By Pete Zamplas- Republican challenger Marilyn Allen Brown and Democrat State Rep. Brian Mills Turner debated last Thursday over state spending, Medicaid insurance, Republican legislative policies and other issues.
The two Biltmore Forest residents in the N.C. House District 116 race in southwest Asheville were in a forum, along with State Rep. John Ager and GOP challenger Amy Evans in the 115 district’s race.
Typically, the four took turns answering the same questions. The two Democrats are two-term incumbents. Turner unseated Tim Moffitt by 3.8 percent in 2014. Republicans had the seat for three prior terms, with Charles Thomas then Moffitt.
The hour long debate was sponsored by the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO). It was held in the Land of Sky Shrine Club in Swannanoa on Sept. 20.
Turner is a commercial realtor. His wife Katina runs a boutique salon here in Asheville. Earlier as an MTV producer, Turner produced Super Bowl halftime shows, video music awards, and a USO special for troops in Afghanistan soon after 9/11.
Marilyn Brown is a former music teacher, with a bachelor and masters degree in music education, and has taught in public and private schools around the country. She has spearheaded numerous community projects, such as: Angels Watch for Families in Crisis, in Asheville; she founded the Asheville Symphonettes, engaging high school girls in community service. Her husband, Bill, has been with Delta Airlines for 32 years and is a senior captain.
The 116 contestants were the most contentious, with Brown on the attack.
Brown called Turner “nice,” but said that “Brian continually votes his Democrat Party line” to the detriment of taxpayers. She said “people are disenchanted, and losing faith in their politicians…I want to give a voice to the constituents by taking their issues and concerns to Raleigh.”
Turner countered he does buck Democrat hierarchy, such as voting for HB511 to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot to let voters decide about preserving hunting and fishing “gaming rights.”
While Brown supports all 6 NC Constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall, she also recently received the NRA endorsement. Turner said, “I have stood up to my caucus, my party and my (Democrat) governor and voted what I think is best for my district.” He said his is an “independent voice,” not bound by special interests.
Brown quizzed Turner on four aspects of the GOP-sponsored state budget that passed. For example, Brown sited that Turner voted against teacher pay raise. Turner challenged that notion as a “gotcha” tactic, stating that he had received the NCAE Endorsement and has visited every school in his district.
Nevertheless, Turner voted against the teacher pay raises in the budget. Turner did not state his stand on the other three budgetary sub-issues Brown brought up.
Foremost of those is the $1.5 billion tax cut benefitting 99% of North Carolinians which gave tax relief in 2018. Personal income tax is scheduled to go down next year, from 5.499% to 5.25%. Historically, Republicans have favored such tax cuts to shrink government, stating that the private sector produces more jobs. Many Democrats oppose lowering taxes, because they grow government programs.
Brown also cited pay raises for state workers, including correctional officers, and more money to beef up school security against potential violent outbreaks. She cautioned “we can’t promise a permanent COLA” (cost of living allowance) to state employees. Instead, “we need to keep the rainy day funding, so we don’t have to cut programs” to offset emergency funding such as hurricane relief on the coast.
Turner quipped his foe is a “quick study” of that complex, 400-page budget. He veered off from those four issues, to say he disagreed with the 40 percent slash in the state attorney general’s budget. This seems an affront to Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper, who was attorney general before unseating Pat McCrory as governor.
Republicans though still have a majority in both state houses. Brown praised the “amazing accomplishments of the Republican-led General Assembly.” She said under GOP leadership, 500,000 additional jobs have been created, thereby lowering unemployment in N.C. to the lowest in years. She said work force development needs to be expanded to “mentoring” those seeking employment, and lower recidivism.
“School choice” sharply separated the candidates, by party. Turner said money that goes to charter schools is money taken away from public schools. He said charter schools should be required to adhere to tighter standards. Instead, he said, many charter schools are too loosely run as they have “very little to no accountability” to the state.
Brown welcomed legislators’ lifting of the cap on the number of charter schools allowed. She said that without state vouchers helping, many families cannot afford alternative public school choices. Further, she said the state is not footing the full bill. “A voucher for a private school of choice doesn’t cover all of the expense,” she said. “You still need a donor, or benefactor, as a student.”
She said she did her master’s degree thesis on the federal mandate to mainstream handicapped students into the classroom. She said it typically costs $4,000 per student over ten years. Brown praised the General Assembly’s recent addition to the budget to earmark approximately $4,000 per handicapped student over the next 10 years.
Turner ripped the state’s “unfunded mandate to reduce class size,” which burdens county school systems and property tax rates. He said this is especially if lower teacher-pupil ratios require more classrooms and in turn costly building of more schools. Reducing class size increases better outcome for each student, and Brown said studies indicate 18 to 20 students per class is ideal.
He called for “more local control” in schools, such as for Asheville-Buncombe Technical College vocational courses. He told the CIBO business group that Democrats also can take pro-business steps, such as more funding of community colleges to boost workforce skills. He said “protecting the environment” and scenic tourist sites makes business sense, in aiding the $3 billion tourism industry.
Brown trumpets better basic skills. She said 27 percent of high school grads in this state need remedial classes such as in math, reading and English. Half of high school grads are “not on track to further their education or enter the workforce.”
When asked what projects in the district need more money, Turner pointed to water and sewer extensions such as along New Leicester Highway, and Smoky Park Highway which has “potential to become a great commercial corridor.”
Broadband internet service is next eyed for “the Hominys,” he said, and could be funded with part of the $500 million in unappropriated funds. Turner is proud online service has reached recently to Sandy Mush and other areas, with his support.
His committee posts include Information Technology Appropriations.
On the question about the 35-cent state gasoline tax, Turner and Ager defended its importance by noting it helps improve roads and that North Carolina has more miles of paved state roads to tend to than any state, other than Texas.
But Turner said he opposes the legislative push to authorize charging motorists by the mile — presumably by inspecting odometers, which can be set back. Ager brought it up in the forum, as among approaches. But Democrat colleague Turner later called it “very regressive — especially for people in rural areas” such as WNC.
Brown cautioned not to “pit pro-business versus pro-environment,” on such issues as taxing gasoline while not taxing electric vehicles. “Get stakeholders to the table. I agree we need to keep roads up, and clean water and clean air too.”
Brown said she backs two pro-life bills introduced in 2017. The First is HB575 about abortion pill reversal, and also SB425, The Unborn Child Protection From Dismemberment Act. Brown hopes to help get this legislation to become law in 2019, if she is elected.
In defending how much he interacts with constituents in the district, Turner said he has held a “dozen town halls.” He added he even “helped industrial hemp farmers physically bring in their crop.”
The candidates called for more money to fight opioid pill addiction, such as to restore funding to local treatment centers.
Medicaid drew sharp contrasts.
Turner called it a “no brainer” to expand Medicaid and accept federal funding that covers 90 percent of the expense. He said “billions of our tax dollars” going to D.C. could come back, for that. He wants it to cover 650,000 more in the state, who currently lack medical insurance. He said that would improve workers’ health and thus productivity, and help prevent fatalities from medical neglect.
Brown said the state’s obligation to Medicaid is one-third the total cost, not 10 percent as Turner indicated. The federal government funds the remaining two-thirds.
“Medicaid is a wreck,” she said,” because our most vulnerable in society (which includes the poor, the handicapped, the elderly, and young pregnant women) receive “the benefits” not with enough choice, and not for pre-existing conditions.
Instead we need to reach across the aisle, and bring all stake-holders to the table, who help this part of the population in the most cost-effective manner even with healthcare costs spiraling out of control.
The District 116 candidates’ websites are turnerfornchouse.com, and marilynbrownfornchouse.com.