The Fuquay-Varina Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee sponsored a candidate forum on Thursday, Oct. 4 at the American Legion for candidates running for county commissioner, state house of representatives, and the state senate. Executive Director Tommy Broadwell welcomed the candidates and residents. The forum was moderated by Andi Curtis, manager of government affairs of WakeMed and member of the Chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee.
The candidates for county commissioner in attendance were Commissioner Betty Lou Ward-D (District 6), Commissioner James West-D (District 5), Commissioner Carolyn Sullivan-D (District 4), Dale Cooke-R, and Paul Fitts-R. The North Carolina senatorial candidates included Senator Doug Berger-D (District 18), who is running against Chad Barefoot-R; and Erv Portman-D and Tamara Barringer-R, who are running for the District 17 Senate seat vacated by retiring Richard Stevens. The candidates for the North Carolina State House of Representatives who participated in the forum were Representative Paul Stam-R who is running against Jason Wunsch-D for District 37, and Representative Nelson Dollar-R, who is running against Lisa Baker-D for District 36. Each candidate was allowed two minutes to introduce themselves and speak about their qualifications as a candidate and outline their priorities if elected before questions began.
Candidates for county commissioner sat for questions first. The first question asked of them was “what role do you think the Wake County Commissioners should play, if any, in encouraging or promoting stability within the Wake County School Board?”
Commissioner James West-D and candidate Dale Cooke-R cited the county commissioners’ role as the bankers for the school system and that both groups should work together for the benefit of the kids to improve the system and “remove the black cloud of acrimony.” Commissioner Ward believes the school board should “have authority to levy taxes,” and that the school board should go back to a nonpartisan election process where the focus is on the children and teachers, not politics.
The commissioner candidates were then asked what they planned to do about the completion of the Southern Expressway. Most of the candidates voiced their support of building the remaining part of the loop through Fuquay-Varina, but all of them also expressed uncertainty about how long that process will take. Candidate Cooke suggested that we “wait and see” what happens after the Holly Springs section opens to see how the current funding mechanism really works.
The third question asked candidates how they felt about reallocating funds generated by the Hotel and Prepared Meals Tax to communities outside of Raleigh and Cary if worthy projects were put on the table. Candidate Fitts acknowledged that a majority of the funds have been spent on Raleigh and that the county has underinvested in southern Wake County. Commissioner West explained that the current legislation governing the fund is restrictive and that commissioners need to look at it first and then see what Fuquay-Varina and other surrounding towns might put forward. Commissioner Ward said that the funds were designated to promote regional tourism, so any suggested projects must be along those lines, like the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science expansion or the Museum of Art renovation.
County commissioner candidates were also asked about their position on the use of incentives to attract businesses to Wake County. Commissioner Sullivan stated that incentive programs are a reality when trying to attract industry. Candidate Cooke pointed out that new business incentives don’t kick in until they start paying taxes. Commissioner Ward pointed out the importance of Wake Tech in drawing businesses and people to Wake County and its effectiveness in retraining the unemployed for new careers in our present economy. Candidate Fitts pointed out that we keep “missing the manufacturing boat. Businesses are going elsewhere. We need to focus on what we have to offer new businesses and ‘sweeten the pot if need be’.”
Finally, the commissioner candidates were asked about their view on the regional transit plan, whether they see an increase in mass transportation that includes light rail/commuter rail system, and whether or not it should extend into southern Wake County. All but one agreed that mass transit was a good idea and was needed to increase credibility with other large cities. Candidate Fitts doesn’t like the current plan with a half cent sales tax and a $10 tax added to the license plate fee. He believes the plan is too costly and buses would be more efficient since, in his opinion, “we will never be a big metro area like Atlanta or Boston.” Commissioner Sullivan countered that RTP is our “main economic engine for Wake County” and is competing with a global market, not just cities like Atlanta and Boston. “It is imperative” that we have a well-planned transit system.”
The next set of questions went to the state House and Senate candidates. The first question asked them how they would resolve the $3 billion unemployment insurance debt that the state owes the Federal government. All senatorial candidates agreed it should be paid back slowly and with the least impact on small businesses’ unemployment insurance rates. Senator Berger said we must grow our economy to create more money to pay back the debt. Candidate Barringer suggested that the state cut regulations and have a fair tax system that doesn’t discriminate. Representative Stam recommended a bond to pay the debt off since no changes to the present system can be made until Federal dollars are paid back.
The second question asked each candidate what adjustments they would advocate in the state personal and corporate income tax structure. Several of the senatorial candidates spoke about making adjustments in both the personal and corporate income tax structure. Candidate Barringer stated that “we are over-taxed, over-regulated, and over-burdened.” Representative Dollar described North Carolina as having the “highest tax rates in the Southeast,” which has hurt our competitiveness.” Candidate Wunsch highlighted his support for putting more of an emphasis on “improving schools and infrastructure” in any overhaul of the tax structure. Representative Stam reported that North Carolina” has the highest tax rates and the most loopholes” of adjacent states and that more attention needs to be paid to closing loopholes than lowering taxes.
The candidates were then asked if they were in favor of examining the state regulatory structure and streamlining or eliminating regulations that impact small business in order to promote job growth. Candidates Barringer and Barefoot believe that many regulations are detrimental to business, but did acknowledge that some are necessary. Senator Barefoot emphasized that “small businesses create the jobs we need,” and many regulations hurt their chances to succeed. Senator Portman, who owns a manufacturing business, doesn’t see the “crisis over regulation” and believes that most regulations are necessary for protecting worker safety and the environment. Candidates Wunsch and Baker, and Representative Dollar reminded everyone that incentives are necessary to help small businesses grow, but candidate Baker also supports incentives for new businesses as well. A business often leaves when the incentives are gone. All agreed that the regulatory structure needs to be reviewed and improved. Senator Berger said that due to structural problems in state government, some regulations were “enacted without an appropriate cost burden analysis.” He would recommend that the impact of those regulations be examined before just abandoning them.
The fourth questions asked their position on school vouchers as they relate to public education in North Carolina. All of the senatorial candidates voiced their support of the education system and teachers. All of the House candidates, with the exception of Representative Stam showed great concern over lack of proper funding for our public schools, voicing that we need to work as a team and make our kids a top priority. Representative Stam disagreed, saying that “$9000 per student is a lot of money” and that many schools that spend twice that amount have lower success rates and systems that spend a lot less have some of the best schools in the county. He explained that vouchers as proposed in North Carolina will actually save money for public schools by paying schools for students who aren’t actually in their classrooms. Candidate Wunsch was in total disagreement with this stance.
The final question asked to hear how the candidates felt about requiring the use of photo IDs to verify the identity of residents before voting in general elections. Although all the candidates stated that they had no desire to disenfranchise the poor or handicapped or curtail anyone’s constitutional right to vote, several expressed their support of the requirement of a photo ID to vote. They stated that it does not need to be a driver’s license, but that the requirement would protect a citizen’s right to vote against voter fraud and voting by residents who are not citizens. Candidate Wunsch and Senator Berger strongly opposed the idea, saying it fundamentally discriminates against the elderly and African American voters. Candidate Baker said the problem needs to be examined.
After the closing remarks of the legislative candidates, Executive Director Tommy Broadwell introduced Dr. Stephen Scott from Wake Technical Community College to the forum attendees. Dr. Scott spoke about the upcoming bond referendum that will raise $200 million in capital improvement funds for Wake Tech expansion projects. Wake Tech has over 5,000 students on waiting lists for classes due to limited seats at many of its campuses. This bond referendum, which will be located on the BACK of the ballot on November 6th, is much needed to serve the ever-increasing demand for affordable educational options and retraining of a changing workforce. Dr. Scott asked for everyone’s support of the referendum on behalf of his students and faculty, explaining that the bond will not raise a penny of taxes for Wake County residents. For more information on the bond referendum and a full list of projects that will benefit from this proposed funding, please check out www.bond.waketech.edu.