State legislative candidates square off at Greensboro forum

by Jordan Green

Sparks flew between Republican Theresa Yon (right) and Democrat Maggie Jeffus, who are competing for the NC House District 59 seat. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Clean Smokestacks bill, a piece of legislation passed by the NC General Assembly in 2002, became a reference point for an open debate about the role of government in regulating business during a candidate forum earlier this month at Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro.

“The environment for small business in North Carolina is a poor one,” said Jeff Hyde, the Republican candidate for NC Senate District 27. “We are overtaxed, over-regulated and the mandates that come down from government for business activity are stifling.”

Irwin Smallwood, an audience member, probed Hyde on the point, asking him to name three regulations he would repeal.

“One instance would be we required Duke Power a couple years ago to spend $3 million to clean smokestacks on the idea that there would be a significance difference in the emissions of those smokestacks,” Hyde responded. “Since it’s been done, there’s no discernible effect. They’ve done exactly what the state asked them to do. And yet what’s happened [is] our energy costs have gone up.”

Hyde’s Democratic opponent, freshman Sen. Don Vaughan, was given an opportunity to speak, but steered away from confrontation. Vaughan said that he believes in a free enterprise system and generally favors less regulation on business, and pivoted to a different issue:

“I think our teachers are over-regulated in the classroom. I think we should give them more ability to handle their problems without having to go up the food chain.”

Pricey Harrison, the Democratic incumbent in the NC House District 57 race, used part of her allotted time to chastise Hyde.

“The Clean Smokestacks bill is one of the best things we’ve ever done to clean up the air here in North Carolina,” she said. “It reduced emissions by more than 70 percent and it’s been a tremendous tool. And we have lower asthma rates; we can actually document that.”

Harrison and her Republican opponent, Jon Hardister, sketched out different political philosophies, but remained cordial and avoided direct challenges against each other on the issues. But the two candidates demonstrated different approaches in response to a question about what services they would cut to make up an expected budget shortfall next year.

“Clearly, if we cut $3 billion out of a $19 billion budget, that 15 percent of what’s out there is going to be pretty serious, and I think we’ll set ourselves back decades in terms of the investments in education and quality of life — I think will severely undermine us,” Harrison said. “I think there’s a place where we can cut, but we’re going to have to have some alternatives. Close the tax loopholes. There are a ton of those out there. That’s been sort of forbidden ground. A $100 million bank tax loophole. There are things like that out there we can look at. Review the whole tax code. I’m not an expert. There are ways to create more equity in the tax code because we don’t really have that in the tax code right now. But there’s some pork in the budget, and I’m frustrated by that. I tried to lead the charge to eliminate that $10 million subsidy that was going to the UNC Booster Club and opposed that mega port that was never going to get permitted. There are things like that in the budget, but I don’t think it’s going to add up to $3 billion. It might be a half billion.”

Hardister responded, “The first thing we’ve got to do is what you hear politicians say all the time: You’ve got to go through the budget line by line. We need to start doing that, but in particular, we need to go to zero-based budgeting. After that, to look for wasteful spending I would start with corporate subsidies and corporate incentives, excessive possible entitlement programs, and the discretionary spending. We need to really put a hold on discretionary spending until we get the budget under control. And then I think we need spending caps. We need a constitutional amendment that pegs allowable spending with changes in inflation and population. Because [in]

North Carolina for years our population has increased, but spending increased at a faster rate, so we need to tie the two together and also put a formula in there for inflation.”

Remarks by Democratic incumbent Maggie Jeffus and Republican challenger Theresa Yon, who are vying for the neighboring House District 59 seat, provided more discernible contrasts for voters.

Asked to provide an example of wasteful spending, Yon mentioned the state film tax credit, which was increased from 15 percent to 25 percent of qualifying production expenses in the most recent session.

“The state of North Carolina taxpayers will now pay 25 percent of the cost of making movies,” Yon said. “It’s projected to cost us $160 million over the course of the next few years. Do we really want the taxpayers to pay $160 million?” Jeffus defended the use of incentives to maintain the film industry in North Carolina.

“You all remember ‘Dawson’s Creek’?” she asked. “That has left. We have lost to Louisiana. We’ve lost to Canada. We’ve lost to Mississippi. We’ve lost to Georgia. The governor was right on the verge of — back in the long session, I guess — of announcing a film that was being filmed in North Carolina. She was sure we would get it. Only to find out the next day that Georgia got it. These film people, the people that produce them, they bring jobs into North Carolina. Guilford County does have a film office here, and films have been shot here in Greensboro and High Point – all around. So we’re talking about jobs. Construction. Production. Directors. Costumes. They stay in hotels and motels. They buy food. It’s just a no-brainer. We need jobs. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Yon retorted, “‘Dawson’s Creek’ went off the air; it’s not filmed anymore.”

Yon and Jeffus also parted ways on the issue of education, specifically on a proposal by Yon to require that a minimum of 65 cents of every dollar allocated for education be spent in the classroom.

“I know my opponent has come out against that publicly,” Yon said. “She says it will tie the hands of local education agencies, and I disagree. Guilford County may use that extra money in the classroom to pay teachers bonuses. Forsyth County might use it to buy textbooks. Another county might use it to replace their arts and music programs they’ve had to cut. Another county might decide, ‘We need an after-school reading program.’ But it’s spent in the classroom. If we took just three cents more of every single dollar and spent it in the classroom, that’s $210 million more in our schools without raising your taxes. The lady in maroon asked earlier if we can cut some administration. Yeah, I think we can cut some administration and put it in the classroom.”

Jeffus acknowledged her difference of opinion.

“I do oppose the 65 cents in the classroom,” she said. “I want everything that we can get for the schools and for the classes and for the children. She does not understand how the budget is done. And we do need to give them flexibility. It will tie their hands. That’s one of the things we do — we give a great deal of flexibility to the [local education agencies], and each LEA is different. What we need in Guilford County, they might not need in Carteret County or someplace else — Hoke County — so that they have the flexibility to do what they need to do. And I think most of them do a diligent job of putting it into the classroom. And a great deal of our education money goes to teacher salaries.”

Yon found an unlikely ally for her initiative in Marcus Brandon, the Democratic candidate for House District 60, who noted in his remarks that he might consider her proposal to mandate that 65 cents out of every dollar be spent in the classroom.

Brandon’s Republican opponent, Lonnie R. Wilson, outlined a conservative Christian political ideology.

“Believe me, when you get up here, the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top as much as it usually does, and you can’t remember everything you want to say,” he said. “So I’m going to have to read some of my stuff. And I do believe this stuff that I’m reading. I do believe ‘In God we trust.’ And I do believe that our representatives should defend our ancient landmarks of Judeo-Christian values. And those we send to Raleigh should do that. And I am a conservative; I am a Republican. This is my first run for office, and maybe the only one.”

Broader themes related to longstanding Democratic control of the General Assembly and the possibility of a Republican majority after the coming election emerged in an exchange between Republican John Blust