The forum held at Andrew Lewis Middle School Monday night turned, at times, into a debate. As expected, education topped the question list. Debbie Cook, President of the Salem Council of the PTA was the moderator.
In spite of the Orange Bowl kick-off just an hour into the forum, there were at least 100 in attendance. Republican candidate Greg Habeeb, a partner with Gentry Locke Rakes and Moore law firm drew most of the support and applause with oratory like “enough of DC running our lives.” Democrat Ginger Mumpower, a small business owner, drew applause with her support of teacher pay raises.
On education funding questions, Habeeb said that “it’s time for a new way of thinking about education.” He praised the Salem school system and its ability to “do more with less” while avoiding layoffs. Mumpower said, “the state must do its part” and not fall short when funding public education. She believes that growing the economy and jobs would produce the needed revenue to support education.
Mumpower voiced opposition to school vouchers, saying that she would not support anything that took away from funding public schools. Habeeb said it was a nonstarter and he would vote against it. He would however, consider tax credits and the charter school concept.
Both candidates said “no” to an elected school board and term limits for Salem. Mumpower said “if it’s not broke don’t fix it.” Both also agreed that the lottery needed accountability. Habeeb was looking forward to an audit, saying to audience applause, “if it’s anything like the VDOT audit” that he hoped to find a stack of money in the couch cushions.
Governor Bob McDonnell had ordered an audit of the Virginia Department of Transportation where they found $1.4 billion of unspent funds for projects.
Mumpower agreed that teachers needed a 3% pay raise but was unsure of how to pay for it without having the budget in front of her. Habeeb said, “the reality is every state employee has suffered … a lot of people don’t have jobs.” He alluded to politicians who promise raises with no revenue to support their promise.
On funding the Virginia Retirement System, Habeeb said to a questioner who has been a teacher for 30 years that “if the state fails to keep its promise then it has failed in its primary and ultimate responsibility.” Mumpower thought that to offer a 3% raise to teachers and then require them to put 5% of their earnings into the VRS was an unacceptable net loss in their pay.
On the state’s “Standards of Learning” Mumpower said the entire system needed to be revisited. She received applause when saying, “the best people to give input on that are the educators.” Habeeb thought that though Virginia’s Standards of Learning were not perfect, it was better then the national standards that had been proposed by the federal government.
Governor McDonnell boasted that Virginia’s state standards are “much superior” to the national ones while at the same time refusing $4 million of funding for the federal “Race to the Top” grant competition.
Both candidates promised not to raise taxes, including the frequently debated gas tax for transportation. Habeeb believes Governor McDonnell’s bond proposal needs serious consideration and he expects new sources of revenue to come online to fund transportation.
On the state budget shortfall Mumpower avoided committing to raising taxes or cutting spending saying “it’s not an either/or question … sometimes it’s a matter of misappropriation of funds.”
Habeeb saw auditing of agencies as a way to cut expenditures, saying that there “are a lot more [cuts] to be found.”
Mumpower sees bringing rail connections to commercial hubs as a way to boost the local economy. Habeeb countered saying the area is already a commercial hub but “passenger rail does not work.” He claimed that the only reason Amtrak is in business is because of subsidies. He discredited State Senator John Edwards’ initiative to start rail service between Roanoke and Lynchburg. Mumpower then argued that it was already being done successfully from Lynchburg to Washington, DC adding that it costs less then adding highway lanes. Habeeb rebutted saying that other localities already had infrastructure in place. He quipped that Edwards never mentions the cost of federal subsidies needed to get the other rail projects going.
On the Patient Protection and Affordable Care (Healthcare) Act, Mumpower does not support the Act as is but believes the PPACA is within federal authority. Habeeb railed against the individual mandate taking Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s stance that it is unconstitutional. He believes the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn it.
Mumpower touted her experience as a Radford City council member at the age of 23, where she lead the initiative to annex part of Montgomery County for a hospital.
Habeeb challenged Mumpower’s claim that she did not raise taxes during her tenure as a Radford City council member. He pointed to documentation that showed Radford had increased real estate taxes and other fees.
Finance reports due Monday for the period ending December 31, 2010 show Habeeb with total contributions of $138,018 and cash on hand of $66,911. Mumpower has $3,122 in cash on hand with total contributions of $26,702.
The special election is Tuesday January 11th. The 2011 General Assembly session starts on January 12th.