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State Senate candidates respond to questions

Lincoln County voters will be deciding this fall on which candidates for a range of federal, state and local offices they want to represent them. The Lincoln Times-News is surveying those office-seekers with questions related to issues they are likely to face if elected. Their answers will be published in upcoming weeks, starting today with the responses from candidates for N.C. Senate District 44.

This is an open seat with two newcomer running. District 44 includes all of Lincoln County, a large portion of Iredell County and a small part of Gaston County, so voters from all of those areas will have a say. However, the two candidates who will be on the ballot this fall are both residents of eastern Lincoln County.

The Democratic Party nominee is Ross Bulla. He was unopposed during the primary.

The Republican Party candidate is Dr. David Curtis, who polled second in the May primary against two Iredell County contenders, but won a landslide victory in the July second primary to claim the nomination.

QUESTION — VOICE IN RALEIGH: If elected, you would be new to the General Assembly and likely have a low ranking for committee assignments. What will you do to overcome this handicap and ensure that your district has a strong voice from the start in Raleigh?

Ross Bulla: Following the 2012 General Election, 60 percent of all senators will be in either their first or just second terms. With a majority of the General Assembly being newly elected, freshman status is not as relevant as it was. I am confident that two decades of advising major corporate and government clients on safeguarding their people, property and information, combined with many years in the fire, rescue and emergency medical services, is ideally suited for appointments to the Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness and Response, the Standing Committee on Appropriations for Justice and Public Safety, or to any number of boards or committees that govern or advise law enforcement, crime prevention or public safety agencies and their responses.

Dr. David Curtis: I am meeting with senior Republican senators to form relationships that will help me be a more effective senator representing this area.

QUESTION — JOBS: Just as North Carolina’s unemployment rate has remained higher than the national level, the jobless rate in areas of the district, including Lincoln County, has been higher than that in the state. What role do you see the state senator playing to support or defeat legislation in order to benefit this district’s economy?

Bulla: Democrats argue that the government can create jobs through economic stimulus, but in reality, it would require trillions in borrowed money to return us to pre-recession levels. This would incur more debt. Republicans argue that only time heals sick economies. Fundamentally, that means doing nothing. Cutting taxes and reducing government regulation is a popular mantra, but favored tax cuts would result in the loss of 23 million public sector jobs. Consider this, even if every single senator were aligned with the same political party and could pass the economic recovery plan of its choice, it would either be the choice of more debt or millions fired. In and of itself, neither would restore our economy. What we know is that jobs don’t “create” healthy economies; they are the “result” of healthy economies. This is proven by the fact that people are hired to provide goods and services that are in demand. So, let’s focus instead on retraining the jobless, retooling factories to produce products now in demand, educating dropouts, encouraging a minimum of a high school diploma followed by one year of specialized training, and emphasizing community college as an affordable option for those who cannot afford a university degree. Concurrently, let’s focus on how we will simplify our tax code, balance the budget, restore education funding, and revise the Economic Development Tier System that is unfair to counties, such as ours.

Curtis: The state of North Carolina has been following an economic policy that is a textbook example of how to destroy economic growth. As a logical consequence of these policies, we had the slowest economic growth of any state in the country. We have punished the producers and encouraged them to produce less. At the same time we have encouraged the nonproduces to stay nonproductive.
Producers — We have raised corporate and business taxes. We have added many regulations of questionable value that are expensive and difficult for small businesses to comply with. Thus we discouraged the producers by reducing their profits and making them wonder if the risk and hard work of building a small business is worth it.
Nonproducers — We have dramatically increased spending on social programs and unemployment insurance. This has had the effect of encouraging a large segment of our citizens to become wards of the state — letting the taxpayers take care of them instead of being responsible for themselves.

QUESTION — LIQUOR: North Carolina is one of very few remaining states to control alcohol sales through state-owned liquor stores. The ABC system has recently been the subject of scandals involving high-ranking officials and has been criticized for an allegedly corrupting influence on state government and local jurisdictions that profit from the stores. Some people don’t think the state belongs in the liquor business. Others say that for all its problems, the system works better than that in many other states and helps control alcohol abuse and underage drinking. What do you think and what sorts of changes or oversights would you favor?

Bulla: Despite the deplorable actions of a few ABC officials, the ABC system has recently earned record revenues for our state, which also trickles down to local government coffers. I’m concerned initially that privatization and competition might result in higher numbers of liquor sales to those underage or in quantities exceeding state law. An influx of retail stores might populate otherwise tranquil areas and invite higher incidents of crime. I would prefer to table this debate, until after our economy improves and we can carefully evaluate its potential outcome.

Curtis: I feel that there are a number of businesses that the state should look at getting out of. In most cases private businesses do a better job than the state. The ABC board is one of the exceptions to this general rule. The negative social consequences would outweigh the benefits. If the quantity of alcohol consumption goes up, there are many potential negative consequences: the number of alcoholics may increase, the number of drunk drivers may increase, and the risk of more underage drinking increases.
If you believe in the power of marketing at all, you must agree that the consumption of alcohol would increase if the system goes private. The profit motive will almost guarantee that — the number of outlets will increase, the hours of the outlets will increase, massive advertising will occur, and prices may drop if the owners decide that the demand is elastic.
The negative social consequences would far outweigh the relatively small financial benefits to the state.

QUESTION — TAXES: Taxes in North Carolina are higher than those in some states and lower than those in others. What sort of changes to state taxing policy, both level and structure, do you think might be appropriate?

Bulla: After the Great Depression, North Carolina enacted a new tax code that created our current sales tax on goods sold (products). At that time, it made perfect sense, because the vast majority of our state’s revenues came from manufacturing. Over the years, we have moved from consumers of products to consumers of technology and services. So much so, that increases in the sales tax five times since 1991 still resulted in a decline in revenue from the tax. The proportion of state revenue from corporate income tax has gone from 12 percent 40 years ago to about 5 percent currently. You and I make up the shortfall through personal income tax, which has increased from 30 percent of the state’s operating revenue in 1970 to more than 56 percent now. If we were to extend the sales tax from a tax on goods to a tax on goods AND services, we could double the sales-tax base (things that are taxed) and significantly reduce the tax rate (the tax amount paid) for both. Then, by eliminating the corporate income tax, which is based on income, and replacing it with a revised corporate franchise tax, which is based on net worth, experts agree that we could actually reduce or eliminate North Carolina’s personal income tax (the tax on your personal earnings). This is tax modernization, and not a new tax or tax increase. Ultimately, it would result in a tax decrease for individual earnings.

Curtis: We need to eliminate taxes on producers to encourage them to take the risk of starting or expanding a small business. Our tax system should be totally consumption based so the tax payer can decide whether or not to pay the tax.

QUESTIONS — STATE GATEKEEPERS: Many divisions of state government now employ public relations staff members who are the only persons allowed to disseminate information to the news media and others, even if the information is basic factual information or a public record, the release of which is guaranteed under state law. These officials are paid out of taxpayer dollars, but appear to serve in a partially political role. Would you favor changes to this system and if so what?

Bulla: It would make sense to attempt to consolidate the number of divisions represented by a media relations specialist, thus, reducing the number of those employed. I would caution, however, that relying on regular employees to address the vast numbers of inquiries submitted to the state might interfere with their normal workload. In addition, it takes a level of expertise to comply with the many regulations and laws that govern access to and the release of public, private and sensitive information. For those reasons, retaining the necessary but reasonable number of media relations specialists is important.

Curtis: I do not have enough information to have a position on this issue. I would be happy to look into it.

QUESTION — ACCESS TO RECORDS: Although North Carolina’s open government laws require that most activity be conducted publicly and that most records are available to the public upon request, in practice this can require a lengthy, expensive and uncertain process if a local official is uncooperative. Some states have made noncompliance with open government laws a misdemeanor punishable by loss of job or office and a substantial fine. Would you favor such penalties in North Carolina or other steps to strengthen compliance with these laws?

Bulla: Democracy centers on public trust. I believe strongly in an open and transparent government. Except when matters of security or employment are discussed, citizens should be allowed to sit and listen at meetings or read government documents. In states where noncompliance is a criminal offense, enforcement is not common and the financial cost to citizens or entities to bring a complaint can be high. Most noncompliant public officials are simply ignorant of the laws governing open records and meetings. The better solution is a mandatory, one-hour training course for every public official, so they are familiar with the rights of citizens in terms of access to documents and meetings

Curtis: Local officials should be required to comply with the law.

QUESTION — SHERIFFS’ EMPLOYEES:  Employees of county sheriffs in North Carolina serve at the pleasure of the sheriff and can be fired at any time. However, several North Carolina sheriffs have been prosecuted for wrongdoing in recent years and in some cases employees who were believed to have blown the whistle on corruption were harassed or terminated. Some states have moved away from the “pleasure of the sheriff” model and made such employees a part of the civil service system, similar to municipal police. Would you favor any changes to the law in this area?

Bulla: I am opposed to any changes that impact the authority of the sheriff as set forth in the State’s constitution and law, and I believe there would be strong opposition from all 100 sheriffs. Of those sheriffs indicted, most committed serious felonies and were appropriately charged and convicted. None of those convictions involved violations of “whistle blower” statutes. In the event that a sheriff were to harass or terminate an employee who “blew the whistle”, laws already on the books would apply to that sheriff’s criminal offenses.  Although former deputies often allege that they were fired because they did not support the sheriff in the last election, most were fired for insubordination for failing to comply with policies and regulations, fired for committing acts that were disruptive to the operations, or fired for committing acts placing the Sheriff’s Office in a position to be sued. Under N.C. law, the actions of a deputy sheriff or are considered those of the sheriff. In other words, it is as though the sheriff personally performed the actions of those of the deputy. If the sheriff cannot hire and fire at-will those who choose not to follow policy, the sheriff will not be able to do his/her job. This premise has been upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. A sheriff is accountable to the citizens. If the citizenry is unhappy with the sheriff’s actions, they have recourse. Unfortunately, modern Civil Service Boards have become a politically influenced institution that often hamstrings efforts of police chiefs to effectively discipline or terminate police officers.

Curtis: I do not know the consequences of making this change and so have no position right now. I do believe that “whistle blowers” should be protected and encouraged to come forward if they are aware of any illegal activity.

QUESTION — STUDENT LOANS: The Legislature recently overrode Gov. Perdue’s veto of a bill, which has since gone into law, allowing individual community colleges to opt out of participation in federal student loan programs. Despite a previous mandate requiring all colleges to participate, several schools, including Gaston College, had been allowed to opt out through local bills. As a result, such loans are unavailable to students taking classes at Gaston College, but are available to those in many other North Carolina community colleges. What’s your view on the best policy on this issue?

Bulla: Gaston College is among nearly two dozen others statewide that have opted out of the federal student loan program, because they fear the loss of federal Pell Grants as a result of a high number of defaults on loans. Given the available waivers and other provisions designed to minimize default sanctions, such fears are largely irrational. Legitimately, however, community colleges are unfairly prohibited from running a credit check on student borrowers. As of 2010-2011, 57 percent of North Carolina’s community college students did not have access to federal student loans. This is higher than any other state. All eligible students should have access to federal student loans (the safest option for a student), should they need to borrow. When combined with counseling to help students borrow responsibly, colleges that make loans available are providing students with their best chance of remaining enrolled and graduating.

Curtis: I do not have enough information on this subject to have a position.

QUESTION — RUNOFF ELECTIONS: A small number of primary runoffs in state races and a few localized ones (including the Republican side of this race) resulted in low voter turnout and a substantial cost to taxpayers this summer. The state has experimented with an “instant runoff” ballot for judicial races, in which voters express their second preferences and avoid the need for an extra day at the polls, but many observers have criticized that process as confusing. What sort of adjustments to the system would you favor for future primary elections?

Bulla: Research and opinion polls seemingly support Instant Runoff Voting (“IRV”) as an alternative to the two-round runoff voting system we now utilize; however, there can be increased upfront costs to make voting machines compatible and educate voters. If studies are correct, those costs are minimal compared to the long-term savings of not having to administer runoff elections. It appears that voter turnout does, in fact, increase with IRV, because every voter has incentive to participate knowing that their vote still counts even if their first-choice candidate is defeated. That’s a good thing, because low turnout does not accurately represent the view of the population, and can enable a fringe candidate to win the party’s nomination. As one proponent of IRV writes: “A higher percentage of Americans believe in vampires than voted in North Carolina’s July 17th primary runoff for nominations for Congress and key statewide offices.”

Curtis: We do need to study this issue to determine if a cheaper alternative is available that would be fair to candidates and voters.

QUESTION — STATE BUDGETS: The last two years have seen sharp disputes over the state budget between the governor’s office and the General Assembly, with the level of funding for public schools being a pivotal issue. What sort of budgetary policy would you favor, especially in regard to education? What reforms or practices could help improve the budgetary process?

Bulla: A good education results in good jobs. A great education results in great jobs. Even during the recession, the economy added jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher, but jobs for those with a high school diploma or less still continue to decline. Our schools need to provide a pathway to adult success through higher education or workplace learning. While graduation rates are important, the quality of a diploma should be the true measure of school performance. Imagine if our eighth-graders could earn high school credit, our twelfth-graders could earn college credit, and our university students could graduate college in three years and spend their fourth year mentoring and tutoring those students that follow. We need to recruit and retain the best teachers in the nation, but merit pay is not the immediate solution. Paying a teacher a fair and reasonable salary is. In fact, just raising teacher pay to that of the national average would be an ideal start. Then we need to reverse budget cuts and return our education funding to well above the national average, rather than well below (only eight other states provide less funding for education).  Tax increases are not necessarily required, but we must make a commitment that, as the economy grows and state revenues increase, we will fund the education budget as necessary to accomplish these goals. I am passionate about quality education, because I am the parent of a student in the Lincoln County School System.

Curtis: I hope to be involved in the educational funding issue. We now spend about 60% of our state budget on education and there are still issues with underfunding of education. Tax reform and education funding are the two issues that I plan to learn about and hopefully will be a part of the policy changes on these two big issues.

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