- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - An uptick in Georgia’s unemployment rate overtook education as the top issue in the governor’s race Thursday, as Democratic candidate Jason Carter seized on the opportunity to blame Gov. Nathan Deal while the Republican incumbent questioned the federal statistics used to develop the number.

Georgia’s Department of Labor reported the employment rate had increased in August to 8.1 percent - up from 7.7 percent in July and close to the 8.2 percent reported last year. August is the fourth month in a row with reported increases in the unemployment rate.

The state’s initial release didn’t include the number of people who have dropped out of the work force because they stopped looking for a job, retired or enrolled in school. The agency later told the Associated Press that the state’s total work force had dropped by more than 11,000 from July to August.

Education and the economy have dominated the campaign. Carter argues that Deal has harmed the economy with cuts to schools and higher education and Deal points to job growth while maintaining that he protected education from steeper cuts than other areas of government.

Deal told reporters that the unemployment rate reported Thursday doesn’t square with other measures of the state economy, including the number of jobs counted in Georgia rising to its highest level since June 2008 and a drop in initial unemployment applications. Holding up a spreadsheet, he questioned statistics that he said indicate almost all states led by Republican governors had increased unemployment rates and Democrat-led states had lower rates.

“Now I don’t know how you account for that, maybe there is some influence here that we don’t know about,” Deal said. “But when you say that California is in a better position in terms of unemployment than the state of Georgia, there is something that just doesn’t ring true about those numbers.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics generates local unemployment rates by using household surveys and modeling, and sometimes revises initial rates after more study. Georgia’s July unemployment rate, for example, was revised down slightly from 7.8 percent to 7.7 percent. The agency is scheduled to release rates for all states on Friday.

Carter called the unemployment rate “disturbing” economic news and told reporters that Deal is making excuses to cover fundamental problems in the state. He blamed cuts to the state’s technical college system in part for the unemployment figures and said higher investment in education will have long-term impact on Georgia’s economy.

He acknowledged those results can take time. However, he said that lag shouldn’t be a reason for staying the same but “an argument for why we have to change now.”

“The disinvestment from our children and from our people is now evident,” Carter said. “We are reaping what we have sown in this state.”

Libertarian candidate Andrew Hunt, who showed up at Carter’s press event, said he would cut all employment taxes on Georgia companies and balance that by eliminating any state incentives or grants for private companies. Hunt said the change would mean 5 percent unemployment in Georgia by the end of one term if he’s elected.

Economists and other experts vary on how much stock to place in the unemployment rate. Some argue it can be valuable when used in combination with other measures. For Wesley Tharpe, a tax and economic policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, four months of increasing unemployment is hard to discount.

“There is always some variability in month to month numbers that sometimes get changed later on,” Tharpe said. “The fact it continues to go up month to month when the national economy is recovering is very worrisome.”

Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, said unemployment rates don’t give an accurate snapshot of economic health, and the state appears to be doing better economically than the unemployment rate alone might suggest. Dhawan, who does a monthly forecast for the state’s economy, said sales and income taxes and job growth are more reliable measures and called the unemployment rate a “problematic statistic.”

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