Four-term incumbent emphasizes technology and practical solutions to revenue crunch

by Jordan Green

Seated in a sleek but modestly sized conference room on the second floor of the International Civil Rights Museum that bears portraits of himself and cofounder Skip Alston, Earl Jones admitted that civil rights is a secondary passion — promoted to the forefront by historical necessity — to his true love: science and technology.

“Because of the civil rights movement and the fight against segregation, I pursued political science and sociology in college as a pre-law degree, with a minor in history,” Jones said. “That was for the sole purpose of trying to create social change. All that time, I also read science and technology magazines because I just find it fascinating. That was my hobby. I’m probably more ahead of anyone else in Raleigh on it.”

With the resignation of Rep. Ty Harrell in September, the 60-year-old Jones suddenly found himself elevated to chairman of the NC House Science and Technology Committee. The four-term representative from Guilford County rattled off several policy areas and described pending legislation and how it would affect the citizens of North Carolina, building a case that NC House District 60 voters should consider his experience when making a choice in the Democratic primary on May 4.

“There’s the embryonic stem-cell issue, medical marijuana, working with Dr. [Anthony] Atala at Wake Forest [University] and his work on regenerative medicine… broadband access: making sure citizens in rural and urban areas have access. We’re going to be looking at cyber-bullying….”

Take broadband access. Jones said he has been consulting with Jay Ovittore, a Democratic Party activist with a strong interest in internet technology. The lawmaker mused on how he sees future legislation on the issue shaping up.

“Broadband access should be available to everybody, whether they can afford it or not,” he said. “And if the private sector can’t do it, local government should be empowered to do it.”

As an example of getting things done, Jones pointed to a bill supporting embryonic stem cell research that passed the House in 2007. He said then-Sen. Walter Dalton and then-Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue promised action in the Senate, but then a favorable executive order by President Obama made it a moot point.

One of Jones’ topmost causes, legalizing medical marijuana, is unlikely to pass this year, but the lawmaker believes history will be on his side. He would like to pass a bill next year to put the issue to a referendum, and then let the voters decide in 2012. In the meantime, he’s focused on educating the public on the issue.

“People should not go to jail because they’re trying to use an already confirmed medication to alleviate pain,” he said. “This has already been done in 16 states. It’s not like we haven’t had a pilot. We’ve got 16 pilots…. Marijuana is zero addictive compared to prescription drugs. And, I almost forgot, it will generate $60 million a year [in revenue for the state].”

When the short session convenes in May, Jones expects that his signature piece of legislation will be a bill filed in 2009 to legalize and regulate video poker so that the state can start taxing the games. The Legislative Black Caucus and, more significantly, the 55,000-member State Employees Association of North Carolina, has come out in support of it. Jones expects that an endorsement from

the NC Association of Educators won’t be far behind. In a year of staggering budget shortfalls, pressure to keep taxes low and worries about the survival of programs to help the most vulnerable citizens, creative revenue sources may find widespread support.

“There won’t be a need to raise taxes on the middle class, the poorest of our citizens and the wealthy,” Jones said. There won’t be a need to cut funding for health and human services, specifically those that impact elderly and the ill and those who are developmentally disabled.”

Jones said the current budget shortfall is somewhere between $250 million and $300 million.

“Video lottery would generate half a billion,” he said. “That would cover it, even if it came up short.”

Jones, who considers himself a “commonsense” lawmaker, also serves on the House Select Committee on Reducing Poverty and Economic Recovery. The select committee is developing policy recommendations to alleviate economic distress, without requiring expensive and ambitious government programs. Jones was in Robeson County for a hearing held by the select committee on March 11.

Jones chairs the jobs subcommittee. “We’ve had meetings with the technical colleges,” he said. “We’ve identified the Top 5 jobs that are in high demand and yields a high income. Air conditioning and heating repair is one. Everybody who owns a house has to make heating and air conditioning repairs at some time.

Nursing is another. We want to direct people into these professions.”

Another policy proposal is to create a position for someone who counsels ex-offenders at local Employment Security Commission offices, much the same as veterans receive specialized help.

“We want to have someone who works with just exoffenders,” Jones said. “If they can’t find work, these people can become a danger to society. These counselor can talk to employers about getting tax credits for hiring ex-offenders.”

Jones’ Democratic primary challenger, Marcus Brandon, has emphasized rail transportation and criticized the incumbent for not being more proactive. Jones voted last year in favor of the Railroad Corridor Management Act, which if passed by the Senate and signed by the governor will allow more speed and volume on the tracks connecting Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte. He sees little, if any, daylight between himself and his opponent on the issue.

“I think it’s healthy,” Jones said of his primary contest. “I would be dishonest if I said I welcomed an opponent; I don’t. But that’s democracy. I always plan to have an opponent.”