standing in today for Karen Handel.”
Johnson chimed in with a slight poke at Handel as well. After McBerry finished his closing statement, Johnson turned to him and said: “Thank you, Karen.”
Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, the GOP money leader, had one testy exchange with a member of the debate’s panel of questioners. When asked how he’d tighten Georgia’s budget in a lean economy, Oxendine said he’d look for state agencies to trim, combine or eliminate altogether.
“I know where the waste is,” Oxendine said. “We’re going to have a lot fewer state agencies. We’re going to have a lot less overhead.”
Pressed to specify which agencies he’d consider axing, Oxendine responded: “It’s my pleasure to actually answer that question the way I want to.”