N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, spent much of his two-hour town hall in Haywood County last week addressing the topic of education.
Davis spoke to a crowd of more than 50 people in the historic courthouse in Waynesville. He didn’t shy away from taking on what has already emerged as a leading issue in state elections, a debate that has Democrats accusing Republicans of going too far in making cuts to education last year.
“I didn’t go to Raleigh and say, ‘Hot dig I get to cut education,’” he said.
Davis said the cuts were necessitated in part by the loss of federal stimulus funding, which was intended as a stopgap to help states through their budget crises.
“The state is also broke,” Davis said. “Schools are going to have to take budget cuts just like everybody else.”
The Haywood County School system has lost $8 million and more than 120 positions during the past three years.
Davis spoke out against Gov. Beverly Perdue’s proposal to raise the state sales tax three-quarters of a cent to help offset the education cuts. The senator received cheers when he mentioned Perdue’s decision not to run for reelection.
Davis also said he opposes another form of education revenue — the lottery. The state gives money earned from ticket sales and from unclaimed prizes, is distrubuted to school systems based on a set state formula.
The money supplants school funding rather than supplements it as it was intended, Davis said. Critics equate the lottery to a tax on the segment of the population that plays.
“I think it’s a stupid tax,” he said, adding that less than half — about 40 percent — is actually earmarked for education. The rest is used to pay out winnings and operational costs associated with running the lottery.
Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County Schools, agreed that schools count lottery money as part of their budgets rather than as padding.
“We haven’t really gained teachers because of the lottery,” he said.
Nolte said legislators should reward schools that show improvement and growth and should consider giving public schools some of the same flexibility allowed to charter schools.
Charter schools are not subject to some of the same state and federal restrictions as public schools. For example, while unionized, tenured teachers tend to staff public schools, charter school instructors are often not unionized. Charter schools also tend to hire younger teachers who receive smaller salaries than their more experienced counterparts.
Private and charter schools survive with fewer resources and produce better test score, said Beverly Elliott, a Haywood resident who is part of the conservative local 9-12 project.
“The answer is not in more money. The answer is in wisely using the money we send to Raleigh,” she said.
North Carolina was recently ranked 49th in the U.S. for per-pupil spending.
Davis said it could afford to cut some of its upper level administrative positions within the state education department. He cited one job that pays six figures to a person who orders periodicals.
People trust teachers with their children, but the state does not trust them to buy the cheapest supplies, queried Davis.
“There are just all kinds of stupid regulations you have to deal with,” he said.
A grab bag of issues
Davis beat out incumbent John Snow, a Democrat from Murphy, two years ago and will face him again in this year’s election.
Following the redistricting, fellow Republicans handed Davis a harder re-election battle. The new district is comprised of the seven Western counties, meaning Davis lost the Republican stronghold Transylvania County and inherited the Democratic-heavy Haywood County.
During the forum last week, Davis spoke briefly about jobs, saying that the government should consider ideas that would benefit everyone. If a company cannot afford to keep a full-time position but could still pay an employee for 30 hours of work, the government could chip in the other 10 hours of pay a week, he suggested. The person would still have a job, the employer would still have an employee, and the government would foot a smaller bill, he added.
Among the mostly conservative-leaning town hall attendees’ other concerns were unfunded state mandates, the gas tax, gun rights and voter IDs.
Chuck Beemer, 71, expressed his worry that the state is requiring too much from counties without offering any funding solutions.
“If you can’t fund it, don’t do it,” Beemer said. “We can’t spend more than you have. You’ll be come the federal government.”
Davis reminded participants that he was once a Macon County commissioner and said that unfunded mandates were “the bane of my existence.”
However, as co-chair of the State and Local Government Committee, he said, he will be able to affect change for county leaders.
Beemer also asked Davis about the nearly 4 percent increase in the state gas tax.
North Carolina has one of the highest gas taxes in the U.S., which prompts some drivers to travel across state lines for cheaper prices, he said.
The tax rate is recalculated twice a year based on a formula involving wholesale gas prices — something the state should take another look at, Davis said.
“We are going to have to revisit that formula,” he said.
A couple of attendees thanked Davis for voting for the Castle Doctrine, which allows people to use deadly force against someone who breaks into their home. The law was spread to vehicles and workplaces last year. However, some did ask if more could be done to expand gun rights.
People should be able to protect themselves anywhere they go, Davis said.
Toward the end of the meeting, Mike Clampitt, a resident of Bryson City, asked Davis to work toward passing legislation that requires voters to display a photo ID before casting their ballot. This helps prevent someone from voting multiple times or voting using someone else’s identity.
“All I want is fair legal and honest elections,” Clampitt said.
Perdue vetoed a voter ID bill passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature this past summer, saying it disenfranchise eligible, legitimate voters.