More than 280 people jammed themselves inside and outside of the party’s headquarters in Towne Lake to see Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and Georgia Department of Transportation District 6 board member Brandon Beach face off in their bids to win the GOP nomination during the July 31 primary.
The Republicans had to put speakers on the headquarters patio to allow those outside to hear the proceedings and brought in 50 extra chairs to accommodate the crowd inside the hall.
Both candidates drew large camps of ardent supporters to the debate, many wearing T-shirts and stickers in support of their choice.
While both candidates acknowledged they had problems with the constrained list of projects voters in the Atlanta area will consider on July 31, that’s where their agreement ended.
Rogers, who voted for the enabling legislation Transportation Investment Act of 2010, said he was opposed to the transportation referendum.
“I think the TSPLOST is ridiculous,” he said. “I think it’s a total waste of money.”
Beach said he planned to vote in support of the referendum, and noted the state as well as the region has a traffic problem.
Beach said he felt there was a lot of transit in the final project list, and suggested that if he had been in office he would have put “safeguards” in place to limit the amount of transit projects to 25 percent.
He also accused Rogers of either not reading, or not understanding or caring about the 2010 legislation enough to put those safeguards in place.
Rogers said he and other legislators put language in place to disallow any money to be used for maintenance and operations, which he said has now been included in plans for the $8 billion generated by the tax.
Rogers noted the inclusion of maintenance and operations projects made the list illegal and that he would consider joining a lawsuit if it’s approved.
Rogers said he trusted Georgia residents to make the right decision even if he doesn’t agree with those decisions.
“I actually believe in freedom and I’m sorry that you don’t,” he said, referring to the right of voters to consider referendums.
Both candidates also said they agreed the method of state funding for education dollars is broken, but Rogers noted the amount of money coming to Cherokee County for education has increased.
He noted that in fiscal year 2004, the county received $100 million in funding.
In the most recent budget, the majority leader said the county garnered $148 million for kindergarten through grade 12.
Beach said quality basic education, or QBE funding, is broken, but the amount of money coming to Cherokee County continues to be “outpaced” by its student growth.
He noted the district’s funding has dwindled from 60 to 48 percent in money coming from the state and noted the amount of money the county has “donated” to other counties has increased from $20 million to $37 million in the last 10 years.
Perhaps one of the most heated moments of the debate centered on the issue of local control and local governance.
Rogers in direct question to Beach accused his challenger of believing local boards of education are “superior” when it comes to deciding what’s best for a child’s education.
Beach noted he didn’t think that was the issue, but added he didn’t like the concept of politicians in the Gold Dome “mandating charter schools” at the state level when they can’t even fund the current education system.
“I don’t think we need to have the state telling us what to do,” Beach said.
He pointed to the Fulton Science Academy Middle School, a charter school Rogers had touted as being a model of success.
The school has recently come under fire for its mismanagement and questionable financial practices and a recommendation from the state has suggested the school’s charter not be renewed.
Rogers countered Beach’s point by saying he’s never forced the issue of charter schools onto local school districts and that he believes in educational choice.
Also on local control, Beach said he worked with county and city officials including Woodstock Mayor Donnie Henriques and County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens in getting the new Ridgewalk interchange along Interstate 575 up and off the ground.
He noted it’s legislators’ jobs to help and guide local elected officials.
Both state Senate candidates praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Arizona anti-illegal immigration law.
The court ruled that it was constitutional for officers to check the immigration status of individuals arrested for other reasons, but shot down its three other provisions.
Rogers said the ruling “reinforces” what’s being done in Georgia.
Beach said he’d want local law enforcement agencies to have the power to enforce Georgia’s law, which was similar to Arizona’s law.
Both candidates also said they were in favor of utilizing the e-verify system, which employers are required to check the immigration status of employees.
When asked if they’d support a $100 cap on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers, Beach said he’d already signed a pledge to do just that.
He also said he’d be in favor of “fully funding” a state ethics commission, requiring candidates for local elected office to file campaign and financial disclosures with their respective county elections office and for candidates to include bank statements in their disclosures.
Rogers said he actually pledged during the 2012 general assembly to take nothing in monetary value from lobbyists.
He pointed out that he already refuses lobbyist gifts such as coffee and cheesecake for his staff.
However, he noted ethics is something that comes from the inside of politicians.
Oglethorpe Inn Hotel loan controversy
In his question to the incumbent, Beach questioned Rogers’ involvement with a hotel deal with U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, both of which were sued by the former Bartow County Bank in 2010 for failure to make payments on a loan they took out in 2007 to buy and renovate the hotel.
The pair took out a loan of $2.3 million in 2007, but later only had to repay half — $1.2 million — of the debt owed on the loan, according to other media outlets.
A confidentiality agreement was also put into place to prevent both parties from discussing the specifics of the settlement.
Beach quoted the bank’s former CEO as saying Rogers and Graves’ failure to repay the loan contributed “significantly” to the banks’ eventual failure and said $1.2 million had disappeared.
Rogers said when the bank took over the loan, it was required to “write down the value” of the original loan.
“I am not sure what the problem is that exists there,” Roger said, adding he considered the matter settled.