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Topics n and opinions n varied in Chaney-Southerland debate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 30, 2003

[9/30/03]Staffing of Department Human Services operations in Vicksburg was one of several topics covered Monday in a debate format by the two candidates for state Senate District 23.

Both Republican Sen. Mike Chaney, 59, and Democratic challenger Marcie Tanner Southerland, 50, said DHS has too-few people here, but placed blame differently.

“I’ve always voted to try to fully fund DHS,” said Chaney, an 11-year lawmaker. “The reality is that it’s a problem of the executive branch of government. We fund it on the legislative side; the executive branch runs it. The money’s there; it’s a question of putting it in the right place.”

Southerland said new leadership in the Legislature is needed to allocate funds differently. She added that Warren County is actually entitled to 18 DHS workers instead of the single caseworker assigned.

“DHS can’t do its job with only one person,” she said. “Our abused and neglected children, if they are not being taken care of as mandated by law and as they deserve to be taken care of, it’s the fault of not enough money being funded to Department of Human Services to provide us with adequate workers.”

The event was organized for members of the Warren County Bar Association. Chaney and Southerland made opening statements before taking questions from about 40 attorneys, judges and guests at Borrello’s restaurant.

The general election is set for Nov. 4. District 23 includes parts of Warren, Issaquena and Yazoo counties.

Chaney, a businessman, is seeking his second Senate term. Southerland, a Warren County Justice Court judge for 17 years ending in 1999, is now in private legal practice and serving a one-year appointment as the county’s prosecuting attorney.

Johnny Price, judge of Warren County Court and Youth Court, wanted comments on talks he has had on the structure of the state’s public-education system with Vicksburg Warren School District superintendent Dr. James Price.

“We’re legislatively trapped into trying to educate these children to all go to college when clearly they’re not, and we know it,” Judge Price said. “Would you support legislation to alter the educational requirements to allow for (students on a separate vocational-technical-education track) to come out (onto such a track) in about the eighth or ninth grade?”

“I absolutely would support that because I see the needs of those children,” Southerland said, citing her experience in Youth Court, both as an attorney representing children for seven years and as prosecutor. “Every child deserves its leaders in this state and on the local level to gear an education that fits their needs.”

Chaney, vice-chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he introduced legislation that passed two years ago along those lines, allowing some students to earn an “occupational diploma,” instead of a regular high-school diploma.

“The federal courts have told us that we have to be extremely careful about channeling students,” he said.

A shortage of teachers that could worsen rapidly over the next two years during which time 15,000 of the state’s 32,000 teachers “can retire” is a bigger issue the state must address, Chaney said. “What are you going to do when you only graduate 1,500 teachers a year?” he said.

The candidates agreed it’s too soon to gauge the impact of civil justice reforms passed in a 2002 special session, but differed on what should be done next.

“I stand committed that there has to be a balance, and any time the balance goes to the far left or to the far right on any issue, including the issue of tort reform, that there has to be a correction made,” Southerland said. “And hopefully the Mississippi Legislature made that correction last year, or at least attempted to do that.”

Southerland also blamed the insurance industry, not lawsuit abuse, for whatever crisis may have occurred.

“In my opinion, the tort-reform issue is an insurance-company-driven propaganda,” she said.

Chaney said further change may be needed.

“I think you’ll see us address noneconomic damages,” he said of the Legislature’s next session. “And I think you’ll see us try to address the accessibility of insurance.”

“What you’ve got to have is a climate where a free market works,” he said.

The two candidates also differed on whether they would support a change in the selection of judges at the appeals-court level and above from direct election.

“I would appoint judges, and I would have the judges basically put into a pool where you had people that were approved by the bar association,” Chaney said. “And I would draw the names out of that and let them be chosen by a panel. I think it’s crazy for us to try to elect Supreme Court judges.”

Southerland responded, “That is something I would really have to seriously take a look at before we take the right away from the electorate as to who is going to be on the Supreme Court and in the appellate-court system.”

Senators are elected one-each from 52 districts across Mississippi and serve four-year terms.