State House candidates thrust and parry at debate

Saturday, October 30, 2010

CORNERSVILLE -- From soda pop for school funding and jobs to how things work and allegations of half-truths in advertising, three men running for the state House seat for Marshall and Giles counties faced 140 people Thursday night in the Cornersville High School auditorium.

CHS juniors Drew Zudel, Martha McMasters, Brittney Crowell and Jacob Gentry quizzed state Rep. Eddie Bass (D-Prospect), Independent Ted Roop of Lynnville and Republican Billy Spivey of Lewisburg during a 90-minute debate organized by the Marshall County Tribune in conjunction with CHS Principal Bob Edens and CHS teacher Brent Adcox.

The question and answer session on stage started more like a forum, but concluded with what approached a conversation between candidates and the moderator Clint Confehr, senior staff writer for the Tribune. While the latter exchange may have been seen as a free for all by some, it was an effort to provide the candidates an opportunity to immediately respond to each other on the issues they've raised during the campaign.

For example, Bass and Spivey were asked to discuss issues in their campaign ads. Spivey has said Bass voted against letting police pursue a suspect's citizenship status. Bass said he voted against a bill that would cost sheriffs' departments too much money and later for affordable legislation that's now law.

Spivey said just because he disagrees with someone, doesn't mean they're wrong. It just means he has a different view.

In a phone call with the Tribune the day after the debate, Spivey said a change in what was pending legislation was "minimal." During the debate, Bass spoke of a difference that was hundreds of thousands of dollars, apparently statewide.

Cost comparisons for sheriffs' enforcement and the completion of construction of a public meeting hall at the governor's mansion were debated. Bass likened the completion of what opponents have called "Bredesen's Bunker" to the Columbia Dam, a federal project that was to be the other source of water in the Duck River system that was to be paired with Normandy Lake. Bass' point was that completion wouldn't waste of dollars already spent.

During a discussion after the Tribune-sponsored state Senate candidates' debate at Marshall County High School, 10 days before the House candidates' debate, Bass said he felt blessed because he's comfortable with his voting record.

Friday, Spivey alleged that when Bass "voted against English only in the workplace he was without opposition and when he had an opponent, he voted for it."

Bass described Spivey's advertising campaign as including "half truths." He received applause from the audience after saying, "I wouldn't change any (of my votes) if I could."

Spivey's ads have criticized Bass' voting record. Bass replied in ads, saying a check of the record would vindicate him. Spivey countered with an ad saying he checked and maintained his position, but during the debate described the state website on voting records as not user friendly.

Spivey was applauded when he urged voters to focus on what's important and urged them to select a candidate that reflects their views after they do research before voting.

When Zudel, one of the 16-year-old CHS students, asked how the candidates were funding their campaigns, the Republican and Democratic candidates both said, "It's on-line." Voters can go to the state's Internet web site and do the research.

When asked for specifics that night, the party candidates listed family, friends, fundraisers, and political action committees. The obvious PACs were the parties.

Roop, the Independent, said he didn't have "a dog in that hunt" over how campaign money was spent or what was said in advertisements since his campaign was self-funded from his 45-hours of hourly wages at the Pulaski auto body shop where he works.

"All I owe," the Independent candidate said, "is you the voters for your vote."

Applause and cheers followed Roop's statement during debate on ads: He wants to "treat voters like I want to be treated. My opponents have lost sight of what's going on with the economy."

The students' questions had an emphasis on the economy.

"Marshall County has had a rich history of manufacturing jobs," Gentry said, introducing his question. "Industries such as Heil Quaker (also known as Inner City Products,) Cosmolab and Faber Casteel at one point employed nearly 4,000 people from this community, as well as our neighboring towns and cities.

"With manufacturing jobs on the decline in this country," the student asked, "what is your idea or game plan to lure jobs back to this area, and also what type of jobs do you see coming to Southern Middle Tennessee?"

Bass said he would work t maintain the existing employers' businesses, and work with industrial development recruiters. Roop advocated new laws conducive to industry and have government get out of the way. Spivey said Bill Haslam, the GOP candidate for governor, has a good plan to use of government money to create rotating loan funds.

A story being prepared for an upcoming edition of the Marshall County Tribune will describe a new fund announced by the Bredesen Administration on Wednesday, Oct. 27. Press releases, available on-line at state websites, mention two previous funds that are similar to others: One managed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation; another operated the Lewisburg Community Development Committee.

McMasters, another 16-year-old student in Adcox's class turned the economic issue toward the cost of government services.

"With the current state of the economy and the lack of funding for schools, the following question develops," she said. "Should schools be allowed to have soft drink machines returned to the hallways to help improve revenue?

"Also," McMasters continued, "should soft drink companies be allowed to sponsor schools as well help out with the current budget deficits affecting schools?

"Have there been any studies done to prove that student health and weight have improved due to removing soft drink machines from with schools?"

The candidates indicated no knowledge of studies on students' health before and after vending machines were removed, and they took similar positions on vending machine revenue to subsidize school costs.

The candidates said no, citing marginal nutrition and nominal revenue for schools.

"I will probably make students mad," Bass said of his answer. Vending machines should not be used to raise money for schools.

Roop said the money is probably not that great.

Spivey said soft drink machines are not a good source of revenue for schools.

Schools are to train a workforce and money should be channeled more to the classroom instead of a central office, Spivey said.

He mentioned "Maintenance Of Effort," or the MOE in the state's Basic Education Program of funding schools for an equalization of school funding statewide. It was started in the late 1990s as one response by the state to a lawsuit filed by small counties without the property tax base to fund schools as well as counties with high property values.

The candidates were asked to discuss the state policy and what position they have on this school funding system.

The MOE requirement prevents county commissions from cutting the level of funding (also called the level of effort) and that, Spivey explained, is a "policy that was pure in nature... but it doesn't work."

It's become part of disputes between Marshall and Maury counties' commissions and their respective school boards. The dispute in Marshall County was resolved when commissioners agreed to let the school board spend some $800,000 from reserves, but only on non-recurring expenses such as a new series of books or capital projects. Maury County's school budget was adopted weeks after Marshall's, taking its adoption to the deadline at the state Department of Education where BEP funding could have been withheld for lack of a spending plan.

"There are one million ideas" on how to address these issues, Spivey said. It's unknown whether any will work.

Bass said Maury County leaders "were going to use students as chess pawns" in the struggle between commissioners who face voters on the issue of property tax rate hikes, and school board members who have no such responsibility in setting tax rates.

As for the BEP requirements, the incumbent lawmaker said if e law wasn't there, then there would be commissioners who would "cut the budget to the bone" and others who would advocate increased funding for schools.

He recommended a return to elected superintendents instead of hired directors for school systems.

That was the crux of the question posed by Crowell, one of the CHS students with a question for the candidates.

Roop's comment on the BEP's MOE and county commissioners' face off with the school board: "It was a big dog and pony show."

County commissioners were placating people against increased spending while leaders of the school system were trying to make parents happy, Roop said.

The Independent then took a opportunity to suggest a change in the organization of school systems -- moving away from county systems.

"School districts are too big," Roop said. "One hand doesn't know what the other is doing."

He suggested dividing Giles County into three school districts.

He also mentioned granting school boards the authority to impose a property tax rate to raise local money that's added to state funding which is the largest part of a school budget. The smallest is federal funding.

Crowell introduced her question from a political perspective.

"In recent years Marshall County has hired and fired at least two individuals as director of schools, which leads to this question," she said. "Do you believe the job of director of schools should be selected by a few school board members or directly elected by the people as it once was?

"What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current selection process and also the direct election process?"

The candidates acknowledged the accountability of an elected superintendent to the voters. They also recognized hat the pool of candidates is from within each county, as opposed to a national pool of applicants for the directorship.

Still, all three saw advantages to electing school superintendents instead of hiring a director as directed by state law.

A recurring theme among candidates statewide has been opposition to any proposal for a state income tax. However, Tennessee requires income tax payments from people who have income earned on loans they make by purchasing bonds, and dividends paid to corporate stock holders are also taxed as income.

The three candidates were asked if they would work to repeal Tennessee's income tax.

All three candidates said they would vote to eliminate the state income tax on stock dividends and interest income, a measure started during the Great Depression.

It wasn't the only question that effectively drew the same response from all three candidates.

As Tribune staff prepared for the state House debate, a decision was made against having questions from the audience since it seemed to invite speeches from the audience instead of questions. Questions were to be accepted before the state Senate debate, but none were received.

However, within a few hours of the Thursday night debate in Cornersville, John Lyle, a former employee of Walker Die Casing in Lewisburg who suffered a layoff a couple of years ago, called the Tribune asking if questions would be taken from the audience.

Told of the preference to avoid speeches from the audience and possibly questions planted by one candidate's campaign, Lyle explained that when he felt none of the candidates were capable, then he wrote in his own name.

Lyle wanted to know if the candidates would resign if they couldn't get jobs here. None of the candidates said they'd resign under such circumstances.

The state House debate was the third political debate organized by the arshall County Tribune this year. The first was between Marshall County Mayo Joe Boyd Liggett and his challenger Mike Spence. That debate was in the old Dixie Theater on Lewisburg's public square. The state Senate debate was in the MCHS Lecture Hall, located at a mid-point in the Senat district. The debate in Cornersville was generally half-way between Lewisburg and Pulaski.