Republican gubernatorial candidate David Pennington talks pretty fast for a southerner whose Georgia roots stretch back hundreds of years.
Rather than a slow drawl, Pennington is rapid fire and speaks as if time is money as he lists priorities and describes what he called the “failures of” incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal.
Tuesday, Pennington made a stop in Ellabell, where he heard complaints about King America Finishing’s pollution of the Ogeechee and the state’s failure to prevent it. Wednesday, Pennington was in Savannah for a Savannah Area Republican Women’s forum. All three GOP candidates for governor — Deal, Pennington and Georgia School Superintendent John Barge — were invited.
Pennington was the only one to show, he said by cell phone Wednesday while heading to St. Simon’s for a meet-and-greet.
“There was supposed to be a forum. I guess they didn’t know about it,” he said.
That line came well after Pennington explained why he was running.
“I’m on a mission,” he said. “I’m on a mission to restore Georgia back to her rightful place as the most successful economic power in the South.”
No surprise then that the biography on his campaign website, www.davidforgeorgia.com, notes Pennington is a competitive runner, and includes this line: “David is not the kind of guy that lets the grass grow under his feet.”
Pennington, who has been Dalton’s mayor for six years, was an economics major at the University of Georgia. He founded Advanced Insurance Strategies and is a third-generation small business owner, according to his website.
Less government, lower taxes and more business and manufacturing, he claimed, will solve Georgia’s problems, which he said range from persistent poverty and high unemployment to ethically challenged leaders, a lack of technology, not enough manufacturing and an educational system that needs to be returned to the control of local school boards.
It adds up to a bad place to do business, Pennington said, rattling off statistics ranging from the state’s ranking of 34th in the Tax Foundation’s Tax Climate to salaries that are at 1979 levels.
“We’re falling faster than any other state economically,” he said. “Georgia has far too many assets to be languishing back in the bottom five.”
As Dalton’s mayor, Pennington cut taxes everywhere he could, according to news reports and his website, which notes he sliced property taxes by 28 percent while also cutting spending.
The city, which sits near the Georgia-Tennessee border, has long been called the “Carpet Capitol of the World,” because nearly half the world’s carpet was made there. But when the recession began in 2008, the city suffered massive unemployment, losing thousands of jobs it has yet to recapture.
Pennington took over as Dalton’s mayor just as things began to crumble in 2008, and he began cutting taxes and slashing spending. By 2011, he had cut the city’s property and sales taxes by 24 percent, according to a story in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.
He also cut spending after taking office by $1 million, eliminating about 30 jobs in the process.
Pennington claims to have improved the city’s efficiency and services at the same time.
“We allocated our priorities and provided better services, the same way we do it in business every day,” he said. “If you look at Georgia’s rankings in business taxes and personal taxes, we’re in the bottom third in America. We’re not going to turn around the economy when every state surrounding us has a lower top rate income tax than we have.”
And that’s the first thing Pennington would do as governor, he said, cutting the rate by 2 percent for the top bracket, which are families who make $10,000 or more.
“Georgia’s income tax is one of the most regressive in the nation,” Pennington added.
The second thing would be to build a team of what Pennington called “the bright people it’s going to take to make Georgia a manufacturing powerhouse,”
The third thing is to “pull Georgia out of Common Core,” he said, referring to the state’s adoption in a set of standards for students. Georgia is one of 44 states currently in Common Core.
“We need to decentralize authority over our schools and give the power back to local school teachers, local school boards and local communities,” Pennington said.
Tax cuts, jobs, HOPE
Pennington said cuts in taxes on small business owners in the state could put about $2.7 billion back into the private sector, which would lead to more investment in jobs.
He said he also wants to give exemptions to all purchases made by businesses in their first year, thus helping spur manufacturing growth.
Pennington also noted South Georgia has a built-in advantage when it comes to bringing in more manufacturing.
“In Dalton, we’ve got to literally move heaven and earth with dirt to have flat land to build on,” he said. “You already have flat land down here, you’ve got major four-lane highways running east and west and north and south, and you’re closer to the ports than we are. There’s no reason with the right plans South Georgia cannot become much more manufacturing centric, which will benefit all of Georgia and create better jobs with better benefits.”
There arealso his thoughts on the newly created TAVT, or car tax.
“It’s a disaster,” Pennington said. “Georgia’s also the most expensive state in America own and operate a vehicle in.”
And then there’s the apparent correlation between rising tuition costs and HOPE, which he said is helping richer schools get richer while harming smaller universities and colleges, such as Dalton State.
“We need more kids going to college and graduating from college in this state,” Pennington said. “But the last few years are the first time since the early 1970s our higher education system has lost kids.”
The reason, he said, is cost.
It’s becoming too expensive for many to go to school because the net cost of tuition in Georgia rose about 77 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to Pennington, who said the problem is in the way the HOPE Scholarship is paid out — and he blames Deal for that.
HOPE pays 90 percent of a student’s tuition regardless of what state school that student attends. At UGA, that’s more than $10,262 on average in tuition and fees alone, according to the school website. At Dalton State it’s about $3,000 annually.
Pennington said the fix is to “hand out a flat amount, give it to kids and let them make the choice of where they go to school,” he said. “You’d see the higher-priced colleges get a whole lot more competitive if every kid in Georgia who qualified for HOPE could take that $5,000 anywhere they want to go and get 100 percent of their tuition paid.
“They could pay all the tuition at a school like Coastal Georgia or Dalton,” he continued. “It would cover all their books and part of their room and board. Over time, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech would get a lot more competitive.”
When told that wouldn’t make him many friends at UGA, Pennington scoffed.
He’s not in it to make friends, he said, and wants to overhaul the state’s ethics commission and require the General Assembly and governor’s office to abide by the same Sunshine Laws local governments follow.
“By many rankings we rank dead last in corruption in state government,” Pennington said. “Big government decided a long time ago that city councils and county commissions have to be under the Open Meeting Act, but they’ve exempted themselves.”
He’d undo that exemption, he said.
And he’d go a step further and make sure the state ethic’s commission isn’t “appointed by a governor, a lieutenant governor or the speaker of the house because they’ll just fire people if they don’t like them and put their own friends in there. Might as well not have one if that’s what you’re going to do.”
Pennington said his solution isn’t original. He’d have the state’s Supreme Court judges appoint the ethics commission.
He also wants to get state government to working smarter, he said.
“Government is a service industry, and in the service industry today technology is very important,” he said before referring to the state’s agreement to spend $17 million on a parking lot for the Atlanta Falcons.
“Most of our state agencies have the same problem with technology that (the Department of Family and Child Services) has. They’re operating with computer systems out of the Flintstones. Yet they’re taking your tax money and giving it to a pro football team. That’s why we can’t invest in decent computer systems to be able to provide services.”
And there was more — a lot more.
“If you write all this down it will take up the whole paper,” he said.
But he also wanted it made clear he’s not running because he’s a politician.
“If you like the way professional politicians run this country and run the state of Georgia, you’ve got your man, he’s already in there,” Pennington said.
“If you’re not happy, if you want someone to run Georgia like a business — and I still run my business — and get us some real progress, well, I believe I’d pick David Pennington.”