Citing population losses, double-digit unemployment rates, low wages, and excessive taxes, Gary Meggs doesn’t like the direction Southeast Arkansas is headed.
Meggs, a Republican candidate for the newly redrawn District 9 state House seat which includes portions of Drew and Ashley counties, said 23 percent of Drew County’s population has a household income of less than $15,000 a year, the next 15 percent has a household income of less than $25,000 a year, and the next 14 percent make less than $35,000 a year.
Both counties’ unemployment rate is around 12 percent and the fourth Congressional district had a population loss of around 70,000 over the last 10 years.
Meggs, the director of bands at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, said he watches a new set of UAM graduates leave the area every year because there’s no jobs for them here.
“There’s three ways to get a job here,” he said. “You can work at UAM, you can work at the public schools, or you can work at Wal Mart. That’s the three biggies. That’s just the way it is.”
“And the poorer we get, the more we’re taxed,” he said.
On the campaign trail, speaking at a Southeast Arkansas Tea Party meeting in Monticello Monday night, Meggs read a list of taxes Arkansans pay: “Building permit tax, CDL license tax, cigarette tax, corporate income tax, dog license tax, federal income tax, federal unemployment tax, fishing license tax, food tax, fuel permit tax, gasoline tax, hunting license tax, inheritance tax, inventory tax, IRS interest tax, IRS penalty tax, liquor tax, marriage license tax, Medicare tax… and I’m not halfway through,” he said.
“Now, if you think we’re headed in the right direction you don’t need to vote for me because I think that’s wrong,” he said. “And that’s not all that I think is wrong; I don’t like the way the state is spending the money.”
For example, Meggs said, two years ago Gov. Mike Beebe took almost $1 million away from the University of Arkansas at Monticello saying he’d give it back when things get better.
“Things didn’t get better but this year when they did the new budget they gave every single four-year university in the state more money, except UAM, SAU, Henderson State University and UAPB,” Meggs said. “That’s not fair. I don’t like them giving money away but if they’re going to be giving it away they shouldn’t leave us out because we pay taxes just like everybody else.”
Meggs compared Arkansas to surrounding states like Mississippi, which landed a Toyota plant that created 2,000 new jobs, Oklahoma, which is beginning to eliminate its income tax so it can be more competitive with its surrounding states, and Texas where there is a much better business climate and no state income tax.
“Right now we’re the second most impoverished state in the nation,” Meggs said. “Mississippi is the only one that is worse off than us and they’re working on it with their new Toyota plant. Hayley Barbour didn’t get the memo. When he became governor, he told them he was going to get a Toyota plant and they told him he was crazy. Well, they got it.”
The plant created 2,000 jobs and Toyota gave $50 million to the area schools because of the incentives the state of Mississippi gave the company to locate there.
“Businesses won’t come here because our business climate is number 39 to 40 year after year because of our tax structure,” Meggs said.
Texas, with the 13th ranked business climate, has a lower tax rates and no state income tax, he said.
“Texarkana, Texas is like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking the life out of southeast Arkansas,” Meggs said. “If you haven’t been over there, drive across the state line. They are booming.”
He said the state’s eduction system also needs to be reformed.
“You may have heard the governor brag recently that we have the fifth best public education in the nation,” Meggs said. “I thought that was pretty impressive so I got the report. I want to share with you what this report says. Under overall state grade, we’re number five with a B- but the chance of your child being successful, coming out of a public school in Arkansas, is ranked number 44 in the nation.”
Asked how Arkansas managed to rank fifth if the chance of success is ranked 44 in the nation, Meggs said the state ranked high in teaching to the test and following government bureaucratic paperwork.
“The problem is not teachers,” he said. “It is the state forcing them into a box that they can’t get out of.”
Meggs says he supports job creation so that Southeast Arkansas residents’ children will have an opportunity to remain here to raise their families, less corporate tax state-wide so the area can compete with surrounding states to bring in new businesses, the expansion of the University of Arkansas at Monticello as an economic engine to ignite the economy, better resources for teachers and administrators and less state and federal government interference, and the creation of a free enterprise zone in District 9 so that it can attract large businesses.
Meggs said he was raised as a Democrat but is running as a Republican because the Democratic Party has become too liberal.
He said the conservative values that he holds dear began evaporating when he was in the second grade with the removal of prayer in schools and later, in 1972, with the Roe v. Wade decision.
Meggs said he wants a change, a change back to conservative values.
Meggs will face Sheilla Lampkin in the November general election. Lampkin, a Democrat from Monticello, is currently the District 10 state representative. Recent redistricting placed Lampkin in the newly redrawn District 9.