Updated

17th District hopefuls prep for homestretch

By HOLLY HUFFMAN

Eagle Staff Writer

With little more than a week until the Nov. 2 election, state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth and U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards have their eyes set on a prize.

Both candidates are vying to represent the redrawn 17th Congressional District, which covers 12 counties, including Brazos, Grimes and Madison and portions of Burleson and Robertson. There is no incumbent.

Wohlgemuth is a Republican from Burleson who has served the past decade in the Texas House. Edwards, a Democrat from Waco, is a 14-year congressman who currently represents the 11th Congressional District.

The Eagle spoke with the candidates last week to find out what they consider to be the important issues of their campaigns.

Wohlgemuth’s views

When asked to discuss the issues most important to her, the first words out of Wohlgemuth were “tax cuts.” She says she wants to work with President Bush to make his tax cuts permanent.

“I believe the record is very clear that low-tax nations prosper more,” Wohlgemuth said, citing countries such as Russia, Ireland and New Zealand as examples. “They do better than high-tax nations because their economies grow.”

To demonstrate her commitment to lower taxes, Wohlgemuth said she worked with then-Texas governor Bush in the 1990s to pass the largest tax cut in Texas history and that last session she helped balance the state budget despite a $10 billion shortfall.

A priority, she said, is modernizing and simplifying the decades-old tax code, which Wohlgemuth said inhibits the country’s ability to compete in the world marketplace. Two plans Wohlgemuth has her in her sights, she said, are proposals for what proponents call a flat tax and a fair tax.

The fair tax proposal, also known as a national sales tax, would eliminate the Internal Revenue Service. New products would be taxed only once, when they are first sold. The tax would not apply to used goods, Wohlgemuth said.

The flat tax proposal would establish a single rate charged on the earnings of all taxpayers, regardless of income level.

“Our goods are going to market worldwide with a built-in tax,” Wohlgemuth said, referring to payroll and income taxes. “Our taxes are embedded in the cost of product. You and I, when we buy a product, have no idea what we’re paying in taxes for that product because they’re embedded.”

Health care is another key issue for Wohlgemuth. While it hasn’t been a major issue on which she has campaigned, Wohlgemuth said she wants to provide affordable and accessible health care for everyone.

As the number of uninsured individuals continues to rise, the government needs to turn to the free market to help drive down costs, she said. Government-funded insurance means no competition, which causes health-care costs to spiral out of control, she said.

“I believe competition will drive down the cost of health care, therefore driving down the cost of health-care insurance,” she said.

Wohlgemuth has said she favors a system that would allow people to pay monthly health insurance premiums into a savings account. A small percentage of the money would pay for catastrophic care insurance while the rest would accrue in the account and be used to pay routine health-care costs, she said.

The money belongs to the account holder and is not taxed so long as it is used to pay for medical expenses, she said.

Edwards has attacked Wohlgemuth on the health-care front for cost-cutting legislation she engineered last year that he says caused 151,000 children to be dropped from the state’s Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Wohlgemuth has countered the claim by saying that her cuts targeted inefficiency and waste in the system. She said most of the children who were dropped moved to Medicare or were removed because their parents failed to re-enroll them.

One of the more-often mentioned issues throughout Wohlgemuth’s campaign is what she describes as her pro-life stance.

Wohlgemuth, who is anti-abortion, said “guarding the sanctity of life” is one of her most important goals and that her record proves it. She has been endorsed by pro-family and anti-abortion groups and said she has worked in the Texas House on legislation giving criminal protection to a fetus and requiring teens to notify their parents about abortions.

Wohlgemuth said she also supported a federal ban on a late-term abortion procedure that critics call “partial-birth” abortion. Although the law is in limbo in the courts, she said she would work in Congress to make sure the procedure is illegal.

If elected to Congress, Wohlgemuth said she plans to work to pass a federal law giving criminal protection to a fetus. Her opponent, she said, has voted against fetal protection and parental notification laws, as well as a ban on partial-birth abortions.

“He keeps trying to run away from the fact that he has a 100 percent voting record with the radical National Abortion Rights Action League,” Wohlgemuth said.

Edwards said Wohlgemuth was looking at just six votes during 2003 when comparing his voting record with the abortion-rights group.

The congressman said he does agree with the organization’s view that it was a mistake for the United States to cut off $35 million in funding to U.N. family planning programs. But, he said, he differs from the group in that he opposes late-term and publicly funded abortions.

Edwards said he voted against the partial-birth abortion bill because it didn’t provide an exception for women whose lives are at risk from a pregnancy. “I strongly oppose all late-term abortions, but I believe when a woman’s health is at risk that it is a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor and not by politicians in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

He said he also voted against the fetal protection bill because it involved writing into law that life begins at conception. That means a woman who suffers a miscarriage could be prosecuted for the death of her child, he said.

Wohlgemuth said she also opposes embryonic stem-cell research, which proponents argue could lead to treatments for a wide range of diseases and debilitating afflictions. But the state representative said benefits from the research are “unstable” and suggested funding instead go to adult and core blood stem cells, “where the real possibilities lie.”

Edwards’ views

Edwards has campaigned heavily on his support for his alma mater, Texas A&M University. Bringing federal research dollars to Aggieland is not only good for the school, he said, it also serves to stimulate economic growth and increase job opportunities for Brazos Valley residents.

The university, together with the A&M system, provides one out of every three jobs in Brazos County, he noted.

“I think there are tremendous opportunities for A&M to continue in a national leadership role,” he said, citing the university’s strides in research, defense, homeland security, agriculture, engineering and water.

Edwards said he has a “deep and personal commitment” to Texas A&M, and he cited several incidents in which he has gone to bat for the university to secure millions of dollars in federal funding for various programs.

Among those are $11.5 million earmarked for a cardiovascular research institute in Temple for the College of Medicine; $3 million for an endowed fellowship program providing financial aid to students in the George Bush School of Government & Public Service; and $12 million for a partnership between A&M, the University of Texas and Fort Hood to modernize the Army’s tank division.

“The bottom line is this: Texas A&M and friends in Brazos County such as Wayne Stark, Olin E. Teague and Mrs. Earl Rudder made a profound difference in my life,” he said. “I have spent the last 30 years as an aide to Congressman Teague, a state senator and now as a congressman trying to give something back to my alma mater, and the community that has been so good to me.”

In addition to stressing his ties to Texas A&M, Edwards also has campaigned heavily on his support of the military and homeland security.

National defense and technology for weapons systems must be modernized, Edwards said. If elected, the congressman said, he will move forward with efforts to better protect nuclear materials throughout the world from falling into terrorists’ hands.

“I want to continue my work with the Army leadership to make the Army more lethal and mobile where we can move forces more quickly into hot spots around the world,” Edwards said, explaining that his position as co-chairman of the bipartisan House Army Caucus and a member of the appropriations committee would help him do so.

But Edwards’ military focus isn’t fixed solely on the troops themselves. The congressman said he also is dedicated to improving pay and housing for military families, as well as providing better education for children of soldiers.

Last year, the congressman said, he passed an amendment that prevented Killeen and Copperas Cove schools — two districts that educate Fort Hood students — from losing $32 million worth of federal education funds. The money is earmarked for school systems affected by the military because of the high amount of tax-exempt federal land within the district, he said.

The amendment restored to the federal education program $200 million in cuts that would have been handed to districts across the nation, he said.

Edwards pointed out that he also holds a position on the subcommittee for military construction appropriations, a group that funds quality-of-life projects such as housing, day-care, training and health-care facilities on military bases worldwide. The subcommittee has a $10 billion budget, and the bill determining how the money is spent is written by both the chairman and the ranking member of the committee, a title held by Edwards.

However, Wohlgemuth has attacked Edwards’ on his support for military personnel. She claims he helped an insurance company, American Amicable, escape a ban from Army bases worldwide. In campaign advertisements, she has accused the company of scamming young soldiers into buying expensive life insurance policies.

Edwards, though, has denied he did anything to help banned agents get back onto bases.

A third issue that Edwards said he considers critical in the race is reducing the $400 billion federal deficit and trying to balance the budget over the next five years. Edwards called upon Congress and the White House to come together following the election for a bipartisan budget summit.

Edwards, who is one of only six House members on both the appropriations and budget committees, said he thinks the country should return to a “pay-as-you-go” system, which helped create four years of surpluses during the past decade.

“Without that discipline, we’re going to wreck the American economy,” Edwards said.

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