Candidates running for the state legislature staked out their party differences on such issues as education, Medicaid expansion, voting integrity and the possible return of a “religious liberty” bill at the Gold Dome during an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, seeking to be reelected to represent the 6th Congressional District, also participated in the forum, but her opponent, Democrat Lucy McBath, did not.

State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), left, and his challenger, Democrat Sally Harrell, served in the state House together from 1999 to 2005. (Dyana Bagby)

State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) and his Democrat challenger Sally Harrell, a former state House representative from Chamblee, appeared together at the forum in the hotly contested race for Senate District 40 that includes Dunwoody and portions of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs.

Also participating in the forum were Republican Ken Wright and Democrat Mike Wilensky, both of Dunwoody, who are vying for the open seat left by state Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody). The race for House District 79 includes all of Dunwoody.

Questions on various topics were asked by DHA President Adrienne Duncan, who said they were compiled from questions submitted online via the DHA website.

As the Nov. 6 election nears, Democrats and Republicans in the HD 79 and SD 40 races are working hard for votes in a time where the northern Atlanta suburbs, a traditional Republican stronghold, have seen growing Democratic outpouring.

Minority groups moving to the suburbs in DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties tend to vote Democratic. Following the election of President Donald Trump, suburban white women have also become an emerging voter bloc for the state’s minority party. And while while Trump won the most precincts in Dunwoody, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote there – 10,882 to 9,743.

The General Assembly remains firmly in Republican control, although Democrats are hoping for large wins this year, including at the top of the ticket in the governor’s race with Democrat Stacey Abrams and her efforts to reach minority and young voters. Polls show Abrams and Brian Kemp, the GOP Secretary of State, in a tight race to replace Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

SD 40 and HD 79 are two state seats that have been part of the longstanding Republican control in the legislature. Millar represented House District 79 in the state House from 1998-2010 before being elected to the state Senate; Taylor was elected to replace Millar in the House in 2010. Taylor decided not to seek reelection this year.

Millar said he has worked with Democrats, including with DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond to write the special local option sales tax legislation approved by voters last year. The SPLOST will raise millions of dollars for DeKalb and its municipalities over six years for transportation and public safety. The bill also provides tax relief for homeowners.

Taylor, who decided to not run for reelection, approached reporters after the forum to argue against some of Wilensky’s comments during the forum. For example, Wilensky, an attorney, said there were only 14 attorneys out of 180 state representatives in the state House. Taylor said he could think of 20. In an interview, Wilensky said he got the number from the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. He noted he was speaking of attorneys coming into the next session and that several state representatives who were attorneys were retiring, running for higher office or were appointed to different jobs.

Representation on the DeKalb delegation

Although national politics may be a backdrop for many state races this year, particularly in the governor’s race between Abrams and Kemp, the candidates at the DHA forum stuck to local issues.

Millar and Wright focused their Republican bona fides as being crucial in stopping the Democrat-led DeKalb County delegation at the Gold Dome from passing “punitive” legislation against Dunwoody.

Republican Ken Wright, left, and Democrat Mike Wilensky, both of Dunwoody, are vying to replace outgoing state Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody). (Dyana Bagby)

Wright said if elected, he would “block and tackle” House Bill 244, sponsored by state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur). The bill would require newer cities, such as Dunwoody, Brookhaven and Tucker, to continue paying for DeKalb pension liabilities through homeowners’ property taxes.

After the cities were incorporated, property taxes that went to pay for county services went instead to their municipalities. Oliver argues the cities need to pay for those county services and not leave it to those living in unincorporated DeKalb, according to the AJC. Back taxes from incorporation could mean an increase of $45 a year for Dunwoody residents with a $250,000 home, and Brookhaven would see a $4 increase, the AJC reported.

“I will fight it tooth and nail,” Wright said, calling the bill “punitive against Dunwoody.”

“I will stand up and pull these punitive bills [from the DeKalb delegation],” Wright added. “They want to come after us as homeowners.”

Wilensky said the pension bill is “heavily argued” at the DeKalb delegation.

“This is very important to figure out,” Wilensky said. “We do not need to pay any money not owed.”

Millar said it was important to have a Republican in the DeKalb delegation next year when redistricting comes up to ensure someone like Hank Johnson does not become the district’s Congressional representative.

On Medicaid

A key difference between Harrell and Millar is their stance on Medicaid expansion – she supports it, he does not. Georgia is one of 18 states that did not approve Medicaid expansion to low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Harrell said Medicaid expansion would provide health care to some 500,000 Georgians currently without any coverage. Medicaid expansion would also give rural hospitals the revenue they need to remain open, she said. Several rural hospitals in the state have been forced to close in recent years due to a lack of funding.

Harrell said Medicaid expansion was not controversial when she served in the state House alongside Millar from 1999-2005. During that time, she said, she was executive director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia and Medicaid expansion was provided to women who needed prenatal care.

“I don’t know why the issue has gotten controversial,” she said.

“We pay federal taxes for Medicaid and we are not getting it back. Our money is going to other states,” she said. “It makes no sense.”

Millar said because Congress failed to “repeal and replace” the ACA, states are forced to deal with the issue. In Georgia, he said, that would likely mean Medicaid waivers to stabilize premiums. Kemp recently came out supporting Medicaid waivers.

Millar also noted that the Supreme Court recently ruled able-bodied people can be required to work or volunteer to receive Medicaid. “We can’t just have people be given something for nothing,” he said. “There’s a cost in everything.”

Voting integrity

Georgia has been in the national spotlight recently as various groups have raised voter suppression concerns over the purging of thousands of names from voter registration lists by Kemp. He has said the purges are part of routine maintenance of remove inactive voters from voter registration lists to ensure there is no voter fraud.

In September, a federal judge ruled against mandating paper ballots for this election but voiced serious concern over the current touchscreen system that has been in place since 2002.

Millar said at the forum there is bipartisan support in the legislature for a voting system with a paper trail that includes a receipt given to voters so they know their ballot was counted as they wanted. He noted Kemp formed a commission this year to study paper ballots and next year there are plans to select a new voting system and have it in place by 2020.

Harrell said she also supported a paper ballot system so voters can be assured they know how their votes are counted. She also said the state needs to address gerrymandering so people can feel as though their votes “make a difference.” “Voting integrity is the root of our democracy,” she said.

Education

On education, Wright and Wilensky discussed at the forum the idea of creating an independent school district in Dunwoody. Taylor has introduced a resolution for the past several years calling for a constitutional amendment to separate Dunwoody from the DeKalb County School District only to see it go nowhere.

While an independent school district is ideal, Wilensky said legislators have to make priorities, and finding support in the General Assembly for the establishment of a new school district is “very, very difficult.”

He even pointed to Dunwoody City Councilmember Terry Nall’s Twitter feed from last month on news that Sandy Springs was exploring creating its own school district. Nall tweeted, “Been there. Tried that. Several years in a row. Impossible uphill battle within the General Assembly just to place the item on a public ballot.” Nall is publicly supporting Wright.

About 100 people attended a Oct. 21 candidate forum at Dunwoody High School and sponsored by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. (Dyana Bagby)

Wilensky said he supports updating the Quality Basic Education formula, which determines the amount of state funding going to public schools by establishing a cost per student. The formula hasn’t been updated since 1985. Updating the formula, he said, would ensure more money to Dunwoody schools to alleviate overcrowding and maybe even eliminate trailers, such as the ones that crowd Dunwoody High School’s campus.

Wright said he also supports updating the QBE. He said he was the “poster boy” for local control – he helped lead the effort to incorporate Dunwoody and was the city’s founding mayor — and would propose legislation for an independent school district. An independent school district is a “big hill to climb,” but he said he was told that Dunwoody would never become its own city.

Wright said he believed the DeKalb County School District spent too much money on bureaucracy at its administrative offices in Decatur and more of that money should be spent in Dunwoody.

Millar, chair of the Higher Education Committee and who served on the Deal’s Education Reform Commission, boasted the legislature fully funded education this year. But he acknowledged the need to update the school funding formula. An updated formula, he said, would mostly help students with disabilities and include a factor for poverty.

“How can you say you fully funded education when you don’t know how much it costs to educate a child?” Harrell shot back at Millar, in reference to state using the 1985 funding formula.

“An entire generation of children have been shortchanged” due to $9.2 billion in education budget cuts over the past several years at the General Assembly, she said. She said many parents have told her they have pulled their children from public schools due to the budget cuts and were forced to find money to pay for private schools. “Public schools should be a viable option for everyone,” she said.

‘Religious liberty’

Harrell said debate at the Georgia State Capital over the controversial “religious liberty bill” that was eventually vetoed by Gov. Deal only wastes valuable time legislators could use to focus on other issues, such as health care and education.

“These bills result in discrimination,” she said. “When you do business in Georgia, you abide by the laws we have in Georgia. That makes for a level playing field.”

She also spoke out against the legislature’s attempt last year to allow faith-based adoption agencies to deny services to same-sex couples.

“You can’t use state funds to allow discrimination,” she said.

Millar, who supported the provision of the adoption bill to allow faith-based groups to deny service to same-sex couples, said he believed only a “religious liberty” bill that exactly mirrors the federal legislation approved by Congress under Bill Clinton would be considered next year.

But, he added, he believed the General Assembly has “moved on” from the matter.

He also said he is not opposed to gay adoption and that he supported civil unions for same-sex couples before same-sex marriage became legal. He voted for the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Georgia in 2004. Harrell voted against it.

Handel and McBath

Handel, a Republican, was elected to the 6th Congressional District last year in a special election against Jon Ossoff in the most expensive U.S. House race. She is now seeking her first full term in the seat once held by Tom Price. She appeared alone at the forum. Her challenger, Democrat Lucy McBath, chose not to participate in the forum, according to Duncan. The 6th Congressional District includes portions of Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Brookhaven.

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel sat alone at a table set up for candidates at the Oct. 21 forum sponsored by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association because her challenger, Democrat Lucy McBath, declined to participate. (Dyana Bagby)

Handel praised President Trump for his expected signature later this month on a opioids package passed with bipartisan support that includes $1 million to combat the opioids crisis in the 6th Congressional District.

She said she supported “common sense gun legislation” that includes strengthened background checks and more mental health services. People with mental health issues are the main causes of gun violence, she said.

Handel was asked about the Central Americans making their way their way to the U.S. border in a migrant “caravan.” The caravan, she said, is “why we must fix our broken immigration system.”

Unlike her opponent, Handel said she doesn’t support open borders, sanctuary cities or abolishing ICE.

This story has been updated.