House District 5 Candidate Forum to select a replacement for Rep. Cox
By Elaine Nickelson
Representative Doug Cox (R-Grove) is term-limited and there are three candidates vying in the Republican Primary for his position.
On Monday evening, May 23, the Republican candidates took part in a forum with questions fielded by Pastor Robert Carter, Chair of the Delaware County GOP. Approximately 80 people attended the event at NewSong Church located between Grove and Jay.
Each gave opening remarks and then answered the same questions presented.
Question 1: What would you consider to be the three most important issues facing Delaware County?
Russell - Education, Economy and Family Structure because they are all tied together; without an educated workforce, corporations can’t find employees to do the jobs; and when jobs are not available, divorce rates rise. Delaware County has one of the highest divorce rates in the State.
Wilhelm - Healthcare because our population is the oldest population in the State and we have to make sure we provide for senior citizens and that they are taken care of; Education because every student deserves the right to get a quality education equal to other cities in the State, and Tourism because we need to focus on bringing people to our area and more money to provide for our children and seniors.
West - Education and if we needed to pay higher taxes it would be for education and we need to find out why we are so underfunded because that’s not a democrat or republican problem and every teacher he knows went to Oklahoma City and picketed for higher pay and we have the same thing now and we need to fix the problem. The money put into education was eaten up by insurance rates. Local Economy - Grove leads in this area and it is important but we need jobs outside of tourism. Infrastructure - the roads are in bad shape.
Question 2: Education is at the top of everyone’s mind right now, made more complex by the shortfalls we experience. Are you in favor of Boren’s state question that would add 1% sales tax?
Wilhelm - That is a very hot topic and the last thing to do is raise taxes, but it will be up to a vote of the people to determine what they want to do. As an educator, I would love to have more money, but with a 9.3% sales tax now that would go 10.3% we would be losing money because people could easily drive across the state line to make purchases. I am excited to see what people will do.
West - I agree that people will drive out of state and I want to know if Boren will lower tuition if the tax passes. Those in border towns will go other places. I do not support the tax increase.
Russell - No, I would not support the sales tax increase for the same reasons as the others and I believe there are other ways to put money in the classroom without raising taxes. Having Oklahoma as one of the highest sales tax states in the nation would make it hard for our economy to compete with other states. We need to find another way.
Question 3: What are your thoughts on how to advance teacher salaries without incurring additional taxes?
West - Over 50% of the budget does to education and teachers are the backbone of our education system. We need to make it more about teachers and children and if you look at over half of the money spent goes to non-teaching jobs and schools are cutting 60 admin jobs and 140 teaching positions, the priorities are messed up. I am not sure of the answer until I get elected.
Russell - One thing we could do is find additional sources of revenue to subsidize oil revenue and also find out where the money is going. It doesn’t seem like teachers are getting the money they should and administrators are way up there. Maybe some cuts off of that so we can add dollars to the classroom.
Wilhelm - Over 50% of the budget is education, but 50% of what budget? We have a $1.3 billion shortfall and in three years it will be over $2 billion. The budget is not big enough to begin with. One example is Pryor, OK where they have a Google substation. They are adding positions in Pryor because their ad valorem tax has gone up. Dallas has information hubs and we have to look at those type jobs instead of just oil and gas.
Question: What is your position on consolidation of school superintendents and reduction of positions?
Russell - We need to look at this because we spent $500,000 on an administration building full of administrators and in our district we can look at being able to consolidate districts in a manageable range.
Wilhelm - Right now if you fired all the superintendents in the state you would save roughly $40 million and that would only be a drop in the bucket. We won’t do that. We need to look at where the money is going. The public schools are so mandated with A to F report cards; the data on data it takes to actually figure out an A, B, C, D or F are administrator jobs. There is a lot of waste right now because of the mandates.
West - We have 511 schools in the state and all have superintendents. There are 140 with 150 kids or less and 80 with 100 kids or less and that is something to look at. Some counties could go to one superintendent in the county. It is good that we are getting rid of end of instruction exams. I just have to get there to get enough information.
Question 5: What are your thoughts on federal mandates on states about transgender bathrooms?
Wilhelm - 19% of American citizens are disabled and only 0.3% is transgender. You tell me which one we should focus on. We need to talk about better ways to educate our children and the government should not be involved. It frustrates me as a Republican to see Republicans getting involved in this.
West - it is not a federal issue and they have no right to tell schools about bathrooms. It is a waste of time and there is a lot more to be doing, with four days left to get a budget together, focus on the real thing.
Russell - I agree with both. Transgender bathrooms should not be mandated or an issue. Growing up I never thought we would have this issue. We have lots of other problems, education, healthcare, prisons, but not transgender bathrooms.
Question 6: Regarding school vouchers, do you support a plan for voucher programs?
West - Parental choice is important and I don’t care where people send their children. Parents should be able to send her kids wherever they want. I have never supported a voucher system and, in fact, it would be taking money from rural schools and I just can't support that. It is more of a rural versus urban issue.
Russell - I do support vouchers because, coming from a business standpoint, and you need to look at other options. Oklahoma ranks in the bottom 10 and education and it is something that competition opens up and it would open up other ways of approaching the way to do something different. If that does pass it would hopefully improve education. I agree with homeschooling as another way to improve education and private schools with help with the expense.
Wilhelm – I am patently against vouchers and we would lose over $900,000 per year from education and it would drive a wedge between lower and higher students. I don’t care where kids are sent but do not want public money going to private school. When attendance goes down the public school would be losing money and charter schools don't even have to have a building. Money should go to public schools and nothing else.
Question 7: What is your opinion on school choice?
Russell - I agree 100% because a parent knows the best way to educate his child. We homeschooled our son in first grade and he is now in Grove School and it gave him a leg up.
Wilhelm - I have no problem with it, but sometimes children come back to the public system and they are lost and the teacher has no idea how to reach the student because they have no idea what level they are. There needs to be home school accountability.
West - Yes, I support parental choice.
Question 8: Last week the legislature voted to dramatically reduce abortions in our state and the Governor vetoed it. How would you have voted and would you vote to override the veto?
Wilhelm - I am 100% pro-life, but how we got to that subject is purely a political move simply because the legislature wanted to challenge the federal government and at times like this when we have a budget deficit, we don't need to do something that would bring another lawsuit with the federal government simply for political game. The Governor had the right to veto. I would have voted no for an override.
West - I am pro-life and would have voted yes, but it has already been deemed unconstitutional by the Governor. I would still have voted to override, but if a federal judge deemed it wasn’t constitutional, we would' have wasted money on. I always take the position of pro-life and I would vote yes to override the veto.
Russell - I am 100% pro-life and I would have supported the bill to stop abortion. Oklahoma is a state and we have a right to make our own laws and if citizens want to end abortion, I don’t believe the federal government can tell us what we can or can't do in our state. We should have fought it. We were on sound ground. If we want freedoms, we have to fight for them and can't roll over every time and I believe other states would have joined with us in the fight.