Election 2007: Two names on ballot in House 55 race|[11/03/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 3, 2007

There is a two-way contest for the Mississippi House seat from District 55. The top vote-getter Tuesday will start a four-year term in January.

The candidates are the Democratic nominee, incumbent George Flaggs Jr., 54, and the Republican nominee Rick McAlister, 54.

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?

Flaggs: I am proud to have voted for the tax swap and to have fought to increase taxes on tobacco and lower taxes on groceries. I never understood why Mississippi has the lowest cigarette tax and the highest grocery tax in the country. Make no mistake, our state pays for the low cigarette taxes in many ways through Medicaid costs. Specifically, we’ve paid over $243 million per year in Medicaid dollars to treat smoking-related illnesses. If done right to ensure no additional burdens on local government, the tax swap will be an ideal way to offset a decrease in the grocery tax by increasing the taxes collected on cigarettes.

McAlister: Yes, 1 would support reduction in the grocery tax and an increase in the tobacco tax. Mississippi has one of the highest grocery taxes in the nation and one of the lowest tobacco taxes. People do have to eat, but they do not have to smoke. I would support a reduction in the grocery tax and an increase in the tobacco tax. Another reason that I would support a tax swap is Mississippi has one of the highest rates of tobacco-related illnesses in the United States, as well as the highest rate of people whose medical bills are paid for by public funds. In the long run, raising the tobacco tax would save our state millions of dollars due to the reduction in tobacco usage. This legislation would be supported by the medical profession. Also, medical help should be provided for those who are wanting to quit using tobacco products. I would introduce legislation to accomplish the above recommendations.

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

Flaggs: Funding is only part of the education equation. Now that our schools have additional resources, we must push for smaller classroom sizes, teacher flexibility (to prevent teachers from solely teaching to the test), and ensure that we have state-funded pre-kindergarten services for all of Mississippi’s children. I also believe we need to overhaul our school discipline practices to ensure that schools are using evidenced-based practices and reducing the number of children that are funneled from the school system to the juvenile justice system. Finally, on the funding front, it will be critically important that we ensure full funding for at-risk students, so that all Mississippi’s school children, regardless of income level, will receive the tools they need in order to become productive adults.

McAlister: Public schools are the life blood of our future, and desperately need a transfusion! I believe the classroom teacher is the key. To keep long-standing quality educators in the classroom, generous merit pay incentives must be passed by the Legislature. Our teachers have made education their life work, and they should be rewarded accordingly. Our children and grandchildren will be the long-term beneficiaries. Also, more needs to be done to enhance the William Winter Teacher Scholarship Program to attract young, aspiring teachers to needy areas of our state. Instead of just their junior and senior years being paid for, their freshman and sophomore years of college should be included for qualified applicants. In addition, more advertisement needs to be done by the education department to make high school juniors and seniors aware of this wonderful program.

Another way for the Legislature to help public schools cope with teacher shortage problem would be for retired professionals in medicine, engineering, and business/law to be hired part time or full-time as science, math and business teachers and given temporary teaching certificates. Private schools do this with great success, and this would only be used when qualified teachers are not available. I would introduce legislation to accomplish this recommendation.

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

Flaggs: Economic development is a critical issues for Mississippi, and I fully support providing incentives to corporations who will invest in Mississippi and create jobs for our citizens. When we provide these incentives, we must also ensure that Mississippi-based suppliers will be able to participate in these development projects. It is also imperative that we provide incentive packages for small business. Most Mississippians are employed by small businesses, and we can’t forsake the true economic drivers of our state for national corporations. Finally, while I support economic development incentive packages, I believe that the Legislature can make Mississippi a state competitive with any state in the nation by investing in the things that matter most: a high quality education system for all students and effective, accessible and competent health care. We should continue to focus on making Mississippi so attractive to national corporations, that they pay us to locate here, not the other way around.

McAlister: I agree with the incentive packages to attract major industry and good-paying jobs to our state, but there needs to be some performance guidelines in contract form enacted by the Legislature to challenge these companies to keep their promises. Better paying jobs and technical industry go hand-in-hand. We need them and they need us. This is a two-way street. The Legislature passes the incentive package, but also included in the package is a production and performance scale that penalizes the company for non-performance, just as we do a highway contractor or builder. I would amend future legislation to include the above recommendation.

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?

Flaggs: On the state level, I believe that the money has been spent efficiently and that Mississippi’s schools and infrastructure have seen great improvements as a result of the gaming industry. On the local level, I think we need to work harder to ensure that gaming revenues are not funding duplicative services, meaning services that are already funded at the state level.

McAlister: I would like to know how the money has been spent. Has it been spent on education, highways or tax reductions, or has it just been placed in the state’s General Fund? There should be a simplified (not complicated as the Legislature tends to do) report card prepared by the egislature each session that informs the public as to how they are spending casino revenues. This report card should be published in each of our state’s newspapers for the public to read. I would introduce legislation to accomplish this recommendation.

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

Flaggs: Mississippians are facing a number of challenges, including ensuring quality education, reforming our criminal justice system so that it is fair and effective, and ensuring that we have first class medical care, including a burn center and a trauma center. The solution to these issues is simple: legislators must prioritize the needs of their constituents over the needs of politicians. If we achieve this simple goal, we’ll be able to make important strides in critical areas.

McAlister: That’s a tough question! I believe the most pressing issue facing the state today is crime. What good is our prosperity, programs and quality of life, if we are afraid to drive in town or walk down the street? If we must build bigger prisons, build them. If we need more law enforcement, hire them and pay them well. Laws have been passed in recent legislative sessions to allow citizens the right to protect themselves and their property with lethal force if necessary. What good is it though when so many repeat felony offenders are still parading on our streets? Stricter laws must be written, passed and enforced to protect the public. Make the laws and the penalties so clear that no judge has the leeway to divert from the law’s intent. Put the crooks behind bars and leave them there. Too many judges are allowing criminals to go free because of the lack of space. Hence, we loose our freedoms. This can and should be prevented. I would introduce legislation to accomplish this recommendation.

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

Flaggs: I have over 20 years of experience representing the citizens of Vicksburg, and I am proud of my record of service. I have served on Appropriations, the Legislative Budget Committee, Health and Human Services and chaired the Juvenile Justice Committee. I have led reforms that have modernized some of Mississippi’s most important systems. I believe that the citizens of Vicksburg deserve demonstrated leadership that is principled and effective. It would be my greatest honor to continue to serve as your state representative. I am requesting the opportunity for the next four years to make a real and lasting difference for the constituents of House District 55, the City of Vicksburg, Warren County and my state, Mississippi.

McAlister: I am a common sense Republican conservative who will work hard to represent traditional values, lower taxes, promote economic development and provide effective, Christian leadership in the Mississippi Legislature. I will put principle before party; right before wrong. I feel that I can be a major contributor of successful legislation that will enhance the lives of voters in House District 55, and the great state of Mississippi. I have been helping needy people for over 30 years. As a husband, father, teacher, counselor and businessman, I have the experience and education necessary to be an effective state representative for House District 55. I want my district to be proud of me, and I will work hard to gain and maintain that support. I will be accountable to the voters of District 55; they are my “boss.” I humbly request your vote, prayers and support.