If you believe that a vigorous discussion of the issues is important to our political system, then you have to give a big thanks to Dalton Mayor David Pennington.
After thinking it over for quite a while, Pennington announced last week that he will get into the governor’s race and run against Gov. Nathan Deal in the Republican primary.
Pennington’s decision is good for the political process and, in the long run, will be good for the average Georgian.
No incumbent officeholders should be given a free ride to re-election without having to defend their record. By mounting a campaign for governor, Pennington will shine a spotlight on what he sees as the governor’s shortcomings and require Deal to justify the actions he has taken in his first term as the state’s chief executive.
If the Democratic Party is able to field a credible candidate for governor, then the debate started by Pennington and Deal will be carried into the general election campaign as well. That is the sign of a healthy democracy.
One thing the candidates should be debating is the most basic issue of all: What kind of future do we want for Georgia?
For the past 10 years or so, the state’s political leadership has followed a strategy of approving numerous tax breaks and exemptions for businesses and special interest groups in the stated belief that this would create many new jobs and ensure the state’s economic prosperity.
Those tax cuts, which drain hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury, had to be balanced by spending cuts. The governor and the legislature made the decision to cut the money Georgia spends in such areas as public education and transportation to pay for the tax breaks.
Deal is a big believer in these tax incentives for businesses and he contends that he has been successful as a job creator. “I think our job numbers are great, 177,000 since I became governor,” he said in an interview shortly after Pennington got into the race.
You could also make the argument that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to cripple our local school systems – many of which can’t keep their doors open for a full 180 days a year – and allow our highways to become ever more jammed and congested.
According to data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, Georgia has slumped from 25th place among the states in per capita income to 40th place, the same ranking it held in 1979. Louisiana, Tennessee and North Carolina have moved ahead of Georgia, while Alabama is close to catching up and passing us.
All of that tax cutting did little to move Georgia up the ladder in terms of job creation. The state’s unemployment rate in May was 8.3 percent, which is an improvement from where it was in 2009 and 2010 but still is well above the national jobless rate of 7.6 percent. Georgia’s unemployment rate has now been higher than the national rate for 70 consecutive months, a period of nearly six years.
Pennington noted those signs of economic stagnation in announcing his candidacy.
"Georgia citizens' incomes are ranked down where they were in 1979,” Pennington said. “Georgia has trailed the nation in economic performance, with the national economy growing 71 percent faster than ours for much of the last decade."
Pennington is even more conservative than Deal. During last summer’s campaign for the T-SPLOST transportation sales tax, Deal urged voters to approve the tax proposal while Pennington staunchly opposed it. I would presume that in the upcoming primary campaign, Pennington will criticize Deal for not cutting taxes enough or for not making the right kinds of tax cuts.
If Deal secures the GOP nomination and makes it into the general election, the Democratic nominee would have the opportunity to joust with the governor over whether the state’s future is better served by spending more on things like education or by passing more tax breaks.
These are the kinds of issues where the incumbent should be required to defend his record and make the case for continuing his policies. Thanks to Mayor Pennington, voters can be assured that we will at least get that debate started in the Republican primary.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com.