GALLERIA — The three Republican candidates campaigning to unseat state Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) engaged in a relatively friendly debate Saturday morning, aiming their attacks mostly at big government.
The newly drawn Senate District 6 that stretches from southeast Cobb County into north Fulton County leans Republican, giving the primary added significance in the GOP’s quest for a two-thirds majority in the Georgia Senate.
Josh Belinfante of Sandy Springs, Drew Ellenburg of Buckhead and Hunter Hill of Smyrna, spent much of the debate explaining where they stood on issues ranging from health care and transportation to ethics and taxes.
Whether the state should move toward abolishing income taxes like neighboring states was a point of contention among the candidates in the one-hour debate, hosted by the Cobb Republican Party in the lobby of the 200 Galleria Building, decorated with signs that read: “No Bama, No Stoner, Just Say No!”
Journal columnist Dick Yarbrough moderated the well-attended event in which attendees submitted questions.
Hill, a businessman and Army veteran, said he’s for phasing out the state’s income tax, which would necessitate while simultaneously raising the sales tax. Doing so, he said, would allow the state to collect more revenue from transient populations and illegal immigrants.
But Belinfante said raising the sales tax would increase the tax burden on people with fixed incomes and small businesses competing against sales tax-free Internet retailers. “Looking at what it does for Georgia overall, for cities like Augusta, Rome, Valdosta and Columbus on the borders with other cities with lower sales taxes – I think it’s going to be very harmful for them,” he said.
He did, however, support expanding the sales tax rather than increasing it.
Ellenburg, who operates a wholesale furniture business, said he favors offsetting income taxes by increasing consumption taxes on goods and services such as cigarettes, alcohol and night clubs.
The candidates also departed on the need for ethics reform. Hill supported a cap on gifts as well as more transparency in reporting gifts. Ellenburg said more leadership and not legislation is needed on the issue. While Belinfante said the state ethics commission, which he once served on, should be given more power and funding.
On the topic of the upcoming Transportation Investment Act referendum, Ellenburg was decidedly against the one percent regional sales tax meant to fund transportation projects across the state, while Hill and Belinfante said they were undecided.
“A lady is not going to get in her Honda and drive from Kennesaw down here to Cumberland Mall, and get on a small bus to take light rail into Midtown,” said Ellenburg. “We’re in a recession and I don’t trust a $6.1 billion project in the hands of more government.”
Though he said the state must invest in transportation, Hill said the negatives of the measure seem to outweigh its positives.
“I’m still trying to figure out specifically what the bus rapid transit line is – the biggest project in Cobb County,” said Belinfante, an attorney who served as former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief legal counsel.
The candidates did all criticize President Barack Obama’s health care plan that expands Medicaid, requiring states to eventually pay 10 percent more in Medicaid costs. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has said that could add up to billions over the next decade.
Hill said he expects taxes would need to be raised to cover the increased costs of the new law. Belinfante said he would repeal the state sales tax on medical devices to offset the plan’s new 2.3 percent federal excise tax on such. Ellenburg maintains the plan is unconstitutional, regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. He favors health savings accounts – tax-exempt accounts established to pay for medical expenses – which he said he uses.
Stoner rarely came up by name during the debate, except when the candidates were prompted to explain how they differed from him.
Ellenburg asserted that the incumbent was not “pro-business.” Hill said he disagreed with Stoner on giving the state power to approve charter schools, which he supports. Belinfante said unlike Stoner, he’s against the expansion of Medicaid.