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So far, the biggest issue in the race for governor has been taxes.
Not ours, as in how much we pay, or how much we should pay. Theirs, as in what taxes the candidates have paid.
Democratic nominee Roy Barnes has been on a relentless attack accusing his Republican counterpart, Gainesville's Nathan Deal, of failing to fully disclose his financial records.
Ten days ago, Deal released summary information on his past 29 years of tax returns. Barnes has posted full information on 25 years of his taxes online. The debate now is over whose records are more complete.
Accountants who have looked over both men's returns have found no reason to believe either man has been skirting the law when it comes to paying their fair share. Yet Barnes continues to play the "tax card" as the race heads down the stretch.
Thursday, he unveiled a new ethics plan at the state Capitol that would require candidates for statewide office to make public their past seven years of income tax returns and business dealings. It would ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and keep ex-officials from becoming lobbyists for a period of time. It also would make the legislature subject to the state's open records law, a good idea. Meanwhile, his TV ads continue to hammer Deal more on ethics than any other issue.
There's nothing wrong with pushing ethics reform, which is long overdue in our state, nor the notion that public officials need to maintain the highest possible standards of behavior in their public and private lives. Too many elected officials have fattened up at the public trough over the years, leading voters to become ever more cynical about their motives. We need our governments to be clean and competent and devoid of leaders out for their own self interest.
At the same time, though, the governor's race needs to be about something other than whose tax returns are more complete. Voters need more to go on when deciding which of these men should lead the state for the next four years.
Much of the discussion stems from Deal's dealings with the state over his vehicle salvage business in Gainesville. Before he left the U.S. House, he was the subject of a congressional ethics investigation into whether he used his office to influence state policy and benefit his company. The probe ended when he stepped down from Congress, and despite rumors of a grand jury investigation, there's no hard evidence that it is still being pursued. His company since has ended its contract with the state.
How one feels about what Deal did or didn't do in this case depends on your view of the candidate. Either he committed a serious ethics breach worth hard scrutiny, he had a lapse of judgment that merely looks bad in a political race, or something in-between. The incident occurred some time ago, and the story has been out there awhile with no new information added.
Voters had two chances to weigh Deal's actions against his qualifications in both the primary and runoff, and they chose to make him the Republican nominee, despite the same kind of attacks from his GOP foes that Barnes is now engaged in.
This is not to say ethics isn't important in a governor's race, or any major political contest. But at some point, the campaign for governor needs to be less about them and more about us. There are key issues in this campaign that involve making the lives of Georgians better, and they aren't getting enough attention.
Our state budget is a mess and needs careful attention from the governor and legislature, working together, to set the right priorities. Many Georgians are looking for work or stuck in temporary jobs and need to know whose policies will help rebuild our economy. Small businesses need incentive to grow and hire more people, and large businesses need to be attracted to our state.
Our schools are struggling amid budget cuts and federal mandates, and need a governor who will advocate innovation and excellence while finding new ways to fund these initiatives.
Georgians drive on crowded highways and need plans to make their commutes easier and safer. And we are two years away from a federal court ruling that could severely curtail how much water we can take from Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. The next governor needs a plan to address that concern and begin working with other governors and federal officials from day one.
Last week, Deal unveiled his own plan at the Capitol, his ideas for reforming state education. Barnes already has a school reform plan in place. That's what the candidates need to be discussing, the real substantive issues that affect Georgians' lives most directly.
Ethics should be part of the campaign, any campaign, and electing civic-minded officials who obey the law is a top priority. But it's not the only issue voters need to hear.
The candidates' financial records are out there; voters can see them and decide for themselves if they are a problem. If anyone's business dealings or ethical concerns leave you leery of casting a vote for that person, then vote for someone else. It's up to all of us to weigh what matters most in our lives and decide if any transgressions are enough to disqualify someone from public office.
Beyond that, let's now hope the campaign for governor from here on out can focus a bit more on our state's future and a little less on the candidates' past.