Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee avoided throwing bombs and held back from taking swipes at each other Friday night in the final gubernatorial debate before Election Day.
Instead, the two top candidates on Friday once again outlined their positions while at Belmont University in Nashville by remaining cordial and rarely mentioning their opponent.
The candidates were asked questions on a variety of topics, including education, immigration, the gas tax, and marijuana legalization.
Despite being on opposite sides of the aisle politically, the two agreed on some aspects of certain issues.
Both agreed about what needs to be done to fix TNReady, Tennessee’s statewide education assessment test that has been plagued with issues in recent years.
Dean and Lee both said a “reset” is needed and the testing vendor must be changed. However, Lee said the state needs to take a closer look at the number of required tests and should focus only on the tests that are deemed most effective. Dean stressed the need for accountability with the testing system. Both said testing is important for gauging students’ progress.
It was no surprise that the two candidates did not agree on expanding Medicaid.
Dean believes expanding Medicaid is “the right thing to do.”
“If you want Medicaid expansion, vote for Karl Dean,” he said, provoking cheers from the audience. “I have campaigned on the issue.” He said he would work with the Republican-controlled state legislature to seek a compromise on the issue.
Lee reaffirmed his opposition to Medicare expansion, saying it does not make sense to expand a broken system. He called the rise of healthcare costs “unsustainable” and said the current system does not do enough to keep costs low. Lee believes incentives to lower costs must be developed.
Both candidates were asked about the state’s sales tax and both said they were OK with it being Tennessee’s primary source of revenue, although Lee said there need to be other options for raising revenue.
The two candidates had different perspectives regarding the state gas tax, which was increased last year for the first time in more than 20 years.
Dean said he supported Governor Bill Haslam’s push to raise the gas tax, but would not do it again. He said he would be willing to make such tough decisions and would support raising it again, but only if necessary.
Lee again stressed the need for alternative sources of revenue and believes there are better options than taxes. He said tax increases can be avoided through proper budget management.
Both said they support internet sales tax.
On immigration, Lee and Dean also agreed that laws must be enforced. However, Dean said immigration policy needs to be reformed.
The candidates were asked what they would do if the state legislature passed a bill legalizing marijuana. Would they veto or sign it?
Lee expressed concern about marijuana legalization. He said his decision would be based on “data” and right now data does not support full legalization. He did, however, express support for alternative sentences for low-level drug offenses, but said he opposes decriminalization.
Dean said he would sign such a bill, but also does not believe in full legalization. He said he does favor decriminalizing small amounts for recreational use.
The candidates were also asked about legalization of sports betting. Lee said he opposes it and fears organized betting will lead to organized crime. He also said it would have a negative impact on those living in poverty. Dean said sports betting would not be a major focus of his, but claimed if the state legislature passed a bill legalizing it, he would sign it.
On poverty, both candidates agreed that education is key. Lee, however, emphasized the need for skills training in high school as a means for preventing poverty.
In closing, Dean said he loves the state and is looking forward to the opportunity to serve. Lee said he would be honored to lead our state as the next governor.
As the debate wrapped up, the two shook hands and hugged.
Early begins Wednesday, October 17 and continues through November 1.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 6.