LUMPKIN COUNTY, Ga. – To use a sports metaphor, former U.S. Marine and Army Ranger combat veteran Tyler Tolin had a Heisman moment during Wednesday’s candidate forum for State House District 9.
When moderator Robb Nichols asked the candidates if they had negotiating skills, all six Republicans said they had some experience. But none quite rose to the level of Tolin, who served more than four years in combat zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and the Mediterranean.
Tolin said, “There is nothing like being in rooms with governors, ambassadors and elected officials, one Suni, one Shiite one Kurd and one Christian trying to establish a government. I’ve been in those areas. I’ve been in those rooms and it’s not easy. Trust me. I can work across the aisle with anybody. If I can work with people who want to kill me because I’m a Christian, I’m pretty sure I can work with Gov. Kemp for what’s best for the people of the Ninth District.”
Too bad the forum took place in a virtual type setting. It would have been interesting to see and hear the crowd response.
The candidates – Steve Leibel, Doug Sherrill, Clint Smith, Zack Tumlin, Will Wade and Tolin — worked their way through the 90-minute forum amicably, without personal attacks.
Nichols asked if the candidates would introduce legislation to modify the homestead tax exemption for homeowners 65 and older if they were elected.
Wade suggested that seniors who get the tax break should have to pay a user tax. Sherrill said the senior tax exemption shifts the tax burden to others. Smith firmly opposed ending the tax break.
NOTE: In an email to the writer of this article on Thursday evening, Wade said he did not mean to suggest seniors pay a user tax. The following is his direct quote from the forum: “Why don’t we have a consumption tax where we start looking at seriously if you’re going to have an exemption, you need to make it up with some type of sales tax revenue.”
Leibel said he hopes the state won’t end the senior tax break and added that seniors can be a driving force in the economy. “We need to look for businesses that can work with our seniors,” he said. “For example, now we’re going to have a hospital headed our way. We need to develop medical practices which cater to our seniors. Seniors have insurance and medicare. Medicare is very valuable to physicians. There are ways we can utilize our senior base to create a robust economy that seniors can provide.”
Tolin said he could support working out the flaws in the current exemption but would also support a property tax cap for long-term county residents. “I’d work on some type of a cap where they can be rewarded for being long-term residents of the county,” he said.
Sherrill called the exemption a “tax shift.” He said seniors who have the exemption are the reason that others pay more in taxes. “I believe an exemption should not be something that incentivizes folks to move to this community as an exclusive reason for moving here,” he said.
Tumlin is strongly opposed to removing the exemption. ”You can’t take it away,” he said. “The folks up here who moved to Lumpkin County as a result of this senior exemption don’t deserve to have it snatched out from under them.” But he acknowledged that times have changed and something does need to be done in the future.
“If I was even to consider this, it would have to have expressed, specific language in place for a grandfather clause for anybody and everybody living under a senior exemption to not have that taken away from them. If it was to be phased out, it would be phased out well in advance so that nobody would be preparing to come here and avail themselves to it.”
Smith, too, said he is opposed to taking away the exemption and suggested expanding the tax base in other ways. He recommended incentivizing “companies to set up shop here and work with the university in terms of creating job programs that would allow young people to get their education here and settle here for the rest of their lives.”
Nichols asked the candidates if they would support the expansion of Ga. 400 up Longbranch Road and along Hwy. 115 into White County, something that has been approved by the Lumpkin and Dawson County Commissioners.
Leibel was reluctant to support the project. He said, “I would rather have less roads and more internet than I would more roads and less internet.”
Wade said, “I would say the project is going to be a net benefit that I would support.”
Sherrill expressed concern over eminent domain issues that could arise and added if the purpose is to increase tourism, he did not want to promote tourism on the backs of those who may have to sacrifice their land. “Such a project is not appropriate to discuss and implement right now,” he said.
Candidates were asked what they would do support the delivery of broadband internet connectivity to the community.
Leibel said broadband access is a constitutional issue. “Our state constitution guarantees that every child has to have an adequate education. In the world we live in now, without broadband, there is no adequate education. Broadband is not just fiber. It’s satellite It’s cellular. It’s all the modality of transmission of the signal. We need to incentivize companies from Atlanta to come up this way. We need to talk to Verizon. We have to have a consensus. But we also have to legislate it. It is constitutionally mandated and we need to look at that.”
Tumlin said he was interested in a bill Senator Steve Gooch is working on to provide a partnership with Electric Membership Coops that would help expand broadband capability in the area and he suggested, “tacking on some provisions for some public private partnerships, some incentives for some landowners to engage in cell tower improvement.”
Early voting in the election is underway. The winner of the Republican Primary will face Democrat Sharon Ravert in the June 9 General Election.
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