No surprises here. The big topics at Saturday’s District 6 State Senate Candidate Forum hosted by the Cobb County Republican Party were the economy, transportation and ethics reform. What was surprising, however, was how differently Josh Belinfante, Drew Ellenburg and Hunter Hill viewed the solutions to these issues.
Personal Income Tax and the Economy
Both Ellenburg and Hill said they think the way to boost Georgia’s economy lies in abolishing the state’s personal income tax and agreed it should be phased out over time.
“What I think we need to do in Georgia is fade it in,” Hill said. “You can’t just go in there and wholesale get rid of the income tax. So it’s a six percent income tax. You reduce it a point per year and each year you increase the state sales tax half a point. So you end up with three points on the sales tax and no income tax.”
Hill said increasing the sales tax would create a tax base from Georgia’s transient population that uses the state’s ports and highways on their way to other places.
Ellenburg agreed the income tax should be reduced gradually, but proposed offsetting the reduction with “sin taxes” on cigarettes and strip clubs.
However, Belinfante posited that doing away with personal income tax and increasing the state’s sales tax placed an unfair burden on small retail businesses and those living on a fixed income.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” he said. “You’re raising taxes at one level. What that does is you raise the sales tax to make it disproportionate. Number one it creates a budget crisis like we saw in Tennessee and Florida. Georgia had a balanced approach. Our revenues were down we waded through the storm and we maintained our triple A bond rating. Number two, for seniors who are counting on having the tax where it is, particularly those on fixed incomes, you’re hurting them. And number three, again, the person that is sitting there trying to sell a product in a retail environment against a person that is selling in a retail environment that is tax-free, you’re putting them at a tremendous disadvantage.”
TSPLOST: What Exactly is Bus Rapid Transit?
The candidates divided again over transportation, with Belinfante and Hill saying they were still weighing the pros and cons of the Transportation Investment Act, a one-percent tax increase over 10 years that would be used to fund a list of 157 transportation improvement projects.
Belinfante said he saw how some of the projects would relieve congestion for District 6 constituents in Sandy Springs, but he and Hill both agreed a rapid transit line in Cobb wasn’t the way to go.
“Rapid transit rail is not a great use of our dollars,” Hill said. “It’s ten times more expensive than regular rubber tire transit. So that’s one of my issues with the proposals is we have rapid transit rail in the project list and I don’t think that’s the way to reduce traffic congestion.”
“I’m still trying to figure out specifically what the bus rapid transit line is,” Belinfante said. “It’s the biggest project in Cobb County—actually what it is and what it does. Until I can clear answer on that, I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to vote.”
Ellenburg separated himself from the pack by voicing his opposition to the TIA outright.
“I’m for reforming the Department of Transportation,” he said. “I think that’s where we start with traffic. In my opinion, that’s just a slush fund of dollars and cents that are going to all kinds of pet projects. We need some leadership down there. I’m against the TSPLOST. I’m for growth and fixing transportation, but maybe we do it in innovative ways like flow lanes up north and zippy cars. There are other ways you can do this that are competitive.
All three candidates agreed that ethics are a problem under Georgia’s gold dome.
Drew Ellenburg touted that he was the first candidate to sign a pledge to limit lobbyists’ expenditures on legislators to $100.
“You can’t legislate ethics,” he said. “Either you have character/ethics or you don’t. It’s pretty simple. I think we need to change the ball club. We’ve got people that are taking extravagant trips to Europe and using lobbyists and super pacs and special interest groups. We’ve got problems.”
Hill took it a step further.
“I’m for the gift bans, but I think we need to take it a step further. I think we need to have legislators reporting the gifts they receive (…) Currently lobbyists have to report the gifts they give to legislators and legislators do not.”
Belinfante has said previously that he doesn’t sign pledges as a rule, but he offered another solution based on his experience on the State Ethics Commission.
“I support passing a law that institutes a $100 gift cap, but I don’t think that’s enough,” he said. “ I think we’ve got to give the State Ethics Commission back its authority that was taken away. That’s one of the things that hamstrung us on the commission when we were trying to clarify the law. The second thing we need to do is fund the ethics commission so its software and hardware can actually function. You try to file something when everyone in the state is at the same time, the system crashes.”
Belinfante, Hill and Ellenburg are seeking to be nominated the Republican District 6 State Senate candidate. Voting takes place Tuesday, July 31.