By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

BELTON – Though the candidates seeking the District 55 Texas House seat have become quite accustomed to public forums in recent weeks, they are still finding ways to mix in some variety.

For the first time since the four Republican candidates announced their intent to seek the office, Democratic candidate Sam Murphey joined Republicans Martha Tyroch, John Alaniz, Mike Pearce and Ralph Sheffield in an open question-and answer forum Thursday at the Central Texas Council of Governments facility in Belton.

Though the topics were the same as many of the other forums candidates have participated in, the discussion gave voters a bit of insight into the debates they look forward to after the elected Republican comes out of the pack to challenge Murphey.

"These folks up here like to tease me about being a liberal," Murphey said during the forum. "But I'll just have to take these things up with whichever one of you survives."

Murphey, who is unopposed in the primary, had not participated in earlier forums featuring the four GOP candidates.

The early voting period began Tuesday and will continue until Friday, Feb. 29, a few days before the March 4 primary election. A runoff is expected to take place April 8 following the election between the top two Republicans who emerge.

Thursday's forum was co-sponsored by the Belton and Temple Chambers of Commerce.

One of the issues discussed by the candidates was voting rights, as Murphey expressed his ideas that differed from the agreed-upon views of the other candidates.

Republican candidates argued that using a photo identification system should be required to vote.

"I really don't know why this should be an issue," Alaniz said, followed up by Pearce who agreed firmly. "Are you an American? Prove it."

Tyroch noted that she has been preaching about photo IDs since the election process began.

"I have been preaching and preaching about photo IDs," she said, relating the topic to her stance on immigration. "That's one thing we could use."

Sheffield said he agreed as well, noting that figuring out who is here is key.

But Murphey went the other direction.

"Hell, no, we don't need photo ID cards," Murphey said, referring exclusively to voting rights. "We shouldn't impede people's right to vote. They don't need more reasons not to go vote, we need to give them more reasons to vote."

Immigration, education and transportation were key topics discussed by the candidates as well.

Pearce said he is in favor of a merit-based pay system for teachers, as well as a voucher program similar to a plan used successfully in Cleveland, Ohio.

Every time a free-market approach is applied, it works, Pearce said. Public schools competing for better students is only a positive, he said, noting that good teachers don't fear merit-based pay systems.

Tyroch said she was on the other side of both those approaches.

"I'm not in favor of merit-based pay, and not in favor of vouchers," Tyroch said.

She equated a student's education to the analogy of watering a tree and seeing it grow, noting that the state needs to do the same with children.

"Vouchers will leave children behind," she said.

Sheffield, meanwhile, focused instead on fixing the current situation.

"We can't keep sending unfunded mandates up to the district," Sheffield said. "We have to stop the drop-out rates we have. We have to give the kids more vocational opportunities."

Murphey took a larger approach, looking at putting school control in the hands of the local board.

"I think the state and federal government need to get out of the classroom management business," Murphey said. "Local school boards should control the classroom. You're going to have a college track and a vocational track. Let's try to support them with the tools they need to supply the best use of our children."

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