Election 2007: Two contenders in Senate 23 contest|[11/04/07]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 4, 2007

There is a two-way contest for Senate District 23. The top vote-getter on Tuesday will start a four-year term in January.

The candidates are the Democratic nominee, Eric Rawlings, 45, and the Republican nominee, W. Briggs Hopson III, 41.

Questions they were asked in writing by The Vicksburg Post and their written responses 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?

Rawlings: First, people don’t have to smoke and should not smoke. Second, everyone has to eat. The tobaccos industry is the No. 1 cause for disease, sickness and deaths all across the United States. This industry has made billions while people sacrifice items because taxes exceed their budgets. This tax elimination/increase will balance out and will ensure that Mississippians don’t have to take needed items out of their basket because of taxes. Hopefully, this will make consumers reduce their tobacco use.

Hopson: Yes. Regrettably, the current legislators have not passed legislation which would raise the cigarette tax and reduce the grocery sales tax. The cigarette tax, which is third-lowest in the nation, should be increased for two reasons: 1. to discourage our citizens from smoking, which is unquestionably harmful to their health; and, 2. to help pay for the tremendous costs (hundreds of millions of dollars) incurred by the state in providing health care to persons who suffer from smoking-related illnesses. Mississippi’s high grocery sales tax is burdensome to those who can afford it least. It should be reduced. Municipalities, which rely on the sales tax, can be compensated from the increased cigarette tax.

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

Rawlings: I feel that legislators should provide incentives for existing and new industry that provide funding for our public school system. For example, if a company contributes a certain dollar amount to our school system, it would be eligible for an inventory tax decrease. Part of that funding would also assist in teacher pay raises. This would be a win-win situation for our education system and our state. And most of all our teachers can immediately see pay raises in their checks rather than waiting for the state percentage increase kick in.

Hopson: We should not just “dump” money on schools and expect our education system to do better. However, adequate funding is needed every year to allow our schools the chance to be successful. Other specific measures that need to be pursued are early-education programs, discipline in our schools, vocational training for students, support of youth courts and incentives to keep our best teachers in the classroom.

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

Rawlings: I think we should do all we can to keep our Mississippians working. However, I don’t believe we should put our state in a financial bind to these multinational companies. I would like to see what incentives they are bringing to Mississippi other than jobs. As I stated in above, I would like to see more emphasis placed on those companies committed to improving our education system.

Hopson: I am pleased that we have recruited these employers to bring quality jobs to Mississippi. We need to work constantly to recruit and retain businesses to our state, and especially this district. Plentiful, high-paying jobs are the key to a vibrant economy. Every incentive package should be justified by showing the direct economic impact on our state. In considering tax breaks for new employers, we must look at factors such as the number of jobs being created, the pay for employees and the overall economic improvement (e.g. increase in housing, projected revenue for existing businesses).

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?

Rawlings: So far so good. I would like to see more of this money collected going toward public education and teacher pay raises. In addition to that, I would like to see better improvements and living conditions in the Delta areas.

Hopson: I have been very frustrated that our Legislature has only twice in the past two terms voted to fund education adequately. Not surprisingly, that has been in election years. I am also frustrated that tax dollars have not been utilized for infrastructure improvements. I believe that counties and municipalities with gaming establishments should be given priority status for expenditure of casino-related tax revenues.

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

Rawlings: I would like to know that every Mississippian is not afraid to go to the hospital because he or she doesn’t have insurance or enough. If elected, I would work with our national elected officials to partner and push for a veteran satellite clinic. We could use our former Vicksburg hospital facility. Our veterans have been overlooked and forgotten in Mississippi. The VA is currently understaffed and patient waits are as long as eight hours. This would free up our regular hospitals. This VA clinic would bridge the gap from Vicksburg to Jackson. This would also mean increase revenue to District 23. We must have a good education system in place, but if we don’t have a healthy Mississippi it is all for nothing. Health care will be my biggest platform. We cannot let the Republicans tamper with this issue again.

Hopson: Mississippi must produce a better-educated and better-prepared work force. A recent survey indicates that Mississippi has a favorable business climate but a substandard labor force. For Mississippi to excel economically, we must improve our work force. This can be done by raising education standards and by offering quality vocational training. I believe jobs and economic prosperity will come to our state when we make ourselves better-educated and better-trained.

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

Rawlings: Simply to serve those who are without health care and cannot afford prescription drugs, to be a voice for the poor and unemployed, to stop ridiculous college tuition increases, to stop illegal immigrants from taking our jobs, to make sure Mississippi gets the good-paying jobs and make poverty an issue that no child goes to bed hungry. This is why I want to be a member of the Mississippi Legislature.

Hopson: I believe Mississippi and this district can do much better. We can improve the quality of lives of our citizens. It will take dedication to a long-term commitment to change while keeping government lean and taxes low. I am prepared to work long and hard to see our area and this state reach its potential. I know that I offer leadership, integrity, knowledge and the energy to make a difference in the way we live.