HED:Wicker: Education reform ahead for Congress

CATEGORY: USA Federal Government

AUTHOR: MARTY

HED:Wicker: Education reform ahead for Congress

By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

Guarding the balanced budget agreement, continued tax reform and new education reforms will be the major pushes of the closing session of the 105th Congress in 1998, according to 1st District U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Wicker, now in his second term, also faces an election this year although he said he has heard no rumors of an opponent.

“I’m certainly planning on running,” Wicker said of his own plans.

Locally, he said he intends to push for increased funding to complete the four-laning of Mississippi Highway 6 and for completion of a controversial dredging project on Sardis Lake that drew one of President Clinton’s first line-item vetoes last year.

Wicker, a Tupelo attorney, said he believes continued vigilance is needed to keep lawmakers from breaking the balanced budget agreement.

“Who would have thought two years ago in the midst of the budget impasse that we would really be talking about a federal surplus by December of 1997,” he said. “But we are. From December of 1996 to the end of November of 1997 federal revenues and outlays have been equal, meaning we have balanced the budget for 12 months for the first time since 1969. That’s a major achievement.”

But Wicker said the potential always exists for a budget busting bill to arise such as Republicans in the House feared when a highway authorization bill that would have spent more than was available appeared in 1997 but was never enacted.

“Before we start spending the surplus,” Wicker said of possible excess revenues as a result of the balanced budget deal, “we need to make sure they’re really there for the long term. That includes discretionary programs that I help preside over on Appropriations.”

Should there be any discretionary money left over, however, Wicker said he would like to see it spent on highways.

“To the extent we have some additional discretionary money I can think of few ways to spend it better than highways,” he said. “I spoke with (Senate Majority Leader Trent) Lott and we agreed that one of our major priorities ought to be completion of the Appalachian Regional Commission highway from the Nixon community in Pontotoc County into Tupelo.”

The highway known as Corridor V in the Appalachian corridor system is also known as state Highway 6.

“That’s a priority for both Sen. Lott and myself,” Wicker said of completing the last leg of the highway into Tupelo. “It’s not only an economic development issue, it’s a safety issue.”

Tax reform

Wicker said he doesn’t expect any major tax overhauls in Congress this year although he expects many different proposals to be debated, including a flat tax or a national sales tax.

“I don’t think we’ll have the votes to override a presidential veto and the president has expressed his reservations at this point,” Wicker said of his low expectations for action this year.

He said he also believes the public is not yet ready for any drastic changes in the system.

“Public judgment about the issue is still continuing to gel about change on the magnitude I’d like to see,” Wicker said.

He said he personally is beginning to lean toward a national sales tax which would completely eliminate the Internal Revenue Service but said the tax would have to be fair to those on fixed and lower incomes.

In the meantime, Wicker said he has joined 16 of his colleagues in asking the president to support elimination of the marriage penalty in the federal tax code this year.

“I fully expect Congress to put elimination of the marriage penalty on the desk of the president,” he said.

Another major issue Wicker expects to dominate this session of Congress is education reform, particularly in the way federal tax dollars are spent for education.

“In America, 51 percent of education employees are non-teachers,” he said. “That says to me that we’re probably putting too much money on bureaucracy. In the rest of the industrialized world, the ratio of teachers to non-teachers is three to one. (Federal money) needs to be directed to the classroom. I’d like to see 95 percent of it spent in the classroom.”

Local issues

One area in which Wicker and the president both see a need for new rules is in the rise of health maintenance organizations, or HMOs, and the need for patient protection measures.

“We need to make sure patients have the right to participate in the decision making,” he said. “Those sorts of life and death decisions should not be made by a huge bureaucracy.”

Clinton also has called for some patient protection measures.

On the local level, Wicker said he will continue to push for completion of a dredging project on Sardis Lake despite a presidential veto of a $1.9 million appropriation for the project in 1997.

A year earlier, in 1996, Congress approved $2.1 million for the work which would allow a private developer to build a marina, golf course, hotel, conference center, amusement park and residential area.

Wicker has said the development would create up to 600 jobs and boost the local economy.

“Right now there’s $2.1 million available in the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) budget as well as language instructing them to do the project with 100 percent federal money,” Wicker said. “The four of us have written the Corps asking them to proceed. I have every reason to believe the Corps is getting ready to start.”

Besides Wicker, the three other Mississippi congressional delegates supporting the project include Lott, Sen. Thad Cochran and 4th District U.S. Rep. Mike Parker.

The final year of the 105th Congress begins with the president’s State of the Union Address in early January.