House hopefuls quizzed on taxes, healthcare, schools
By Jon Hawley
Saturday, August 25, 2018
At the candidates forum they sponsored in Elizabeth City Tuesday night, home builders and Realtors asked many questions that all touched on one goal: helping to put roofs over people's heads.
The forum was hosted by the Home Builders Association of Northeastern North Carolina and the Albemarle Area Association of Realtors, who invited numerous candidates for the General Assembly and county offices.
The legislative candidates who attended included House District 1 candidates Ron Wesson, a Democrat from Bertie County, and Ed Goodwin, a Republican from Chowan County. Also in attendance was House District 6 candidate Tess Judge, a Democrat from Dare County. Judge’s opponent in District 6, Bobby Hanig, a Republican from Currituck County, did not attend the forum.
Also not in attendance were the candidates for the state Senate seat in District 1 and the state House seat in District 5. Forum organizers said those candidates were invited but either declined or didn't respond to the invitation.
Also attending were four candidates for Pasquotank County commissioner, including incumbent Democratic Commissioners Bill Sterritt, Charles Jordan and Joe Winslow, and Republican challenger Josh Tunnell. Tunnell is challenging for one of the at-large seats held by Sterritt and Jordan.
Lauren Spruill moderated Tuesday's forum, posing questions that touched on how to bolster the middle class in northeastern North Carolina — which in turn supports the dream of home ownership.
Sales Taxes: Are rural counties getting their fair share?
Spruill opened the forum by asking how candidates would support state funding for rural areas' infrastructure, noting infrastructure is important to economic growth and creating jobs. She also claimed that North Carolina's method of distributing sales taxes favors urban, wealthier counties.
In his response, Goodwin said “we're definitely not getting our fair share,” but “that formula is difficult to be changed.”
North Carolina collects sales taxes from counties and municipalities and redistributes the proceeds based on both population and where items are sold. By factoring in point-of-sale, more sales tax dollars flow to commercial hubs, such as in major cities.
Goodwin alluded to efforts to change the formula several years ago, but noted it failed. The legislation would've cost some counties six or seven figures' worth of sales tax each year, based on counties' analyses.
Goodwin said the state needs to encourage business growth outside of urban areas. Local governments need revenue to build utilities, such as sewer lines, adequate to attract businesses, he said.
Though supporting changes to redistribute sales tax revenues, Goodwin said he opposes raising sales tax rates.
Wesson similarly supported redistributing sales tax revenues based more on population, calling that equitable to smaller counties.
There's a wrinkle that comes with distributing sales taxes based on population: tourism-based economies lose out. In 2015, legislation that would've redistributed sales taxes based on population would've cost Currituck and Dare counties hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's because much of their sales tax revenue comes from non-residents.
Judge agreed rural areas “have been shortchanged for a long time,” but didn't state whether the distribution formula for sales tax revenues should be based more heavily on population. She called for more dialogue between lawmakers to find their shared interests.
Health Care: How does N.C. become healthier?
Spruill next asked how North Carolina would address comprehensive health care. She noted millions of Americans lack access to basic coverage while health insurance companies are implementing double-digit premium increases.
Health care costs and ensuring coverage are even more of a problem statewide and in northeastern North Carolina than they are nationally, Wesson said.
“Here in the state, we have the 10th highest health care costs in America,” Wesson said, adding those costs are even higher in House District 1 due to an increasingly elderly population.
Wesson reiterated his support for expanding Medicaid, a proposal state Democrats have supported for years but Republicans have strongly opposed. Wesson argued expansion would allow “working citizens” to get coverage through the program, which under current state law generally only provides coverage to low-income families with children or the disabled.
Wesson also said 34 states have expanded Medicaid, and claimed they lead the nation in lower health care costs.
Goodwin agreed health care is a problem in House District 1, but disagreed with expanding government to solve it.
“When the government is involved in something, it costs more money, it's not run as efficiently as it should, and it costs you and me more money,” Goodwin said.
Rather than expand Medicaid, he called for studying those health disparities, and other states' approaches to health care.
“Let's study that and find out what's making us all sick, and then we can address that problem appropriately,” Goodwin said.
Judge called for encouraging more competition between health insurers, as well as expanded access to mental health and geriatric care. She did not indicate support or opposition to Medicaid expansion.
Spruill also asked candidates another health care question submitted by the audience: whether candidates supported easing restrictions on “association health plans” that allow smaller employers to band together to negotiate better health insurance.
The candidates reiterated health care costs are a problem, but none stated support for association plans. Goodwin mentioned health savings accounts as an option; Wesson reiterated support for Medicaid expansion.
Helping the middle class: What will help schools, the economy, and home ownership?
Spruill also asked what the candidates would do to ensure all students get a safe and high-quality education.
Judge said the state needs to make education a priority, including adding funding for school resource officers and competitive teacher salaries. She pledged to be a strong advocate for the region's K-12 schools, community colleges and universities, including encouraging workforce development programs in community colleges. She often hears from employers who can't find enough qualified employees, she said.
Goodwin said school safety is his top education priority, noting he would support more spending to make schools safer.
Goodwin also called for teaching more trade skills. Schools now push too many students to enroll at universities, he said. Goodwin claimed that almost half of college freshmen end up dropping out “because they're not college material.”
Wesson called for more raises for teachers, decrying North Carolina’s ranking as 37th in the nation for teacher pay. He also said lawmakers should have supported a $1.9 billion bond referendum for school construction, and that they should give counties a larger share of revenues from the NC Education Lottery. Counties have long said they’ve received less than promised since the lottery started.
An audience member asked the candidates about how they'd support home ownership. The question expressed concerns about homes' affordability following federal tax changes provided in a major tax reform law Republicans enacted last year. According to CNN Money, it requires homeowners to itemize to claim the mortgage interest deduction on their home, and limits property tax deductions. Also of concern to wealthier Americans is the tax law lowering the maximum amount counted toward the mortgage interest deduction from $1 million to $750,000.
Wesson and Goodwin said they oppose eliminating tax benefits for home ownership; Judge called for lawmakers to work on keeping homes affordable, citing insurance as another factor making homes harder to afford.