By Justin Cox

Killeen Daily Herald

TEMPLE – In the first official forum featuring those vying for the Republican Party's nomination, the four District 55 candidates did little to differentiate themselves from one another in their stances on the issues facing Central Texans.

The candidates – Mike Pearce, Ralph Sheffield, John Alaniz and Martha Tyroch – gathered during the lunch hour at the Wildflower Country Club at an event sponsored by the Central Texas Republican Women. Bell County Judge Jon Burrows served as the moderator.

The four candidates tackled the topics of transportation, immigration, water, appraisals, education, funding for drug treatment facilities, unfunded mandates and the role of state government in local affairs with less than seven weeks remaining before the March 4 Republican primary.

The candidates outlined different approaches in how they plan to solve the variety of problems illegal immigration creates.

Former Temple Mayor Pro Tem Tyroch emphasized photo identification, a strategy the other candidates supported.

"They need to have photo ID, they need to pay their fair share," Tyroch said. "It bothers me when I see an illegal immigrant get a cut on their tuition."

Former Killeen Independent School District teacher Pearce suggested a stronger approach, elaborating with a hard-line stance and providing statistics to back up the issue's significance. Public assistance, he said, consumes 34 percent of the state's $25.5 billion budget, and a large portion of that is due to illegal immigration.

"I think we should follow the lead of Oklahoma and go after the employers and punish them," Pearce said. "We should ban all forms of public assistance for illegals ? And I don't think illegal immigrants should pay their fair share to go to college; I think they should be deported."

As a Temple businessman for 32 years, Sheffield said educating employers on how to recognize illegal immigrants is key to solving a problem that carries adverse impacts on many government functions, particularly education.

"The burden is on our schools," Sheffield said. "There is an effective system for employers called iVerify (which allows the verification of nationality) ? Employers shouldn't be policemen for the system. We should emphasize closer working relationships with local and state police."

Alaniz focused on the potential threats and said he's open to whatever works.

"There are people who want to come into this country and kill Americans; we need to secure our borders," Alaniz said. "We need to look at the criminal aspect. If that's a fence, that's what we need to do. If it's increased border patrol, then that's what we need to do."

On the topic of transportation, the candidates voiced their opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor. Several candidates said they were in favor of toll roads as an acceptable alternative.

"That slab of concrete will not help us grow as a community; 7,300 acres of land could be consumed by that," Pearce said. "I think toll roads could be a reasonable alternative. The only options are to raise property taxes, another is to raise gas taxes, and the third is to install toll roads."

Tyroch, a former member of the Trans-Texas Corridor committee, emphasized that Texans are taxed enough and, like the other candidates, said no to the gas tax and no to the corridor as well. She said how the state spends its money is the key.

"Money for Texas highways should go toward Texas highways," Tyroch said.

Sheffield, meanwhile, suggested that the state dip into its surplus to deal with the problem.

"We have a $14 billion surplus, why don't we use some of that?" he asked. "Transportation should be our No. 1 priority. We only have two lanes when you come through Central Texas on I-35 (where many other areas have three lanes)."

Alaniz suggested that the state simply might not be able to deal with the transportation needs of its residents, at least not directly.

"I am concerned about government and their ability to be effective and efficient," Alaniz said. "We need to look at TxDOT and see how they are running. I'd like to see a report on that."

With regard to appraisal caps, Alaniz voiced the prevailing opinion of the candidates.

"Any opportunity to put a cap on taxes, I'm all for it," he said.

Sheffield said the continued rise in appraisals hurt people trying to get a fresh start in a new community.

"Appraisals are out of control," Sheffield said. "I'd be in favor of a cap, I think a 3 to 5 percent cap would be a good thing. It keeps young families from buying homes. It's an inflation factor that inhibits the growth of young families."

Pearce quoted John Locke and John Adams, then elaborated.

"Property tax to me says I have to pay the government for my own land – do I really own my land, or am I renting it?" he said. "I think a cap is reasonable for a short-term solution."

The candidates all said that funding education needs to be reevaluated on many levels, and emphasized smarter use of what money the government has allotted.

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