The Times is presenting candidates’ positions on local issues in print editions through the end of April ahead of the May 24 primary. Early voting begins May 2. For more coverage, visit gainesvilletimes.com/election2022.
Times Talks | Forum with candidates for the state Senate District 49Candidates for the state Senate District 49 join Times Editor Shannon Casas and reporter Conner Evans for a debate ahead of the May election.
What to know about this race: This seat was left open when Butch Miller, who has served in the Senate since 2010, decided to run instead for lieutenant governor. Two of the candidates, Shelly Echols and Scott Gibbs, are familiar faces from the Hall County Board of Commissioners. They previously faced off in a 2018 primary race for District 3 of that board, which ended with Echols ousting Gibbs from the seat with 72% of the votes in the primary.
How to vote: District 49 covers almost all of Hall County, except a small portion in East Hall. Only those in the district vote, and the district shifted some following the 2020 census. Check your districts at www.mvp.sos.ga.gov. Voters select either a Republican or Democrat ballot in the primary.
Meet the candidates
Residence: North Hall, near Lula
Occupation: Business owner of Daniel’s Educational Tours
Political experience: Hall County District 3 Commissioner since 2019
Family: Married with two children
Residence: North Hall
Occupation: Business owner of a utility contracting company
Political experience: Hall County District 3 Commissioner 2011-2018
Family: Married with one son
Occupation: retired, Atlanta Police sergeant, past president of Atlanta Police Chapter Police Benevolent Association
Political experience: None
Candidates on education legislation
The state legislature has focused efforts this year toward giving parents more control over their children’s education. The Parents’ Bill of Rights will require teachers to make lesson plans available on request. Meanwhile, other bills focus on banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” related to race. Opponents say critical race theory, an examination of how societal structures perpetuate White dominance, isn’t being taught in schools and legislation may restrict open discussions about race, civil rights and history.
Echols: “The most important part is the state says the parents should have access to what’s happening in their child’s classroom,” Echols said. “The Parent’s Bill of Rights is great. I think that it could go a little further. I would love to see a provision – and this goes along with the divisive concepts legislation — to allow parents access to online video of what’s happening, like live streaming of what’s happening in the classroom.”
Echols used to teach at East Hall and Johnson high schools in Hall County.
“If you think that somebody’s listening or watching you’re definitely on your best behavior,” Echols said.
Gibbs: “I’m not in favor of critical race theory being taught in schools. … Teach history how it happened, don’t make history up.”
The state and federal government should not create more work for teachers, Gibbs said, and he stressed that opinions should be left out of the classroom, especially by professors at the college level.
“When you get to colleges, there’s a lot more opinions being taught than actual items,” Gibbs said. “If you keep to the basics and keep the facts in view, then everybody’s a winner.”
Straut: “I think that curriculums should be posted online so every parent should see it, and know what their kids are being taught,” Straut said.
Money should follow the student rather than creating inequities among school districts, Straut said, and he would support measures to increase school choice.
“We should strive to make public schools better but I also understand that parents need to have a little more control,” he said. “I think that the money should follow the student and not the school district.”
Candidates on health care access
Gov. Brian Kemp signed bipartisan legislation to make mental health care more accessible, and it
includes incentives for training mental health professionals who work with law enforcement. We asked candidates, what other improvements to health care should legislators be looking at, especially in terms of access and affordability?
Echols: “I think that affordability is a problem,” Echols said. There are also inequities among different facilities across the state, because hospitals like Northeast Georgia Health System are non-profit and must treat indigent patients, while other systems may have nicer facilities, because they are run differently.
“There’s got to be some kind of needs-based assessment and offer care that way,” she said.
Jail systems are overtasked when they must deal with mental health patients, Echols said.
“A lot of times people who are in a mental health crisis or an addiction crisis, the police are called … but they could be better treated in a hospital facility than in a jail,” she said.
Gibbs: “Any time you have competition in health care, that cuts down on costs. We need to have more facilities out there so that it makes it more competitive,” he said.
More support for people suffering from mental health issues will have huge benefits, he said, and the issue is multi-faceted.
“I think that area (mental health) has been so underserved and underfunded for years, that anything’s a good starting point,” Gibbs said. “We need to constantly stay on top of that because whether it be addiction problems … whether it’s special needs or whether it’s individuals dealing with depression, there’s just so much of it. It’s totally around us.”
Straut: Straut said he supported getting students in the pipeline sooner to work toward becoming nurses and other medical professionals. Many health systems still have worker shortages
“You make it available and you get these programs together and you get these people in the pipeline toward these occupations,” he said.
He is glad mental health is being addressed at the state level, he said, and these measures could also help homeless people who often suffer from mental health issues.
“You can’t institutionalize these people, and they go out there committing crimes because their mind is not right, and they’re basically just doing damage because they don’t know anything else to do,” Straut said.
Candidates on the state budget
The General Assembly cut state income tax this legislative session and will give out more than $1 billion in tax rebates. Lawmakers also approved raises for teachers and many other state employees, buoyed by strong sales tax revenues during the pandemic creating a large budget surplus. Some candidates have advocated repealing the state income tax completely, but they would have to provide a plan to make back the billions in revenue it provides.
Gibbs: “I think we’re seeing some bumps that probably won’t sustain, as far as revenues (go), because of COVID,” Gibbs said. “If you base your spending on historical data, you can’t go wrong there.”
Increasing pay for state employees is necessary to get quality candidates, he said.
“You have to be competitive with the marketplace,” Gibbs said. “I hope it’s not the last time that we can give teachers a raise. I think that teachers are underpaid, overworked.”
He also warned that costs could raise along with current inflation, so the state should be conservative with its budget.
Echols: “We have to be careful when we look at spending, because things are going pretty well right now as far as financial income for the state, but we’re always uncertain about what will happen, so we need to always monitor that,” Echols said. “As far as the people who got pay raises, they deserved them.”
A consumption-based tax would be the fairest tax system, she said, but eliminating the state income tax would have to be done over a few years.
Straut: “I totally support getting rid of the state income tax, but it’s a $13 billion project and we’re going to have to recoup that revenue in some other form or they’re going to have to make drastic cuts,” he said. “I would support a gradual reduction either by age or income level.”
The revenue could be made back through increased consumption or hotel/motel taxes, he suggested.
“There’s a lot of fraud and abuse in these government programs and we’ll have to do a better job,” Straut said.
Candidates on the Republican Party
Gov. Brian Kemp is being challenged by multiple Republican candidates, including Trump-backed former U.S. Senator David Perdue. Several down-ballot races have a similar divide between candidates backed by former president Donald Trump and those who are not. Is there a significant divide in the Republican Party, and will Trump’s influence continue to be important in these races?
Echols: Echols said she would like to see more women get involved in the Republican Party, since there are only two current female Senators in Georgia.
“This year and in two years I think there’s going to be more Republicans and conservatives voting and people are fed up with the way things are being run now,” Echols said. “This is going to be short-lived. If you look at the ratings of Trump and Trump candidates, they’re not gaining any momentum. It seems to be that support is waning a little bit.”
Gibbs: “I’m okay with anybody having a different opinion,” Gibbs said. “But at the end, we have to all come together and be united with whoever the candidate is and hope that there can be common ground found. Whoever the party is in leadership at the time, there’s going to be division, but what you have to do is once the primary is over or one the runoff is over, you’ve got to unite behind whoever the candidate is.”
Gibbs said the last presidential election led to a divide, but Republicans should stick together.
Straut: “I do think some of them have lost sight of what our principles are,” Straut said. “We want smaller government, less taxes. We can do that. I don’t like the infighting and the bickering; that’s obscene. We’re all on the same team. At the end of the day, this is what we want to do, it’s just who has the best idea to do it.”