By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS – So much for testing the waters.
Harker Heights Democrat Sam Murphey dove in headfirst Thursday, aggressively arguing the specifics of his positions when he faced Republican Ralph Sheffield in Round 1 of the public forum debates as the two vie for the open House seat for District 55.
Murphey came out from the top – challenging Sheffield on issues of school vouchers, appraisal caps and indexing of the gas tax, mentioning Sheffield's stance on several occasions during the public forum put on by the Harker Heights Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee at the Central Texas Homebuilders facility.
Murphey argued for a cost-of-living pay index for retired teachers and pointed out the statewide deficiencies in funding for schools.
"We have to have teachers in charge of school districts, and provide resources and funding," Murphey said. "It's a basic fundamental approach. I'm not in favor of school vouchers, unlike my opponent, not taking money away from schools. ... Texas is in the bottom five nationally in educational funding. Our teachers shouldn't be losing out to higher and higher pay."
Sheffield softened Murphey's charge, saying that he's not as strong a supporter on vouchers as the Democrat claims.
"We must fully fund education and give teachers the resources they need to succeed in the classrooms," Sheffield said. "We need teachers who are well-paid and make it a full-time career. ... I'm not a strong proponent of school vouchers. We should empower parents. ... I want education reform. Every child deserves a quality education."
On the topic of voter identification at the polls, the two disagreed, as Sheffield said the state has a duty to make sure the right people are voting so that tampering can be avoided.
"I'm very much in favor of voter ID. We need to do everything we can to protect the integrity of the voting system," Sheffield said. "We need to protect the (voter) rolls themselves – there are people who shouldn't be on the rolls. I'm all about voter ID. It's not going to hamper anybody. Let's know who is voting."
Murphey said it's not an issue, as the state has not had to prosecute a single person for the kind of voter fraud that Sheffield is suggesting.
"Going to a debate or cashing a check are not inherent rights as American citizens; voting is," Murphey said. "Under no circumstances should an illegal immigrant vote. And no American citizen should be denied a chance to vote."
The two differ on appraisal caps as well; Sheffield is for them, Murphey is against.
Sheffield has been on record numerous times favoring appraisal caps, saying that people just can't handle it at the rate it's going.
"We can't afford that kind of (tax) growth," he said. "We're growing property tax, businesses are growing. We're looking at how businesses are growing. But young families can't afford those increases, and (it's discouraging families from buying homes and establishing themselves in the community)."
Murphey said it's a bad idea because it hinders the government infrastructure's ability to cope with growth.
"We live in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country," Murphey said. "We can't put artificial caps. The market will reward those who want to save their money. I'm not for any artificial limit. Appraisal caps are a bad idea – they impact negatively on police and fire protection ... not good on real estate, not the smart way to go. The way is to increase homestead exemption. ... That's real property tax relief with no gimmicks."
One person asked the candidates how the state should bring in new sources of funding, particularly looking at the way the wind insurance is underfunded and how the new margins tax came in $2.6 billion underfunded.
Both candidates said new sources of funding aren't always the answer, but Murphey drew more specifics on the topic than Sheffield.
"Raising taxes may not always be the solution; we need to be setting clear priorities," Murphey said. "The Legislature has to say this is the income we have. We have to have the guts to do that. Margins tax didn't bring the money in that it should have. It doesn't directly address the school funding needs. We need tax relief for homeowners and small businesses. We should give them a real tax break by increasing the exemption for small businesses. That's real tax relief that people can count on."
Being a Temple business owner for more than 30 years, Sheffield seconded Murphey in support of small businesses. He added that the state needs to look at how it's handling issues, such as those borne of the damage done along the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Ike, noting that the people in the rest of the state shouldn't be punished because of what the coastal cities have to bear.
"People in the rest of Texas shouldn't be paying for the folks on the coast," Sheffield said. "They know the risk when they go down there. ... I'm not one to see any kind of tax increase. We need to find a way to get the money to help build our tax base."
The next forum is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in Belton, sponsored by the Bell Freedom Foundation. It will be held in the main conference room of the Central Texas Council of Governments building at 2180 N. Main St. in Belton.
Contact Justin Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568.