Chamber forum highlights education, economy — with a dash of water *Updated with video*

Not surprisingly, jobs and the economy were premiere topics at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum on Thursday. But in no time at all, education and local government control — the Asheville water system being the prime example — also bobbed to the top.

Co-hosted by the North Carolina Chamber, the forum brought together N.C. House and Senate candidates from Buncombe County and the surrounding area, as well as one U.S. Congress hopeful. Linda Brandt, who chairs the local Chamber’s board of directors, introduced the event, which was then moderated by Frank Fraboni of WLOS-TV.

U.S. Congressional District 10’s Republican candidate, Mark Meadows, kicked off the introductory remarks by proposing a “business approach to Washington, D.C.” as a “conservative Christian.” He voiced strong support for energy development by opening up protected natural resources for energy exploration, and building new nuclear plants. Democratic rival Hayden Rogers was unable to attend, but sent a statement naming his own priorities as “job creation, ending gridlock, and rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”

The forum was then primarily dominated by discussion of the state of North Carolina, its climate for business, and its path to fiscal health through state legislative action.

“We’ve seen an attack on education and our North Carolina way,” said Democratic challenger Phil Feagan (N.C. Senate District 47, including Madison and five nearby counties).  He charged the 2011-2012 Legislature with sending public school rankings down to 45th in the country in per-pupil expenditures, and criticized the “largest cuts ever” to community colleges and the state university system.

Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, his opponent, turned the focus immediately to the effects of job losses in the state. “What we invest [on education] depends on the health of our economy,” he cautioned.

Sen. Jim Davis, Republican incumbent in District 50 (seven of the most southwestern counties), saw tax reform as the top issue facing the state, including the current gas tax rate. “We’re going to have to do something about our infrastructure,” he added. (Davis’ opponent, former Sen. John Snow was unable to attend.)

Buncombe County House District 115’s Democratic candidate, Susan Wilson, picked the jobs mantle back up, voicing her support for “Made in North Carolina” branding as an incentive to encourage businesses to come here and to help existing businesses grow. Her opponent, Nathan Ramsey, also looked to job creation as his top issue, seeing it in the form of a ““21st-century economy’ for the state.”

“I think Raleigh has taken a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Ramsey, a former two-term Buncombe County Board of Commission chair who supports a local emphasis on job creation. “I think we can do a better job,” he said, “working with our local governments.”

In Buncombe’s House District 116, Democratic challenger (and former representative) Jane Whilden quickly turned the discussion to the Asheville water system. “The issue is truly an issue of fairness,” Whilden declared. “I did not think it was called for,” she said of the legislative move to potentially merge the city’s system with the regional Metropolitan Sewerage District. She predicted legal and property-rights issues as two results.

Video by Jake Frankel

Sitting next to Whilden was Rep. Tim Moffitt, who introduced the bill that established a water system study committee (which he chaired). Moffitt quickly cited cost issues and equitable distribution as primary motivators for the study.

“The water issue for our region has been around since the Great Depression,” said Moffitt, who proposes a “change in governance” from a local board of seven (Asheville City Council) to a regional approach that represents “all the people it serves.” (Last year, he led a successful effort to convert the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners selection to a district-based vote.) Ultimately, he spoke of “depoliticizing” the water issue in order to move on to “the next issue facing this district — the I-26 connector.”

Veteran Democratic Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill and District 118 was the clean-up batter at the forum table, speaking of returning the state to full employment and stressing the “critical role of education in this process.” Returning to Faegan’s original theme, Rapp spoke of the cuts to the state university system as well as the Department of Education, citing the 10 percent cut to the state’s 58 community colleges at a time of critical need. Such cuts, he said, “exacerbate unemployment.”

Fraboni took the candidates through another round of comments, addressing the state’s poor national standing in its unemployment rate. (The adjusted unemployment rate at the end of July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 9.6 percent, tied with South Carolina for 46th place.)

Feagan suggested requiring that state contracts go to North Carolina companies when not prohibitively expensive. For rural districts, he added, the state should not be “freezing economic development” — addressing grant money diversion from the Golden Leaf Foundation (created for areas formerly dependent on tobacco industry). He also suggested encouraging more cooperation between community colleges and industry.

Hise refuted Feagan’s claim that previously approved Golden Leaf grants had been impacted. He then highlighted the state’s massive outstanding debt to the federal government for unemployment benefit loans — approximately $3 billion. “We have to take it off the books,” said Hise. He also noted that when federal stimulus dollars used for education spending ran out, the Legislature was accused of “cutting education.”

“I think we made steps in the Legislature, with the governor’s help,” said Davis, referring to a reducation in the corporate tax rate from 6.9 to 4.9 percent. Other aid to business included a roll-back of environmental regulations that were more strict than federal standards. Such regulations, Davis said, should be subject to cost-benefit analysis.

Wilson, a lawyer, was asked about tort reform as an economic incentive. “I think we need to be careful,” she replied, acknowledging there are some people who abuse the system. “On the other hand, we need to realize why it [tort] exists in the first place — [for] people who are badly injured.” Ramsey — also a lawyer — then spoke of the effect on services and people in the medical field. “Rural OB/GYNs and certain specialists have the challenges you’ve mentioned,” he said to the moderator. “When you’re paying inordinate amounts for malpractice insurance, that’s not going to their patients.”

Video by Jake Frankel

Whilden, in contrast to some others, then declared that “North Caroina is one of the most business friendly” states in the region. “We’ve worked hard over the years to make it better,” she said, adding that “one of my concerns is cuts in education, [which] affects the way we are perceived. Education and business development go together.”

Moffitt replied that he would give the state’s business climate a grade of “C.” There are structural issues to address, he said, such as needed tax reform — what he noted that what he hears from the business community is actually a desire for regulatory reform.

Rapp, saying that some state regulations are redundant, felt the state was long overdue for many regulations to be reviewed. But, he said, “DENR [Department of Environment and Natural Resources] was a popular target, [and the] 20 percent cut meant people were put on the street. … We didn’t just go a little ways — we went too far.”

The audience, which filled the Chamber’s board room, then addressed questions to the candidates, and Heather Rayburn followed up on Rapp’s reference to environmental regulations, inquiring about the Legislature’s Coastal Management Policies Act regarding sea level rise on the coast. “How did you justify this law?” she asked, referring to the replacement of scientific data predictions with a standard based on historic sea level rise instead.

The question brought a moment of comic relief. Rapp spoke of “bizarre debate” in the House, and Moffitt noted the bill was “a gift given to us by the Senate — and we certainly appreciated it.” More seriously, he then added that “I think the premise is interesting — and the premise is ‘science is absolute.’”

“It is a coastal issue,” Hise commented. “We heard from businesses all over the area that said it [the original scientific prediction] would be devastating to their businesses.”

Ramsey then addressed a question from Mike Butrum with the Asheville Board of Realtors, regarding the status of home ownership as an economic goal. “We had overbuilding in the housing market, but at the end of the day, housing is one of the best ways to build equity,” answered Ramsey. “I think housing prices are an indicator of confidence and optimism about the future.”

Anne Craig asked the candidates about an older piece of legislation (2007) that pushes up utility rates for anticipated construction costs, even in cases where construction never takes place. Faegan offered the sole answer: “I do believe you need some oversight of utilities.”

The question period wound up focused again on Asheville’s water system. “You’ve repeatedly stated you’re not in favor of privatizing,” said Barry Summers to Moffitt, observing that opposition was always phrased as “selling outright.” What would Moffitt’s position be, asked Summers, in the case of a private company taking over management, setting rates, and potentially selling water outside the local service area. “I’ve never considered it,” Moffitt answered, “and I would oppose it.”

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor


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