Gubernatorial hopefuls clash in on campus debate



The two men hoping to become Alabama's next governor engaged in an hour-long debate in the Student Center ballroom Tuesday evening.

Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks, Democrat, and state Rep. Robert Bentley traded jabs over numerous issues, including jobs, health care and gambling.

Sparks began the debate on the attack, highlighting a recent report in the Tuscaloosa Times that said Bentley accepted campaign contributions from the Alabama Education Association in his primary campaign after originally denying it.

"This campaign boils down to two things - honesty and trust," Sparks said.

Bentley responded by claiming the charge was an example of negative campaigning by the Sparks campaign, something in which he claimed his campaign did not engage.

"As a candidate, I have never been involved in, nor have I ever condoned, negative campaigning," Bentley said.

Health care was a major point of the debate, and the two outlined their opinion of the new federal health care law.

"The health care bill, which passed Congress recently, that will totally take over the healthcare system in this country, he (Sparks) is very much for that," Bentley said. "I am very much opposed to that."

Bentley said he believes states are "laboratories for change," and they must take the lead in health care policy.

Sparks said he would work with the Legislature in dealing with the new health care law. He said if Alabama does not do so, the state will be missing out on federal dollars and its chance to have its own say in health care.

Taxes dominated much of the evening, and both candidates reaffirmed their pledge to impose no new taxes if they are elected governor.

Sparks, however, took the opportunity to highlight Bentley's past comments on poverty.

"This is the gentleman who looked into the camera and said that poor people can be happy too," Sparks said.

Sparks emphasized his plan to legalize, tax and regulate gambling. He said an education lottery must be put in place to boost spending on education.

As the conversation shifted to gambling, Bentley affirmed several times that he opposes gambling, but is willing to give a vote to the people of Alabama to decide the matter.

"There is no way you can buy enough lottery tickets to pay for everything that my opponent wants to do in this state," Bentley said. "That is not the answer."

The two explained their state budget priorities as well.

Bentley said Medicaid and the Department of Corrections must be funded before anything else. He added that prison reform was needed to address the number of drug-addicted individuals currently incarcerated in state prisons.

"Our jails should not be the acute detoxification centers of this state," Bentley said. "We need to look at our overall department of corrections and see what changes need to be done."

Sparks said education was his highest budget priority and hammered home his support for an education lottery.

"I want to make sure that every child in Alabama--rich or poor--if they want to go to Auburn University, that's exactly where they ought to have an opportunity to go," Sparks said. "I believe in that."

After the debate, both candidates expressed optimism about the November 2 vote.

"My campaign's been gaining momentum from day one," Sparks said. "I've said all along, this campaign is a marathon, not a sprint."

Bentley was more straightforward.

"We gonna win," he said.

The debate was the second in a series designed by the Student Government Associations of Auburn and the University of Alabama.

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