By PAUL SIMS
From fighting alleged corruption in tax collection to placing a levy on Internet purchases, seven gubernatorial candidates shared their ideas on improving the state’s bottom line Wednesday.
The candidates – Republicans and Democrats alike – offered opening and closing remarks as well as their answers to questions posed to them at a forum on the Mississippi State University campus. The event was organized and sponsored by the MSU Student Association and the Stennis-Montgomery Association.
MSU’s journalist-in-residence Sid Salter moderated the forum and posed a number of questions crafted by students to the seven gubernatorial candidates and the two Republican lieutenant governor candidates.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, a Democrat, says the state needs to increase revenues. “We’re not talking about taxes,” he said, adding officials need to sit down “with these big-box companies that are receiving benefits, exemptions from the state of Mississippi with no oversight.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Hudson Holliday, a Republican and Pearl River County supervisor, said: “There should have been better communication but it’s a disgrace when you’ve got school teachers that are not paid enough money to start with (who) are having to buy pencils and paper and glue for their kids.”
He went on to say: “If we don’t improve education, Mississippi’s going to stay right where it is. It’s like building a house or a highway. Until you build a foundation under it, you’re not going ever to complete the house and you’re never going to complete the highway.”
Democrat Bill Luckett, a businessman and attorney, says he wants to give it more study but he’s looked into the question of why Mississippi doesn’t tax its in-state citizens for Internet purchases they make.
By enacting such a levy, “we level the playing field for your Main Street merchant. And by doing that, somebody may keep a job they may have lost otherwise. We’ll collect more sales tax, thus enhancing our state revenue coffers,” Luckett said.
Two candidates would want to take closer looks at the state’s taxing agency.
“The state budget is one of the biggest jobs the governor has and your legislature and it’s a wooly-booger,” Democrat Guy Shaw said, adding he would want to conduct an evaluation of the State Tax Commission. He said lawmakers passed legislation calling it the Department of Revenue, but asked, “Where’s the revenue?”
Bill Compton Jr., an educator from Meridian and a Democrat, says he would fully fund the Tax Commission, where officials have told him they don’t have enough money to conduct audits.
“We’re losing half a billion dollars a year through our Tax Commission. We are hemorrhaging. The only way this can be going on is if it is criminal. You can’t be that stupid,” Compton said. “It’s tax time, if you’re a cheat, it’s Christmas.”
What a private-enterprise person can do is come in and ask if a specific agency is needed, asking if it’s a fundamental requirement, Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis, a Republican, said.
His father taught him that every year, a business leader would look at adding 5 to 7 percent in new spending such as on plant and technology improvements, Dennis said. “On the tail end, look at the 5 or 7 percent of expenses that you fundamentally take for granted, that you just do them because you’ve been doing them for 10 or 20 years.”
Businessman Ron Williams, a Republican, said the state’s problem is not its budget.
“What we have to do is look at our entire state budget as a sinking ship. We’ve got holes in this ship. We are sinking and it doesn’t matter how many pumps we put on it, if we don’t find the holes we’re going to sink. We have got to address wasteful spending,” Williams said.
Those attending the forum also heard a round of questions for Republican two candidates for lieutenant governor – Senate President Pro Tempore Billy Hewes and state Treasurer Tate Reeves.
One of the questions posed to Hewes and Reeves focused on how as – lieutenant governor – prioritize the drawing of district boundaries to protect city and county integrity, citing the further splitting of Oktibbeha County in one early proposal.
Reeves said: “We need a redistricting plan that is not fair to the members but fair to the people of Mississippi and the redistricting plan for the House of Representatives that came out simply was not fair to all of Mississippians.”
He said the best possible outcome is for lawmakers to address the issue again in 2012. “No plan in 2011 is better than a bad plan,” Reeves said.
Hewes said “I would agree with you that Oktibbeha County was poorly treated in the House plan.”
Lawmakers have since modified the plan and “didn’t carve it up so much,” he said.
“We’ve been talking about not rubber-stamping a plan, not turning a blind eye and just accepting something on faith,” Hewes said.
The Stennis Montgomery Association and the MSU Student Association sponsored the forum.