By Rebecca Gaunt
STEM educator Chris Neill of Marietta is running for the open seat in Georgia House District 34.
One of five candidates who qualified, Neill is the only Libertarian in the race. Ballot access, voter rights, education and the abolition of the state income tax are some of his top concerns. Neill answered questions about several issues via email for the Courier.
Tell voters about your background. Who are you?
I was born in Atlanta and raised mostly in Clayton County, Georgia, with a short stint during the elementary years in Brunswick and St. Simons Island. After graduating from Lovejoy High School, I completed undergraduate studies in 2000 at Georgia Tech in polymer chemistry and continued a graduate program at Georgia State University in secondary science education.
After college I continued my northward migration through Atlanta and settled in Cobb County working for the Cobb County School District for eight years. During that time I helped develop courses and curriculum for the renowned STEM magnet program at Wheeler High School and was a coach for their world class robotics team. I was then offered an opportunity to train fellow educators for a hands-on science curriculum company called CPO Science, which I did until settling into a role as a stay-at-home parent upon the arrival of my daughter in 2014. In 2020 I went back to work on a contract project developing a high school engineering curriculum for Fulton County Schools at Georgia Tech.
My wife Stephanie Davis Neill and I have been married for nineteen years and have one daughter, Alice, and a dog named Peanut. Stephanie works for a Cobb County-based national retailer and Alice attends Marietta City Schools. We have lived in the same house for 19 years. We believe in supporting local charity and dedicate effort to organizations including Atlanta Ronald McDonald House and the Giving Kitchen. In my spare time, I enjoy doing science experiments and building Lego with Alice, making Star Wars robots for educational outreach, and driving junky race cars.
I ran for office exactly once prior to now in the Marietta mayoral race of 2009 when it appeared as if Steve Tumlin was going to run for an open seat as an unopposed candidate, and I wish that such competition vacuums in government leadership were reprehensible to more people.
How do you feel about the state’s COVID-19 response? What went well and what could have been done differently?
Hindsight is always easier than predicting the future and I believe that all decision makers were acting in good-faith when they were forced to make decisions that few, if any, people desire making. A review of the available data suggests that Georgia’s per capita outcomes were not determinately worse based on the decision to reopen portions of the economy earlier than other states and in fact many states that extended lockdown restrictions have had significantly worse outcomes, so there isn’t even a correlation. The head start on recovery is apparent in current jobs data where Georgia has less than half of the lingering unemployment effects experienced by states that are still cycling through various lockdown protocols, and we seem to have been fortunate (knock on wood) that it did not come at the cost of additional COVID fatalities.
What are your views on public education?
Public education is very important to me and my career has been dedicated to a mission of increasing relevance of the curriculum to 21st century students and upgrading outdated instruction models. While my personal view is that we should be attempting to transition to a more private and free market education system, I also recognize the pragmatic reality of the economics of trying to compete with the government to provide a service.
Do you support school vouchers?
Yes. Competition breeds innovation. Public schools do not generally compete for students. Rather students are most often trapped in a school based on little more than geography, which correspondingly, is often based on socioeconomics. I support school choice for parents and students and would work to help create incentives for schools to create unique programs to attract, engage, and prepare students in the 21st century.
As an educator in a STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] magnet school open to students from anywhere in the county, I witnessed the improvements in student curriculum at other schools created through school choice. Students were willing to endure hour-plus long bus rides to and from school because of our program. A teacher from another school once told me that we were stealing their best students with our STEM program and I countered with the accusation that they weren’t trying to do anything to keep them at their school. The next year their school was offering an honors program in math and science. We were the first school in Cobb County to offer a competitive robotics team, and within a few years, there were a half dozen programs scattered around the county because students were leaving to join us. Innovation in public education can happen but not without the motivation provided by competition.
School choice already exists for the wealthy. They simply move to a better district or send their kid to a private option comfortably. I support extending that choice to everyone else as well.
Where do you stand on environmental issues? Do you think local government responded appropriately with regard to the ethylene oxide issues at the Sterigenics facility and Georgia Power coal ash pits along the Chattahoochee River?
Environmental issues should be enforced as property rights, and where damages can be proven quantitatively in a court of law, then victims should be compensated fairly. These two scenarios seem like situations where a large company failed to live up to promises to keep toxic waste contained. Even more, it looks like Sterigenics was able to use connections with federal regulators to manipulate findings to be in their favor. It’s evidence of how it’s not corporations alone that create problems with health and environment, but their collusion with the regulators who are supposed to be watching them. Affected property owners then find themselves as victims with limited options for seeking restitution. In the Sterigenics case particularly it looks like the county government has tried to push back by denying a permit to reopen a facility until upgraded controls were demonstrated. It looks to me like the local government was responding where the federal government was failing. The coal ash pits remain a problem and because the EPA has relegated the decision making to the states and it is time for our state leaders to step up and require the removal from the unlined pits unless Georgia Power is willing to accept all liability for potential claims by impacted property owners. It appears that these pits may have been shown to have infiltrated groundwater sources and any affected property owners that can prove damages should be allowed to sue for restitution.
What is your stance on climate change?
Climate does change. We can argue about how much of that is due to industrialization, but it’s also worth noting that past a certain point, well-developed economies start to reduce their impact on the environment. The solution then seems to be to help develop polluting economies past that point. The best way to develop any economy is with freedom along with rigorous enforcement of property rights. It’s hubris to think that any human government can exercise control over a global dynamic system, but we should strive towards leaving as small of a footprint possible, if any. Yes, we can and should make local decisions to keep our local environments clean. These decisions are best made at the grassroots, by people who are most impacted, and not by bureaucracies like the EPA which tend to protect the worst polluters. I believe that humans persevere and will overcome upcoming global challenges with new tools and solutions as we’re already witnessing as long as we let innovation thrive.
Are you in support of SB 202, the Georgia voting law passed this year?
I am not in favor of the new voting law, SB 202, and believe that many of the legal challenges that it faces are legitimate and will be costly to Georgia taxpayers. The supposed benefits are not much more than a rewording of existing voting laws. The grievances with the bill are legitimate and at first glance do appear to be a direct attempt to influence voting efforts by addressing issues rather unique to areas dominated by Democrat constituencies. More surprising is that Republicans have no issue with the less commonly discussed provisions in the bill, such as one that would allow state officials to undermine local authority in elections without due process. But that’s a Georgia Republican for you: they’re for local control except when they’re not.
And the bill does nothing to address security issues that are easily solved with much cheaper, verifiable, hand-marked ballots or the real cash savings afforded by something as simple as ranked choice/instant runoff voting to eliminate our costly runoffs like this race is likely to create.
In 2019, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) sponsored HB 481, the anti-abortion bill, also referred to as Heartbeat bill and LIFE act. Did you support the bill and why/why not?
I do not support HB481 and believe that at the core it is unconstitutional. Abortion is a sensitive issue and people can hold good-faith views on all sides of the matter. Recognizing such and considering constitutional limitations, I believe that government has no role in either restricting or providing abortion services and that these decisions are left to each person for their conscientious consideration in consultation with their own medical professionals. No tax dollars should be spent on providing or limiting abortion services either directly or indirectly.
Where are your views on the Second Amendment?
If you have not been convicted of a violent crime, nor have you been medically determined to be mentally ill, then your natural right to self-defense should not be infringed. The gun cannot be un-invented unfortunately and it is morally unjust to deny a law-abiding individual access to the same types of weapons that may be used against them.
What should Georgia do with regard to transportation policy?
Governor Deal signed H.B. 930 on May 4, 2018 allocating $100 million dollars for transportation infrastructure improvements for rail, light rail, highway and roadway improvements. It would be prudent to stick with this plan and closely track the progress and budget of these projects before putting taxpayers deeper into debt when improvements are already underway.
In November 2020, voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing taxes to be dedicated to specific purposes. The gasoline tax should be dedicated to maintenance and improvement of our infrastructure as this most closely represents a user fee that also incentivizes fuel efficiency and lower environmental impact transportation solutions.
What is your response to the BLM movement and calls for police reform?
Data supports that systemic racism exists and the victims of this irrational and repugnant behavior are justifiably angry because their governments have played a role in their oppression through the cruelty of the justice system and unjust economic regulations like licensing laws that have been used to target minority entrepreneurs, such as hair braiding license requirements. Minor, non-violent offenses, such as a simple, busted tail light, have been used punitively and disproportionately in lower income areas to create a poverty cascade effect where one may lose a license due to being unable to pay the citation. Then the person must choose between not going to work or driving anyhow. Which then becomes driving on a suspended license and now we are all paying for someone to sit in a cell rather than working to better their position. These are the kinds of negative government-citizen interactions that we need to reform. Violent criminals belong in jails and prisons, poor people do not.
End cash bail for non-violent, victimless offenses. End civil asset forfeiture without due process.
Rep. Ginny Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) sponsored HB 401 to make it illegal for medical professionals to provide hormone and other treatments to transgendered people under 18. There were also bills to prevent trans youth from participating in school sports. Is this legislation you would support in office?
A decision as personal as gender identification should be left to the individual provided that the choice is made in the absence of coercion. Scientifically, the biology of gender is not a simple binary of male versus female as many imagine it to be and schools would be hard pressed to defend the constitutionality of decision making based on gender in the absence of equality of opportunity. The school sports issue is an entanglement that results from the decision to involve the government in funding and endorsing gender specific activities that may sometimes provide opportunity to a small handful of students but has little to do with actual education.
What can Georgia do to improve healthcare? Do you support Medicaid expansion?
Unfortunately, nothing that the government decides to purchase ever seems to get cheaper. Governments, along with the health insurance companies, have monopolized health payments, and as an indirect result, limited the types of care offered. Additionally, these payments are often too small to cover costs, creating a great burden on smaller care providers including those in rural areas.
We need to consider new ideas such as creating centers for telemedicine, mobile medicine units, allowing registered nurses to write prescriptions, and the elimination of “certificate of need” regulation that limits the number of small clinics and urgent care centers and restricts available quantities of medical equipment such as MRI machines. Reasonable tort reform may also help reduce costs by preventing unwarranted legal actions that increase the costs for healthcare workers to provide services. And perhaps it is time to also consider private option subsidies for Medicare as an expansion option as it seems to have been successful for Arkansas, while also making them eligible for the much higher reimbursement rates from the Federal government, while also decreasing the number of uninsured in their state. If it can be shown that Medicaid expansion generates enough savings to offset Georgia’s share of the cost of Medicaid and taxes can be lowered accordingly, then it should be considered.
Disability waiver waitlists are a major issue for the disability community in Georgia. Waitlists have thousands of people competing for a handful of slots and some people wait years to get one. During last year’s budget cuts, activists had to lobby to prevent all new waivers from being cut. What can be done to improve the situation for struggling families?
Disability and disability waivers are a medical issue and the citizens that are affected deserve dignity and timely attention to their issues. The fact that the supply of waivers can’t respond to demand for them is a sign of market imbalance. The best solution is, as in so many things, a separation of government and medicine. Getting the government out of healthcare and letting markets take over will drive prices down expanding access to healthcare as it does in every other market allowed to be free.
What topics are important to you that we haven’t addressed? What are your biggest goals for this office?
Legislative priorities: Reduce ballot access restrictions for more freedom and choice in elections, eliminate civil asset forfeiture in the absence of due process, eliminate the state income tax.
With all of the controversy surrounding SB 202, let’s talk about voter suppression. Voter suppression in Georgia is real and both Republicans and Democrats have a hand in silencing voices that are not their own. The barriers that independent and third party candidates face for ballot access are extremely difficult to overcome and that is entirely by design to protect the Republican and Democrat duopoly from competition. A free election requires a free marketplace of ideas and our voters are intelligent enough to decide from more than two options that provide only an illusion of choice. You probably wouldn’t shop at a convenience store that only sold two flavors of soda so why would you settle for a ballot that most often only offers up two duds that don’t align well enough with your views? And more than 40% of the races in Georgia only had one name on the ballot in 2020. This is unacceptable. We must make ballot access restrictions much less cumbersome. We need to celebrate and encourage diversity of political opinion.
In 2010, I looked at joining the race for my district (then 32 before redistricting) and the petition requirement for an independent candidate was approximately 2500 verified signatures. The approval/conversion rate is about 40-50% by the Secretary of State, so that means you really need at least 5000 signatures. The estimated cost per signature at the time (take care of volunteers with food and water, office supplies, legal certification, etc.) was approximately $2/signature at the time. Today that cost has risen to an estimated $8/signature. Today an independent candidate would spend almost $40,000 just to be on the ballot before campaigning even begins (more money!). For a job that pays less than $20,000/year. Obscene. This is an unreasonable barrier to entry for the diversity of opinion that we need in our government and limits voters’ choice to only “politicians” and provides no chance for real, citizen servants.
More choices, more voices.
The HD 34 seat was vacated last month by Bert Reeves, who accepted a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Gov. Brian Kemp has set the election for June 15. All candidates will be on one ballot regardless of party affiliation. If no candidate receives a majority of votes, the top two will advance to a runoff to be held July 13. Early voting begins May 24.