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A drive-by version of the N.C. Senate debate

A candidate debate last week between N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and challenger Jane Hipps, D-Waynesville, plowed a lot of ground. Education, Medicaid, and fracking were the biggies, but the 90-minute debate ran the gamut, touching on government spending, guns, charter schools, teacher salaries, higher ed, and so much more.

Stay tuned to our election coverage this month for candidate profiles and further exploration of the state issues on tap in Raleigh and on the minds of voters.

For now, here’s some top takes from last week’s debate at Western Carolina University as Hipps and Davis face off in a battle to represent the seven western counties.

Is the state General Assembly going in the right or wrong direction?

Davis: “I own everything I’ve done down there. I believe we have made remarkable progress. I am very proud of what we are doing with North Carolina. We are moving forward. This election will determine whether we stay the course or return to failed policies of the past.”

The income tax rate was lowered and so was the corporate tax rate.

“It gives tax relief to all North Carolina families. Our actions have moved the state from the bottom to 17th best in the business tax climate. We had regulations that were stifling government, industry and individuals.”

Hipps: “I am running on values that matter to Western North Carolina. Our people are struggling all across the board. If you vote for me I will be your voice down there.

I won’t give big breaks to corporations and millionaires and billionaires and special-interest groups. I will be looking out for the middle class and the hard working people of Western North Carolina. That hasn’t happened. Jim Davis has had an opportunity for four years and he hasn’t done that.”

Hipps said economic development initiatives and infrastructure have languished, schools are in worse shape, the environment is threatened, and the middle class is worse off while the wealthy got disproportionately large tax breaks.

“We are in trouble. I intend to make a difference.”

Why did the Republican majority in Raleigh turn down federal funding to expand Medicaid to more poor people?

Davis: “Medicaid is out of control. It is the least predictable part of the state budget. That’s tantamount to ‘If you can’t afford the house you’re in, buy a bigger one.’ I am very proud we didn’t do it because we can’t afford it.”

Although the feds said they would cover the full cost of Medicaid expansion the first three years and 90 percent of the tab after that, can that be trusted?  Will there be strings attached?

Besides, the federal government can’t afford it either.

“How much of it is borrowed? Does anyone care about the legacy of debt we are leaving to our children and grandchildren? I do. That’s what they want us to accept — is money we don’t have, and money that we can’t pay back.”

Hipps: “I think it is a travesty that we didn’t take the Medicaid funds. This is federal money we are paying to Washington with our own tax dollars. We need to take it and use it for the best of our state.

“That is $4.9 million daily we would be bringing in. It would be $13.2 billion that we missed so far. We could have brought in 23,000 jobs in the healthcare field.”

Not expanding Medicaid means everyone else has higher medical bills, which are inflated in order to offset the cost of care for poor people who can’t pay their hospital bills.

“Our rural hospitals are suffering because of this.”

Explain your position on education funding.

Davis: Education funding has been increased under Republican control in the General Assembly, so what is all the flack about? (Davis unveiled a bar graph charting an increase in state education dollars over the past four years.)

“We have increased education funding by over $1 billion since we’ve been in office. I mean hello? I don’t know if you are using new math or old math, but I want you to explain to everybody how that is a half a billion dollar cut.”

As a side note, though, money is not the only answer to a good education.

“D.C. spends more per student than any other state in the country and yet they rank dead last.”

Hipps: While the raw number spent on education is more, the per pupil spending is less. State education dollars haven’t kept up with the increase in students or inflation.

“We are behind $500 million in the way we fund education.

If you question this go look at the schools. Go ask the teachers. Go ask the PTO people. Go ask the principals. Go ask the superintendents and they will tell you they don’t have the funds for their schools they had before. We have lost teachers. We have lost teachers’ assistants. Our children are lacking textbooks.

You tell me the money is coming in at a higher rate. It’s not. We are losing. We are behind. Our children are in jeopardy.”

Talk about the teacher raises given out this year.

Davis: Republicans fixed teacher pay. It was low under Democratic leadership, with N.C. ranking 46th in the nation in teacher pays in 2005.

“Where was the NCAE then? Where were you then? Did you badmouth the Republicans or Democrats then? No.”

Raises this year under Republican leadership have made huge strides.

“Do you know what the rank is after the Republicans have fixed this? 32. Are we through? No. But look, teachers are a privileged group in N.C. They have received a bigger raise than any other state employee, an average of 7.2 percent increase. So I think we are doing pretty good.”

Hipps: “I thought the teacher salary scale was just a sham.”

Further, the money to cover the raises is coming out of the education budget in other areas, like cuts to higher education. Another strategy to pay for the raises: “by hoping that poor people buy more lottery tickets.”

What are your thoughts on the state of higher education?

Davis: “The chancellor and his staff and all faculty of this university were proactive in reducing costs.”

A French professor at WCU complained at a higher ed budget forum last year that the number of French classes were being cut from seven to two.

“Well, live with it. If we don’t have the money, if students want to go to a French class, they now have two options instead of seven.

We need to make sure our universities in the state specialize in certain things. We can’t be all things to all people at all campuses. We have to make sure we are investing our money to do the most good.”

Hipps: “I think our university system is in jeopardy. In the last budget $76 million was cut from the university system.

When we continue to cut money from the university system, you lose the quality, you lose the faculty.

We have to protect the university system we have and it is eroding. Tuition has gone up. We can’t continue to pull money away from college education and put it on the backs of our young people and people who are struggling to better themselves by getting an education.”

Is fracking bad?

Davis: No.

Hipps: Yes.

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