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Barnes, Deal battle over policy, ethics

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga. -- If gubernatorial candidates typically spar during debates, the televised debate between former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal Tuesday night was more like a bare-knuckle, back-alley brawl.

In a televised debate shown live throughout Southwest Georgia from WALB-TV's Albany studio, the two candidates traded barbs over much of the same issues rehashed during previous debates.

But it was their statements regarding water protection and trauma care that are likely to resonate most within the region, as fears grow that Atlanta's worsening water shortage may threaten vital downstream water supplies used by the agriculture industry and as gaps grow in the state's trauma network in rural areas.

Barnes told viewers that Atlanta needed to work out its own water issues, keeping their thirst for water within the perimeter.

"The Atlanta region has to solve its own water problem and not go south for its water needs," Barnes said.

As for Deal, the former congressman, state legislator and lawyer advocated a holistic, statewide approach to defending Georgia's water resources.

"We have to keep downstream users involved in the discussions," Deal said. "It's a river basin, and everyone in it needs to be considered."

The water issued resurfaced when Barnes questioned Deal about his plan several years ago to support a study that would determine the feasibility of damming up the Flint River for a reservoir for north and central Georgia.

Deal denied that he ever advocated damming major rivers but said that a study was needed to see if damming tributaries and certain creeks would be an alternative to a chronic lack of ground water in the northern part of the state.

The need for a statewide network of trauma centers was one of the few issues aired Tuesday that both men apparently agreed upon.

Deal said he supports the General Assembly's move to adopt a $10 fee on tags to fund trauma centers, saying that "only having four level-one trauma centers in the state does leave a large portion of the state without coverage."

Barnes, whose daughter and granddaughter were involved in a recent car crash in North Georgia, said he was largely undecided on the issue until the incident and is convinced that "we do have to build a trauma network."

In Southwest Georgia the trauma issue is particularly troubling. The closest level-one trauma center is in Macon, and the closest level two-four center is in Columbus.

Outside of those issues, the two seasoned political vets pounded one another and, at one point their lecterns, when Barnes questioned Deal's figure on the amount of money he contends Barnes' budget programs would cost.

The exchange started after Deal twice mentioned that, by his calculations, Barnes' agenda would cost an additional $2.4 billion.

During a portion of the debate that allowed the candidates to pose questions to each other, Barnes called him out on it.

"Tell me where it is ... if you added that number up, tell me where it is," Barnes said.

As Deal started to answer and point to Barnes' education programs, Barnes interjected, pounding the lectern, saying, "Tell us where it is."

Deal pointed to what he said was Barnes' additional spending on public education -- including a $1,000 pay raise for teachers -- and said, "It seems every time you talk about it you come up with new numbers."

"That's all you have?" Barnes asked, referring to public education.

While denying that he ever promised $1,000 to new teachers, he said that by his estimation his budget would total roughly $1.1 billion in additional funding, which he said he would offset by eliminating the tax exemptions for special-interest groups.

"I will tell you that if a state can't educate its children, it should hand in its charter," Barnes said.

Deal had his moments during the campaign too, pointing to Barnes' pledge early in the campaign to keep the campaign about policy rather than politics.

"You promised at the start of the this campaign that you would run a gentlemanly and civil campaign, and yet at every corner you have attacked my campaign and me personally," Deal said. "You even sent out a flyer I would characterize as almost racist, to certain groups."

Barnes responded that, unlike his last run for governor, he was going to defend himself from attacks, referencing the "rat" characterization then-candidate Sonny Perdue approved during that campaign.

Deal also landed a final jab during his closing statements, pointing to Barnes' demeanor throughout the debate.

"There was a reason Roy Barnes wasn't re-elected eight years ago ... It's because the arrogance he's showed tonight is the same arrogance he showed back then," Deal said.