Senate candidates debate education, taxes

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Education and the state's tax structure were the hottest topics discussed by two out of three candidates running for the state senate's Third District seat Tuesday night.
   Democratic nominee Richard D. Gabriel and independent candidate Charles Mattioli answered questions at a candidate's forum held at the Adelphia Center. The Johnson City/Washington County area chapter of the NAACP sponsored the forum, which drew roughly 40 citizens.
   Republican nominee Sen. Dewey "Rusty" Crowe was in Nashville attending a meeting of the Senate Education Committee and did not attend the debate. The three senatorial candidates have had two previous question and answer sessions since the state primary in August.
   "I am a person who believes in results," Gabriel said. "If we are doing such a good job in schools, why is tuition going up? Why are we losing teachers?" Gabriel launched his first campaign for state senate in 1998 when he won the Democratic nomination but lost to Crowe.
   Mattioli felt the senate race revolved strongly around forcing issues and accountability from elected officials with answers that went beyond simply shoulder shrugs on big issues of tax reform and education.
   "My top priority is education," said Mattioli who has made tax reform through a state income tax the centerpiece of his campaign. He is the lone Senate candidate openly calling for a flat or graduated state income tax to fund education while easing the sales tax burden on working families.
   Mattioli said a flat income tax would reduce state taxes for the majority of Tennesseans and keep over $700 million in Tennessee through deductions on federal income tax returns. He also said his platform and ideas offered true solutions to the state's problems.
   "I am the only candidate for this office who has platform," said Mattioli. "I'm running because I'm tired of cheap elections, and I'm talking about the lack of hard questions and good answers."
   A K-12 school teacher for better than 30 years, Mattioli said the state could not continue to fund higher education at less than 100 percent levels as it had for the past several years. He also said state funding had to trickle down to vocational institutions such as Northeast State Technical Community Colleges with campuses in Blountville and Elizabethton.
   He touted Johnson City's Med-Tech Corridor as one engine for recruiting technology-based jobs to the region. However, a workforce with lacking education would not be attractive to industry.
   "In 2010, Tennessee is going to lead the nation in college-age children," he said. "We're not ready. We're losing people in mid-career for better-paying jobs out of state."
   Both candidates derided the legislature's revenue plan that raised the sales tax by one percent and also raised business taxes and the sales tax on large purchase items over $5,000.
   "It all goes back to tax reform," said Mattioli. "I don't see where people are going to get all this money."
   Both candidates strongly expressed dissatisfaction with how the state had operated in recent years pertaining to the question of the state's tax structure.
   Gabriel touted his plan for state government to buy large volumes of merchandise at lower prices in order to reduce costs. He said this would mean a reduction of the sales tax burden on citizens.
   He also called for an unlocking of the state Department of Transportation's "lockbox" on highway funds used for road construction.
   "There is no reason why that money should be kept by the Department of Transportation in a lockbox," said Gabriel, who recommended state motor fuel taxes be appropriated for education back to the counties and districts where they are amassed.
   Forum moderator Terrea Graham asked each candidate one question and took questions from the audience. Issues discussed by the candidates ranged from the future impact of Interstate 26 when completed to the viability of a railway from Northeast Tennessee to Memphis.
   When asked what question they would ask Crowe if he was present, both candidates turned to the question of the state's tax structure and spending.
   "I would ask what are we going to do next year," said Mattioli who was critical of what he called "hogwash served with a smile" by legislators unwilling to present solutions to the tax structure issue.
   "I would ask him as a member of committees, how we went from 1998 with everything being good and having $200 million in the (Rainy Day) fund to being $1.2 billion in debt," said Gabriel. "Why do we need all these taxes when everything was so good?"