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If there was any doubt remaining, it's clear that the economy is the No. 1 issue in this year's state election. Nothing else comes close in terms of importance.
A Mason-Dixon Research poll commissioned by the Georgia Newspaper Partnership and released this weekend, indicates that 47 percent of Georgians who took part listed the economy and jobs as the top issue in the campaign for governor.
Ranking second was education at 15 percent, followed by government spending, taxes and budget at 12 percent. Nothing else topped single digits.
And it's not surprising. News this week out of Atlanta showed that the state unemployment level remains at 10 percent, above the national rate. A nationwide survey showed that 1 in 7 Americans now are living below the poverty line, including 300,000 more Georgians from 2008-09. And our state now ranks fifth in the nation with 20 percent of its population lacking health insurance, mostly those who are unemployed or underemployed.
None of this is particularly surprising. The economic downturn that hit our nation and state two years ago has had a lingering and devastating effect on our public and private finances. Though businesses are slowly recovering from the recession, they are doing so with a leaner work force, meaning fewer jobs are available for those who need them. Many who have sought work for months have simply given up as their jobless benefits threaten to expire.
Meanwhile, the lack of tax revenue from all these working folks has driven the state's budget perilously close to falling into the red, saved only by an influx of federal stimulus money that won't last, and that our kids and grandkids will be paying off years down the road.
This is the task the new governor will inherit, and it is a challenging one. So what do Nathan Deal, Roy Barnes and John Monds propose to fix this problem?
Democratic nominee Barnes plans to grow the economy based on a handful of initiatives, as found on his website: Retrofitting state buildings to be water and energy efficient, creating jobs for those projects; emphasize high-tech education and biomedical research; reinstate the homestead tax exemption; spur rural economic development and agricultural exports; stimulate the creation of green jobs; and pushing Georgia tourism.
Republican Deal plans to offer tax relief to small businesses while cutting corporate income taxes by one-third, ending the "net worth" tax and exempting startups, all to spur job creation; allow local governments to exempt business inventory from taxes; fuel growth in biotech and medical industries; create a program to foster research and development in Georgia; and encourage private lending to small and startup businesses. Read more at his website.
Monds, the Libertarian, advocates tax reform by phasing out the state income tax in favor of a sales tax; cutting back government spending with zero-based budgets; and allowing local governments to approve Sunday alcohol sales to raise revenue. You can read more at his website.
The candidates also have ideas to improve the state's education and transportation challenges, which tie directly into our economy. That's only natural, as those issues are intertwined and dependent on the other. No candidate can offer sweeping plans for new programs until our state's budget is balanced, revenues are steady and more Georgians are back at work.
Each of them has ideas, but we can't help but wonder if they are getting enough play and attention in this campaign season. So far, voters are more likely to hear that Barnes is "arrogant like Barack Obama" and Deal is "too corrupt for Congress" than what either man plans to do to fix our state's economic worries. The attack ads are no surprise in any election year, but this year they seem even more out of place and frivolous in a time when so many people are suffering from the effects of our economic tidal wave.
The recent disclosure of Deal's personal financial problems are an indicator of where our economy has been going. His part in a business loan undertaken by family members has left him with a large personal debt that must be repaid early next year. It's hard to know how voters may view this when they go to the polls. Some Georgians may be able to relate to the kind of financial difficulties he has encountered, while others may have concerns about his ability to manage the state's finances.
This is not an election for trivial matters, to be sure. The debate over social and personal issues is small-potatoes stuff and not worthy of a campaign during tough times. The next governor must work quickly and effectively with the legislature and other state leaders to create a sensible strategy to help grow jobs. He needs to understand that state government alone can't fix the problems our free market economy has endured, but it can do a better job of offering opportunities and a climate for business growth that will move us back in the right direction.
Weigh the candidates' ideas carefully before you cast your vote. Visit their websites to read more and listen to their ideas on the economy during debates, forums and speeches.
Other issues may come up to cloud the conversation but right now, nothing matters more to the 1.7 million Georgians living in poverty and the hundreds of thousands who are seeking work. Their plight affects us all, and we need our leaders to respond with the right ideas.