EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of two installments of coverage of the Newton County Republican Party meeting Monday. A story covering comments from 8th Congressional District candidate Austin Scott and District 2 Public Service Commission candidate John Douglas will run in Thursday's Newton Citizen.
COVINGTON -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel stopped in Covington on Monday to speak to the Newton County Republican Party as the date nears for a runoff election between her and former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal.
The former Georgia secretary of state said Friday she would attend the local Republican Party meeting, prompting organizers to find a larger venue to accommodate the crowd.
"I thought we had two chances of her coming: slim and none," Newton County GOP Chairwoman Bronwyn Jennings told the gathering at the Historic Courthouse in Covington.
She said the local Republicans had earlier hosted Deal.
"Newton County knows how to pick candidates," Jennings said.
Deal and Handel were the top two vote-getters out of a field of seven Republican candidates in the July 20 primary election. Neither secured more than 50 percent of the vote, prompting the Aug. 10 runoff. Handel received 34.1 percent of the vote and Deal came in second with 22.9 percent.
Deal garnered 1,667 Republican votes and Handel received 2,284 Republican votes in Newton County.
The winner of the runoff will face Democrat Roy Barnes, a former governor of Georgia, in November.
After personally greeting many attendees, Handel stressed the importance of the upcoming election, calling it one of the most important elections this year.
"We have a lot of hard work ahead of us," she said. "We have to get our economy moving again."
Handel outlined her main objectives, including a pro-tax strategy that would work to make the state's tax code more competitive by reducing income taxes, adjusting the sales tax and eliminating taxes on energy, to bring Georgia in line with surrounding states like Florida, Tennessee and Texas.
"As we do tax reform, we cannot nibble around the edges. We cannot do it piecemeal," Handel said.
She warned that the upcoming budget year in Georgia "will be tough." One of the first things Handel said that residents should be prepared to lose is about $2 billion in federal stimulus money, which means that any salaries or expansion paid for with this money will be on the chopping block.
"We had no business using one-time funding for any expansion," she said.
Instead, a Handel administration will be focused only on the "must-do's" and not the "would-like-to-do's," she said. Specifically, Handel will focus on strengthening public safety, education and infrastructure. Furthermore, she advocates more private-sector involvement to relieve pressure on the public sector.
For instance, Handel pointed out that the state owns asphalt plants and employs landscapers.
"We need to look for ways to outsource and use the private sector," she said.
In that same vein, Handel said the state's personnel policies are outdated, creating a tremendous financial liability on the state with more than $200 million in accrued sick, comp and paid leave.
With regard to education, Handel stressed the importance of empowering local boards of education to encourage teachers and improve local schools. In addition to modernizing technology, most of the improvement needs to come in the form of boosting morale of teachers, which will translate into improved learning. Her solution is to create a "career ladder" that would encourage experienced teachers to remain in the classroom rather than moving into administrative positions.
Handel also recognized the growing number of home-schooled students in the state, and said she believes that someone from the home-school profession should sit on the state school board, to which she received applause from the crowd.
Handel said the state's dropout rates and test scores are "unacceptable."
"It's time to stop making excuses, folks," Handel said. "We are better than that, and we can do better than that."
Handel allied herself on the topic of immigration with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has squared off with President Barack Obama over that state's new immigration law, which is facing constitutional challenge in federal court.
Handel said illegal immigration is estimated to cost Georgia between $1.5 billion and $2 billion a year.
"We are under siege," she said. "If the federal government is not going to do its job, by golly, we're going to take control in our own hands."
Handel took a swipe at the Obama administration with regard to the health care law that was passed earlier this year and is already facing legal challenges from many states, including Georgia. Handel called it ironic that the Obama administration would advocate such "an extraordinary intrusion on the state's business, but would abdicate its responsibility on illegal immigration."
She reminded the crowd she was no stranger to litigation, having successfully fought for voter identification laws during her time as secretary of state.
"The Obama administration needs to understand they have a tough cookie on that," Handel said.
Handel spent some time responding to criticisms that surfaced during the primary election, specifically denying supporting a gay agenda ("I have always believed marriage should be between one man and one woman -- always," she said) and defending her position on abortion. While calling herself a "pro-life Christian," Handel said she would make an exception in cases of rape or incest, leaving the decision to that "family, their faith leaders and their God."