By Jill Nolin
CNHI State Reporter
ATLANTA – Georgia's Democratic rivals for governor both called for tighter gun regulations and Medicaid expansion at a debate this week, but they continued to clash over the status of the state's HOPE scholarship program.
"Restoring HOPE" has been the backbone of former state Rep. Stacey Evans' campaign for governor. The north Georgia native credits the merit-based program for her rise from poverty.
Evans blames cuts made in 2011 for a drop in aid now available for others, particularly minorities. Her opponent, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, negotiated the changes and supported that measure.
But Abrams countered that she worked to stop further cuts and helped to preserve pre-K funding in the bill, which sought to rein in the costs of the program. She also says Evans' claims about HOPE's decline are overstated. Georgia's lottery funds both pre-K and HOPE.
With less than a week left until Election Day, the two faced each other in a Tuesday night debate sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club.
Both of the Atlanta-area Democrats are competing to become Georgia's first woman governor; Abrams would become the country's first African-American female governor. A Democrat hasn't lived in the governor's mansion since 2002.
The debate was held the same day a new 11Alive News poll, conducted by SurveyUSA, was released showing Abrams leading with 43 percent of the vote to Evans' 24 percent. About 33 percent of likely Democratic voters remain on the fence.
"HOPE is alive and well," Abrams said. "One hundred percent of African-American students have access to it if they get a B average. It is a falsehood to say otherwise, and I'm deeply ashamed that we are in a campaign for Democrats where a single Democrat is trying to scare families and tell them they don't have access to HOPE. That's just not true."
But Evans said this isn't a scare tactic.
"It's absolutely not true that those who have a B remain able to get a full-tuition HOPE scholarship. That's patently false," Evans said.
The candidates also have slightly different views on how to expand economic growth and extend opportunity to more Georgians.
While Evans primarily points to access to higher education, Abrams said Medicaid expansion offers a chance to insure more people, create new jobs, support struggling rural hospitals and boost mental health and substance abuse services throughout the state.
"I think Medicaid expansion is the solution to the largest problem facing our state," Abrams said.
That problem, Abrams said, is an "economic mobility challenge," and college, she noted, is not the solution for everyone.
Both candidates say they will push for the expansion of Medicaid. Currently, the federally funded state insurance program primarily serves children, the elderly and disabled. Outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has opposed expansion, citing the cost.
Expanding the program would cost the state as much as $468 million by 2022, when the program would likely reach full enrollment, according to state budget analysts. More than 690,000 additional people would become eligible for coverage.
Abrams said she would pay for the expansion by repealing a tax credit program benefiting private school students, which she called a voucher program. She said she would also close "tax loopholes."
Evans said more should be done to "root out the fraud, waste and abuse in our system that keep costs too high."
On guns, Evans said she supports universal background checks, raising the age to buy weapons to 21 years old, banning bump stocks, silencers and high-capacity magazines, and removing guns from homes where a protective order is in place due to domestic violence.
"I think that's something that folks of good will on both sides of the aisle can agree with so that we can get a win on this issue and start down the road of good, common sense gun regulation," Evans said.
Abrams agreed but said she would go further by pushing for a three-day waiting period for gun purchases. She said she would also immediately go to work on repealing the "campus carry" measure that passed last year.