Throughout the campaign for the newly-drawn S.C. House District 120, Republicans Weston Newton and Jerry Stewart have found plenty of common ground on big-picture policy issues.
During Friday night's debate, the sixth and final before Tuesday's primary, the candidates highlighted some key differences while making their final pitch to voters.
Newton, 45, cited his record of achievement during a decade as Beaufort County Council chairman, his experience running a law firm and his long ties to the community. He also pointed to his successful effort to bring back $25 million dollars in local highway funds from the state.
Stewart, 67, stressed his regional approach to economic development and his background as a university professor, business executive and county councilman. Stewart is retired and has no kids at home so being a state legislator would be his "primary job," he said.
The hour-long debate was held at the Technical College of the Lowcountry's Bluffton campus and hosted by the Beaufort County Republican Party. About 40 people attended the invitation-only event, which was broadcast live on The County Channel.
District 120 was re-drawn following the 2010 Census. It includes Bluffton, Okatie, Burton and a sliver of northern Hilton Head Island.
Although the race was a three-person contest as recently as Tuesday, Laura Sterling was removed from the ballot for filing a candidate disclosure form late. Her departure eliminates the possibility of a runoff.
No Democrats are running so the winner of the June 12 primary will likely be the districts first representative.
TAX REFORM AND SCHOOL FUNDING
Although both candidates support comprehensive tax reform, they have different ideas for what that might look like, and how it might affect local school funding.
Stewart argues for fewer sales tax exemptions, lower business taxes, and for taking a hard look at restructuring the funding mechanism for local schools. Rather than relying on sales taxes and property taxes for businesses and second-home owners, Stewart suggested primary homeowners should have a larger role in school funding.
"I know it's hard for us to accept as primary homeowners, but (we) took the tax off the primary home for schools, and I think that was a major mistake," he said.
Newton did not respond specifically to Stewart's proposal, but agreed state education funding formulas are unfair to Beaufort County.
He said eliminating certain sales tax exemptions was no cure all.
"I don't think the focus should be so much on eliminating the sales tax exemptions to generate more money, but its about how we spend the money," he said.
If elected, Stewart said he would work to develop a stronger "voice and presence" within the state's commerce and education departments to focus on economic and workforce development.
"Workforce development and having a viable workforce is one of the key things needed to bring industry here," he said.
Newton said the most important thing a legislator can do is "be a cheerleader" for their district. He pledged to tell officials in Columbia that the region "has been overlooked for too long."
"There is absolutely no reason the Continental Tire announcement should not have been made in the Lowcountry," he said, referring to the new plant being built in Sumter.