There are three issues that I think North Carolina needs to address legislatively during the next session of the legislature. From my view the most overwhelming issue facing North Carolina and the Federal Government is how we provide the healthcare that people need. The issue is mainly a Federal Issue and we need a non-partisan and practical answer quickly but there are some things we can do on the State level. One of the most immediate ways to deal with this problem is to create a high-risk insurance pool. This pool will allow people with current conditions, who insurance companies label as high risk, to jointly purchase insurance. By allowing people from all across North Carolina to buy into this type of plan we can more easily cover them and they can get the healthcare they need. This type of program will benefit our seniors and working families with health problems the most. With insurance and health care costs rising so dramatically every year it is the right thing to do.
The second issue that needs legislative attention is our education system. North Carolina is still trying to deal with the repercussions of the global economy. The best and only way to respond to this is to have academic institutions which push our children harder and further to innovate and create new types of technology that cannot be created or copied easily by workers in China, Korea, or Mexico, who work and specialize in low skill and low paying jobs. This means making significant investments in bio-technology and high technology jobs. The most efficient means of passing this knowledge on is through our education systems. We need to have more children finishing high-school and going onto either community college or a four year institution so that we can compete in and win in the new economy. For our public schools this means that we need to have a low student to teacher to ratio, proper classrooms, and have students who know how to use the latest technology. During this past term of the legislature we increased pay for teachers 8%, put $127.8 million in the budget from the lottery to decrease class size, and I helped to bring $3.8 million for the Balsam Fiber Network and WNC EdNet which will provide cheap high speed internet access for 70 public schools and community colleges in my district. For the UNC System and our Community Colleges this means having enough financial aid for students who want to pursue a higher education ‚Äď taking away the excuse that they don‚Äôt have enough money. This year we set aside $20 million for financial aid for students, put $78.99 million towards enrollment growth for the UNC System, $10 million was put aside for enrollment growth at community colleges. To confront North Carolina‚Äôs continuing need for teachers we provided scholarships for 100 new teachers through the Teaching Fellows program. In all the NC Education lottery will provide $425 million for early childhood education, reducing class size, school construction, and college scholarships.
The third issue that needs legislative attention during the next session of the General Assembly is growing our economy and embracing the opportunity that comes with change. This year we passed tax credits for people who make bio-diesel. The alternative fuels industry is just emerging in the United States - by jumping on the front end of it we can take full advantage of the economic impact and benefit from creating the technology that will drive this industry in North Carolina. In Western North Carolina the Balsam Fiber Network is being completed. Once this network is completed the 50th Senate District will have a high speed internet connection that is better than what is available in downtown Atlanta. We need the State to provide the infrastructure that will recruit industries and jobs to our mountains.
2. What are three of the most pressing issues facing the people of your district, and how can the state legislature deal with them?
The number one issue facing Western North Carolina is growth. Very few areas in the world have the natural beauty and resources that we have here. We can all understand why thousands of people, from all over the world, move here every year. However, we have never seen such a dramatic influx of growth in our area‚Äôs history and we need to respond correctly or else we‚Äôll lose the very things we cherish about these mountains. Ultimately, the decisions will rest with the local County Commissions. However, due to the vast amount of infrastructure we need and will have built here in Western North Carolina we can make sure that the State doesn‚Äôt build roads, schools, or other buildings in a way that will cause unsafe conditions to occur. The State can work with local communities to make sure its buildings fit into that community‚Äôs vision for the county or town.
With such rapid change taking place we need to make sure our cities and counties have the infrastructure of sewer, water, electricity, septic tanks, roads, and other items that they need. Many of the new homes that are being built are retirement or second homes for many people. We need to find a way to help pay for the infrastructure needs of these new residents. With the great burst of growth in Western North Carolina the issue of storm water run-off is very important and needs to be addressed in each county to protect our clean water supply.
In my home county of Cherokee we have had such rapid growth that there is a waiting list over 900 homes long of people waiting to have their septic tank approved ‚Äď which is preventing their home from being built. The county does not have the money to hire or keep enough registered sanitarians on staff and because of that the work is not getting done quickly enough to put people in homes or help builders have a profit. The growth simply outpaced the county‚Äôs ability to respond to it. This is a leading edge indicator of the growth problems that we have to come. During the last session of the legislature Cherokee County was given permission to essentially privatize its septic tanks approval system in a pilot program involving the use of registered soil scientist. However, this program is just starting and will not be the silver bullet for this growth problem.
How we respond to growth challenges is important and is sure to be a controversial conversation. However, we need to have quickly in order to keep everyone safe. For example, in Jackson County a mining permit had been requested by a mining company. However, the location for the mine was in a residential community and homes were as close as 90 feet away from where rock crushing and mining were going to take place. Since we essentially have a blank canvas to work with, the State can work with local officials and residents to help them build in a way that is both economically sound and environmentally responsible.
The second issue facing my district is the mental health system. Recently we found out that Mt. Vista New Laurels, which serves Transylvania County, is going to shut its doors. This is a major problem, especially now, as we begin to understand mental health problems better and how to treat them. We need to make sure that people with mental health problems get proper and timely treatment. The State has passed major reforms to correct problems created from reforms done in 2001. With these new reforms in place we need to make sure that the system is held accountable and that the money and regulatory reform is being used and enforced correctly. Once these new reforms are in place then we should evaluate the changes to make sure that the problems are being addressed adequately and cost efficiently.
The third issue facing my district is providing the infrastructure for more and better jobs. Back in the 1950s roads were the backbone of commerce. Today high-speed broadband internet is a must if we are going to be successful in a global-knowledge economy. Over the last two years I have worked with the Balsam Fiber Network, owned by The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Drake Enterprises, to secure funding from the Golden Leaf Foundation and others. Together we brought over $3.5 million dollars, in grant funds, to hook up over 70 public schools, community colleges, and provide the very finest broadband Internet Services to our businesses. This infrastructure will allow us to harness many of the buildings and plants that were put out of use during the last ten years due to the departure of the textile industry. Now that we have this infrastructure we need to find ways to utilize it.
At Western Carolina University we can continue to invest in their engineering department. They are breaking new ground in what can be accomplished with nanotechnology. With more support we can help them be a leader in manufacturing custom made nano-technology devices. In addition to engineering technology and manufacturing we can now attract bio-tech companies that rely on high-speed internet to review, develop, and communicate millions of bits of information per second to other companies around the world about the organic compounds they are synthesizing.
We can generate a new field of study by developing a center to study the aging of the human body. North Carolina is investing in three research facilities that will improve the lives of our citizens: the cancer center at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Heart Center in Greenville, and a new aging center in Western North. This aging center will be a cooperative research facility combining the knowledge and talents of Western Carolina University, UNC-Asheville, and the Mountain Area Health Education Center. Together they will help Western North Carolina be a leader in human health and aging. The Balsam Fiber Network will allow this cooperative learning center to tap into the best minds and thinking at a moment‚Äôs notice, the world over. The bio-technology centers that this network can support will be crucial to the research center‚Äôs work.
There is an ever increasing need for data mining and data storage for businesses such as banks and other companies with large amounts of sensitive information. A bank or research facility in Germany or Greenville needs to be able to store and access the data they have securely and quickly. With this new infrastructure in place we need to make sure the Department of Commerce is doing everything it can to sell our infrastructure. Thanks to the internet you can set-up a business anywhere and in my next term I will make sure that the state invests in us by making sure people know about our infrastructure and come here to set-up their business. Developing methods and technologies that are difficult to replicate are what will drive us forward but attracting already thriving businesses has to be part of the answer too.
Finally, we need to make sure that people have access to high speed internet. While the Balsam Fiber Network gives us many great strategic advantages it does not provide internet access to individuals. The 50th Senate District is very rural and sparsely populated. Many Internet Service providers will not make the investment to run high speed internet lines to local residences because they feel they cannot make a profit. New technology is developing that can run broadband internet over the electric lines. Anywhere there is electricity there can be internet service. This is an initiative that will be a great equalizer for our Western counties. Moreover, it will allow people who run small businesses on the side to better market themselves to the global online community.
3. Should the legislature help seniors with property taxes by adjusting the homestead exemption on their homes?
Yes, seniors should receive an increased exemption on their homes. Every day 400 acres of land are developed in North Carolina. This invariably means that land prices go up. Many of our seniors have lived here since land was cheap and this was not a destination for 2nd and 3rd homes. The great increase in home construction has increased the price of land and in turn has made property taxes go up forcing too many of our seniors into financial positions that they could never have planned for while they were working. What is more - the economy of this area did not support the type of job that would allow someone to save enough to afford the property taxes that we have seen lately. What is currently being done to our seniors is unfair and this is the reason I support increasing the exemption.
4. What is your position on lobbyist and campaign reform?
I was the first member of the legislature to begin not accepting campaign contributions from lobbyists. Not accepting money from lobbyists passed during this past term of the General Assembly but does not go into effect until January of 2007. Opening up the legislative process is the most important thing that can be done to ensure high ethical standards.
5. Do you support more extensive state action to help with farmland preservation? If so, what specific measures should be enacted?
Farming is a tremendous industry in North Carolina so much so that it still affects our economy in a way that would surprise most people. In North Carolina it contributes over $62 billion or 22% of our state‚Äôs economy. Since 1967 North Carolina lost nearly 40% of its working farmland. Four hundred acres of land are developed in North Carolina every day. In the last twenty years the state‚Äôs population has increased by 42% while developed land has increased by 82%. While North Carolina‚Äôs future may be invested in high-technology jobs we cannot discount a cornerstone of our economy. In 2005 the Legislature passed enabling legislation for farmland preservation. The most important thing that can be added to any farmland preservation system is to ensure the quality of the drinking water that is adjacent to farmland. Recently I was at a meeting in Highlands and the topic of discussion was silt flow into the lake that provides drinking water for Highlands. The lake is becoming so filled with silt that city engineers are trying to figure out a way to remove the current silt and stop the inflow. If this continues then Highlands will have a problem with having enough drinking water for its citizens. Ensuring that farmlands are designed in a way to ensure that run-off does not bring an overabundance of silt into water sources is the most important thing that can be done for preservation of clean water and farmlands.
6. What is the most pressing educational need in the state?
Over the next decade North Carolina is going to need $9 billion for building new schools. This is in addition to the building repair and replacement funds that currently exists. With so many new children in our schools and the need for them all to be very well educated we have an obligation to provide buildings that will help truly prepare them for the future. If we don‚Äôt have enough classroom space then some of our other problems are going to seem miniscule by comparison. One good start is the lottery which will provide construction money for the entire State. However, the popularity of education bonds seems to be waning if you believe that voters in Mecklenburg County, who recently voted against school bonds for construction, represent voters across North Carolina. Without this option at the local level a new and heavy financial challenge will exist for North Carolina. Especially since the State will begin to take on Medicaid payments from the counties, a $500 million task, which increases at 8% annually.
7. What can the state afford to do to help counties with increasing Medicaid costs?
The State of North Carolina currently spends about Five Billion Dollars a year on the Department of Health and Human Services a large portion of which goes to Medicaid payments. Absorbing the total costs of the counties Medicaid burden will cost the state an additional $500 Million per year. This is in addition to Federal Medicaid cuts of about $1.4 Billion. The State should take on the Medicaid costs for the counties. These Medicaid costs have been overwhelming for many of our smaller counties and preventing them from being able to make the infrastructure investments that we need to support the growth that is happening here.
Medicaid presents one of the largest budget challenges for governments at all levels. Not only are the cost very high but they are growing at 8-12% a year - a rate greater than the stock market gives except in its best years. To help the state take on these costs the counties may need to give up part of the one-cent sales tax which they used to support Medicaid at the County Level.
8. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Big - it worked out I‚Äôm 6‚Äô5‚ÄĚ.
9. What is your favorite television show?
Sunday Morning on CBS.
10. Describe your philosophy of government in 100 words.
I believe that Government can and should be used to help people. This means taking on healthcare challenges, ensuring people are well educated, and helping industry perform the research necessary to make the profitable products and services of tomorrow. It also means ensuring that laws are just and enforced properly. Government is a place where all people and ideas are welcomed, where the great debates and the great ideas are met head-on with the practical realities and the needs of the people. In my mind government can be a catalyst for the type of freedom that the human spirit demands.