Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam and Democrat Mike McWherter faced off for the first time in Wattenbarger Auditorium Tuesday night. Although the two agreed on illegal immigration policies and the disagreement surrounding the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, the two clashed over topics such as the state budget.
“What I learned as mayor is this-you don’t go in and make one huge cut anywhere,” Haslam said. “You make thousands of cuts in lots of different places.”
McWherter responded, “Bill wants to terrify you into thinking the budget is going to be a huge hole once the stimulus money runs out.” After complimenting Gov. Bredesen and the state legislature on their handling of the budget, he added, “Tennessee has the revenue to move forward.”
Disagreements about the budget paved way for the candidates to discuss how to approach the state’s pre-K program.
“I’m going to do everything I can to expand the [pre-K] program because I know how important it is to the future,” McWherter said. “Those are the kind of programs where we capture young students’ young minds at an early age.”
“We’re going to have a billion and a half less in revenue than we’re going to have this year,” Haslam said, referring to the state stimulus money. “Pre-K, to expand universally, will cost another $250 to $300 million. My idea is that we leave pre-K where it’s in place right now, and when the revenue situation with the state changes, we will look to expand.”
Although the two focused on pre-K funding during the debate, both candidates responded as to how they would prioritize higher education during post-debate interviews.
“Only 21 to 23 percent of Tennesseans have a college degree. The national average is 28 to 29 percent,” Haslam said. “If we’re going to compete for those jobs and be the state we want to be, we need to drastically increase that number of people with college degrees.”
McWherter said, “We’ve got to make sure we use our community colleges and technology centers in a much more efficient way. Getting an English credit at Jackson State ought to be transferrable. You shouldn’t have to repeat that. I think [education] and economic development are completely tied together.”
The candidates are scheduled to hold two more debates in Knoxville and Memphis in early October. Early voting begins Oct. 13.