Economy weighs heavily on those seeking N.C. House, Senate seats

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
No surprise, but the challenging economic times dominated discussion Thursday night among candidates for the N.C. House and Senate.
In a forum held at Catawba College, Republicans Dr. Ada Fisher and Sen. Andrew Brock joined Democrats Rep. Lorene Coates and Bill Burnette in sharing their views on a projected $2 billion shortfall in state revenues, a burgeoning jobless population and embarrassing high school dropout rates.
The questions presented to candidates also touched on offshore drilling, forced annexation by municipalities, the Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River and automobile insurance for seniors.
The Salisbury Post, Catawba College and Rowan County Chamber of Commerce combined as hosts for the hourlong discussion, broadcast live by WSAT radio. Some of the questions were submitted by Post readers.
Fisher and Coates, both from Rowan County, are squaring off in the 77th House District race.
Brock and Burnette, both of Davie County, are competing for the 34th Senate District, which takes in Rowan and Davie counties.
Fisher said many new, baseline jobs for people without college degrees must come from repairing the state’s infrastructure and finding a way to break the stranglehold of big oil companies so that alternative, sustainable energy can go from the research labs into market.
On off-shore drilling, Fisher said it has to happen at least 50 miles from land to protect the N.C. coastline.
Students need a high school education that means something, Fisher said, so they can adapt to jobs of tomorrow that haven’t even been thought of today.
To reduce the state’s high school dropout rate, Fisher said North Carolina needs an alternative education model for grades K-12 that sheds a cookie-cutter approach not reaching many students.
“We have a whole lot of kids who learn differently,” Fisher said.
Coates also spoke of job creation through infrastructure repair. She said the state should go to zero-based budgeting, forcing each department to examine every expense.
A lot of “overlapping” of services exists among state departments, she said.
Coates supports “clawback” incentives in which industries would refund money to the state and local governments if they don’t deliver on the new jobs promised.
Four out of five new jobs created at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis won’t require a scientist, Coates said. Rowan-Cabarrus Community College will have to be ready to train people for those opportunities, she said.
Improving teacher pay will be important for attracting more and better teachers and helping to address the dropout rate, Coates said, but she added that parents and the students themselves have to be held accountable, too.
Coates supports offshore drilling.
Brock said the state has to go on a “pork-free diet.” He said the state budget has to stop funding positions in various state departments that are never filled by a person. He said Medicaid fraud leads to the loss of $300 million to $600 million a year, and he complained of state programs that are “duplicated and triplicated.”
Lowering the state’s personal and corporate tax rates would help small businesses create new jobs, Brock said, and he differs from Burnette, his opponent, in that he opposes incentives or “corporate welfare.”
“Basically, it’s just not fair,”‘ Brock said. He added that the state must become more business friendly by cutting some of the government red tape.
Brock strongly supports offshore drilling. “We need to drill as fast as possible,” he said.
He also spoke for vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” so parents could take their children out of failing public schools and enroll them in private schools.
To address the projected state revenue shortfall, Burnette said some programs and jobs will have to be eliminated. “You just have to reinvent the wheel at some point,” he said.
He would not support raising taxes to generate money, Burnette said. As a businessman with 40 years of experience, Burnette said he has run companies through good times and bad and, in the bad times, he kept companies together and made a profit.
“I’m familiar with this and have done it all my life,” he said. “And I can do it in Raleigh.”
Burnette said he would favor offshore drilling until alternative energy sources are available. He said he favors incentives that would bring good companies to the region and provide jobs for decades.
The solution for reducing the 30 percent high school dropout rate should come from the superintendent of public instruction and the education community, not necessarily the Legislature, Burnette said.
All four candidates said they were against forced municipal annexation. All expressed support for the idea of giving discounted car insurance rates to seniors who take additional driver training to sharpen their skills.
Brock called it “a great and wonderful idea” that should be made available to all drivers. Coates said if it has worked in other states, North Carolina should have that option, too.
Fisher, who just turned 61, said she was for anything that gives seniors a discount. But Fisher suggested that drivers over 75 be medically cleared to keep driving. In one of the more light-hearted moments, Fisher told of a 90-year-old friend who just had her driver’s license renewed for five years.
“And she already has run into a garage,” Fisher said.
As for replacing the I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River, which local leaders have lobbied for, Coates said she has talked with U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Department of Transportation Chief Operating Officer Mark Foster in attempts to find funding.
The estimated cost of the bridge has gone from $175 million in 2004 to $400 million today. Coates suggested that “pots”of money exist in the state government that could be uncovered and made available for a project such as the bridge.
Fisher said the interstate bridge should be a federal responsibility, and U.S. officials should be made aware of how important the bridge is to commerce and homeland security. She opposes making it a toll bridge.
Brock reviewed his legislative efforts in the past to force some action on replacing the bridge. He blamed powerful legislators in eastern North Carolina for skewing the highway funding distribution in their favor and said the state also has to quit robbing the Highway Trust Fund.
The highway money should follow the population, Brock said, describing it as an east-vs.-west issue.
“And no one stands up for the west more than Andrew Brock,” he said.
Burnette said he has the will to find a way to get funding for a bridge replacement.
Burnette said one of his reasons for seeking the Senate seat was his lack of confidence in Brock and whether he would know what his needs were because of his “ultra-conservative views on so many issues.”
In one instance, instead of calling on Brock for help as his senator, Burnette said he just went to Raleigh himself.
“Well, Bill, if it was legal and all right, you should have given me a call,” Brock countered.
Brock said he often doesn’t say what’s popular in Raleigh, but he tells the truth. He went after former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black, now imprisoned, when no one else would, he said.
Brock described himself as both a social and fiscal conservative.