Election 2007: Three vying for House District 54 post|[11/02/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 2, 2007

There is a three-way contest for the Mississippi House seat from District 54. There will be no runoff. The top vote-getter Tuesday will start a four-year term in January.

The candidates are the Democratic nominee, Jennifer “Jenny” Thomas, 41, the Republican nominee Alex Monsour, 44, and independent Tom Setser, 34.

The questions they were asked by The Vicksburg Post in writing and their written answers follow:

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1. Would you/did you vote for the tax swap to increase taxes on cigarettes and remove sales taxes on food? Why?

Thomas: I am a strong supporter of lowering or removing sales tax on food. Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union, has one of the highest taxes on food in the country, while having one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the United States. I certainly do not advocate smoking, especially among our youth; however, I believe the state of Mississippi should do its part before implementing any tax increase. We should implement more state-funded tobacco prevention programs to discourage smoking among our youth, smoking-cessation programs for all smokers and implement statewide smoke-free workplace laws.

Monsour: As a conservative Republican, I believe that the voting public should be able to cast their vote on any tax increase. I also believe any time we can cut taxes, we should and I will. These two issues should be separated, let the voting public vote on the tax increase on a binding referendum and then let the Legislature go to work on the two after the results are in. After all, we are being elected to do what the voters want.

Setser: I will vote to increase taxes on cigarettes and vote to remove sales tax on food. Since this great state led the nation against the tobacco industry for compensation for the health benefits paid to citizens for the diseases caused by cigarette smoking, it is only logical that the state would try to deter smoking by placing higher taxes on the product that has caused those diseases. Many states have a reduced or no tax on groceries. Mississippi should be making taxing decisions that will ultimately benefit citizens, not burden them.

2. Other than providing funding, what can or should the Legislature do to help public schools?

Thomas: Low pay is driving too many of our best educators from the profession or out of state. Our state economy cannot remain healthy without a well-educated work force, and we cannot create and maintain that work force without the help of dedicated and qualified teachers. Mississippi must recruit, reward and retain highly qualified and experienced teachers that are fully certified in their subjects. I propose pay bonuses to all teachers based on an incentive system in addition to across-the-board salary increases to continue to bring our teacher salary in alignment with the national average.

Monsour: The Legislature needs to make sure that we get behind vocational education for our children so that we can save at least part if not all of these kids that are dropping out at a rate of almost 40 percent! Let’s teach them a trade so that they can be productive in society. Our teachers’ salaries should be increased to a level so that the state can retain its good teachers and attract more qualified teachers to the state from other areas.

Setser: The Legislature should give more control to the local community and/or school districts to tailor programs to meet the needs of the children located in their communities. The state must discontinue the cookie-cutter approach to education for the whole state. Each community is unique and the administrators and educators located there have a much better understanding of their problems and issues and how to address them, than does the Legislature.

3. Incentive packages totaling more than $700 million were awarded to employers such as Nissan, Toyota and SeverCorr with little discussion. What are your thoughts on this?

Thomas: The foundation of good government is the integrity and the lawfulness of those we entrust with our civic and governmental responsibilities. I believe government should be open, honest and accountable to the people of this state regardless of the issue. Government should conduct its business in a way that reflects character and integrity and promote public trust. Bringing business to our state is vitally important for a stabilized economy, but not at the cost of the public’s trust.

Monsour: We need to give these companies incentive packages to come to Mississippi, but my feeling is that we need to be more aggressive in obtaining the high-end jobs! We settle too many times for the $7 to $9 range when we should be looking for a much higher wage range. This would allow new people to move with these jobs to our area to buy homes, cars and invest in the community. This creates a new tax base instead of raising taxes on existing property owners.

Setser: I applaud the effort of the Legislature to ensure Mississippi receives much-needed industry. However, I do not think it is ever a good idea to enter into business without knowing the pros/cons of such a venture. It seems like Mississippi has to be burned at least once for the Legislature’s quick action, i.e., the meat packing/processing debacle.

4. Since 1992, Mississippi has collected more than $2 billion in direct casino revenue for the General Fund. Are you satisfied with how this money has been spent?

Thomas: As candidates, including myself, rallied on the platform of fully funding MAEP, the cost of going to college in Mississippi went up by about $300. The state board voted 11-1 to raise in-state tuition at our eight public universities by 7 percent. I will not be satisfied with the disbursement of the General Fund until we can honestly say that we have made a different in the lives of our youth by affording them access to quality and affordable education right here in Mississippi. We need to make education a No. 1 priority every year, not just during election year.

Monsour: As a taxpayer looking at our Legislature now, I have not been satisfied. I have watched other parts of our state benefit, while we here in Warren County have fallen behind. If the Legislature is going to go into special session to create incentive packages for new businesses using our funds, which Vicksburg’s casinos contribute to, then we deserve our share of these businesses. As your state representative I will fight for our piece of the pie!

Setser: My understanding when I voted for riverboat gambling was that a larger portion of the revenue was supposed to be earmarked for education than already is now. With the need for teacher pay raises, fully funding retired teachers’ medical insurance benefits, fully funding programs for children with reading disabilities and fully funding MAEP as issues, I believe gambling revenue could be better spent in this area.

5. What is the most pressing issue facing the state today? Your solution?

Thomas: Poverty is the single greatest threat to our state. Mississippi ranks No. 1 among states with highest poverty rates and No. 2 among states with highest percentage of children under age 18 living in poverty. Over 21 percent of our people live below the poverty level. The result is a “domino effect” of disadvantages and inequalities, all of which make it difficult for poor people to escape the hold of poverty. We need to educate our people, support from welfare-to-work programs, lower taxes, encourage new businesses, bring in high-wage jobs and make heath care affordable and accessible to every Mississippian.

Monsour: Education, because it affects industry, safety and our family structure. We must help the children who are in the 40 percent dropout rate in our state by supporting vocational education so that they can be productive in our work force, which will help attract industry back to Mississippi. Children who have jobs and have training after high school are less likely to be a statistic in crime.

Setser: Education. With a better education system in place, the state will attract more industry and other businesses, produce better workers, offer better service in the service industry and have a lower crime rate. With an influx of more people because of better education and job opportunities, Mississippi will see increase in tax revenue, etc. I would work with local superintendents of education and local school boards to create education systems that work in their respective districts and ensure funding to meet those needs. Reading must be a priority. I would also introduce legislation to expand the compulsory school law to include kindergarten attendance and increase the age to 18.

6. Why do you want to be a member of the Mississippi Legislature?

Thomas: I’ve always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. As a member of the Legislature, I can do just that. I have a vision for our district that includes everyone, not just those who are powerful and wealthy enough to influence events at the Capitol. I have a vision for the kind of state we all deserve. Until we have higher-wage jobs, affordable health care for everyone, lower taxes, lower retirement age for the military reserve, lower prescription drugs for senior citizens and raises for state educators and state law enforcement personnel, we can’t say we’ve done enough.

Monsour: Every day I go to work to provide for my wife and children. They are my life. I see drug dealers getting off with light sentences, I believe this must stop. We need stronger legislation to prosecute dealers! When we are threatened by terrorism and illegal immigration we must have someone stand up for our families and send these illegals back to where they come from. Last but not least, I will work with the local government to attract business to improve our quality of life here. We need things for families to do here.

Setser: As an attorney, 1 am uniquely situated in that I work with or against the Legislature’s end product, the laws. As a general practitioner, I am exposed to many areas of the law and have the advantage to experience the good laws and bad laws. I want to be able to ensure that the laws passed by the Legislature make sense and have logical and realistic objectives. Further, upon returning back to Mississippi after four years on active duty in the U.S. Navy, I wanted to do something to better the education system of Mississippi, thereby assisting all Mississippians. I can think of no better way to assist in improving the education system and thereby improving Mississippi than through serving as a state legislator.