Raven Hudson ‘21
In six days, citizens across North Carolina will cast their votes for the candidates of their choice. Since all members of the North Carolina General Assembly serve two-year terms, all 50 Senate seats and all 120 House positions are up for election in 2018, and six constitutional amendments are on the ballot as well. The Republican Party currently holds the majority in both the State Senate and House.
The Davidsonian interviewed three of the General Assembly candidates: Natasha Marcus (D) and Jeff Tarte (R), running for the Senate, and Christy Clark (D), running for the House. Incumbent Republican Representative John Bradford did not respond to requests for an interview. Each candidate was asked the same questions concerning their perspectives on current issues and the proposed amendments. Their respective responses are recorded here.
Q: What would you say is one of the major issues that North Carolinians face right now, and how do you plan to address this issue?
Clark: At the top of the issue front in North Carolina is the education system. For a long time, the GOP has prioritized corporate tax cuts over education, and so it is now time for us to focus on getting back to education being a priority for our state. North Carolina is 39th in the nation for per-pupil spending… We really need to put some more money towards per-pupil spending. We need to pay our teachers more so they have more resources in the classroom, reduce our class sizes, and put public schools as a priority.
Tarte: We have a constitutional amendment that says tuition and college education will be free as practicable… One of the things I’m doing is working with a professor at Davidson College, Chris Marsicano, and I’m functioning as a guest lecturer or adjunct professor. We’re working with a group of seven students, who are helping me potentially develop legislation to address student debt and the cost of tuition at our public universities. These are massive issues because the cost of college is out of control. We’re working on the UNC system right now and researching programs in other states, like the Georgia Hope, and online learning to bring down the cost.
Marcus: For me, public education is always number one, because it touches so many families and other issues we care about. North Carolina used to be known as the education state in the southeast. If you wanted a strong public education, pre-K through higher education, North Carolina was the place to come because we valued it, funded it, and did innovative things. But under the GOP supermajority, it has dropped to a low priority. Per-pupil spending is way behind. It’s not even back to where it was before the recession hit in 2008. We just don’t have the resources that schools need. Teacher pay is, on average, $10,000 less than in all our neighboring states.
Q: How do you think the North Carolina legislature should respond to the question of gun control and regulations?
Clark: As a long-time advocate in gun violence prevention, this is my area of expertise. I am advocating for closing the background check loophole on the sale of all guns. Currently, the loophole is only closed for handguns in North Carolina, so we need to change that for the sale of long guns, like rifles. I’m mostly advocating for instituting red flag laws, that is, Extreme Risk Protection Orders. Those would be laws that can be put in place to help reduce suicides and prevent any kind of mass shooting. It would apply to circumstances where law enforcement or the family could go before a judge and ask that firearms could temporarily be removed until the person who is the firearm owner can get treatment. After a period of time, the firearm would be returned to them. This has proven to be effective since it’s been instituted in Florida following the Parkland shooting, and it would be one of our top priorities.
Tarte: In one word–seriously. That is how we should respond. My mantra is that we should do everything in our means to keep guns out of people’s hands that would do bad things to people. And on the other side, we should never do anything that impedes a law-abiding citizen who desires their own firearm from doing such. My focus immediately, though, centers around school hardening exercises. I’ve been working with a chief from Charlotte to bring that here locally… If you look at the background of the majority of school shooters, I’m focused on the behavioral health aspect. Because the predominant number of shooters are white kids in their late teens or early twenties, who were bullied in school and have drug and medication issues. They also have a presence on social media that is volatile, and they typically have a record with law enforcement or school counsellors and healthcare officials. What we need to do is bring behavior health expertise to our schools, through the hiring of clinical psychologists, clinical counsellors, and clinical nurses… I’m working on a bill to make the investment to bring those professionals into the schools because as we can identify that small number of students that are at risk, we can start giving them the help they need before they become active shooters.
Marcus: Very different than it’s been responding. I believe that the vast majority of Americans want better gun safety laws than what we have in North Carolina. We have some glaring holes in our laws. Specifically, we need to expand the background check so that every gun sale in North Carolina is subject to one. Right now, it is legal for a person of any age—as young as 18—to go to a gun show and purchase assault-style weapons with no background check. That is appalling; that is a tragedy waiting to happen. I also support what’s known as red flag laws, which is a way to prevent suicides and homicides by temporarily removing weapons from the possession of people proven in a court of law to be a danger to themselves and others. Our current legislature will not allow us to even debate the wisdom of these provisions because it is a GOP supermajority, with people like my opponent [Tarte], who is very proud of his A+ rating from the NRA, which means he will not provide debate on common sense gun laws. And that’s a shame.
Q: What is your perspective on the proposed amendment to the North Carolina constitution, 2018-119, which would lower the maximum state income tax rate from 10% to 7%?
Clark: I’m opposed to all six constitutional amendments. I believe that our constitution is sacred and that we should not use amendments as a way to push forward a political agenda. All of the items that have been introduced as amendments are all things that could be accomplished statutorily—by introducing and passing a bill in a committee hearing, where constituents could voice their opinions—and I would prefer that they be done that way. This amendment is going to nickel and dime consumers and will starve our state of resources for public schools, and then also tie our state’s hand for future recessions should they come.
Tarte: What we’ve been doing over the past eight years is dropping the income tax, both corporate and personal. There is a very overt, intentional direction to decrease it. Currently, there are seven states with no corporate or personal income taxes and two others that only tax dividend and interest income. All of those states are the best-performing economically. What we’re trying to do is shift to consumption-based taxes and broaden the types of taxes that are available to generate the kind of revenue necessary to run the state. I don’t have a problem at all with an amendment that puts some restraint at 7%, because if you’re trying to get to zero, you’re a long way from that. The constitutional amendment would prevent a simple majority from raising them inadvertently or on a whim, but it wouldn’t prevent you from going over 7%. It just requires that you have a supermajority, or two-thirds, to override it… Lowering the income taxes has had a massive impact on the economic stability of the state. We’re bringing in more businesses, and state revenues have actually increased through sales tax and property tax.
Marcus: I am opposed—not because I think we need to have a 10% tax rate, which is the maximum under the current law, but because I think we need to keep our options open in case that is needed. We cannot see the future, and, with the increase in the massive storms we’ve seen—such as the two hurricanes this past fall—there may come a time when we need to raise income taxes. If we tie our hands with a constitutional amendment that can only be changed through a future ballot initiative, we may not be able to react quickly enough. The state income tax should be set by law, through normal legislative process, not through constitutional amendment.
Q: Do you think that amendment 2018-132, which gives the legislature greater control over judicial appointments, should be ratified?
Clark: Well this amendment is a blank check that would give partisan politicians a chance to cherry-pick judges, and it would undermine our judicial system, making our courts just another part of the political party. That’s why I’m opposed.
Tarte: I think the question needs to be reframed a little bit—it’s not giving the legislature more control. What it’s intended to do is create a vetting process for judges for vacancies. None of the amendments are perfect, but they’re improvements to the current status. Right now, with judge vacancies, they are at the complete discretion of one person, the governor. What you want to do is take the politics out of the bench, and make it vetted on the most qualified individual. One example of the way it works now is we had a governor who, on his way out, on the last week, he appointed three of his staff to the bench. None of them had any experience of ever serving on a bench because they were attorneys. It was a very political ploy to take care of friends… The way the amendment is written, it makes it so the vacancy is filled only until the next odd-year election. The most someone would serve would be a year or year and a half, and then you would have to run again… The nine-member commission (three appointed by the House, three appointed by the Senate, and three appointed by the governor) is responsible for vetting all of the candidates and passing on the top two choices to the governor… It only applies to vacancies, and it minimizes the time an appointed, rather than elected, person can serve.
Marcus: I am definitely opposed, along with all of the former Supreme Court justices and governors of our state, both Republican and Democrat. They all oppose those amendments that give not just more control, but total control to the legislature because they would be permitted under those terms to nominate three people that they approve, and then have the governor choose from among their list. So that would pretty much dictate at least the type of judge, and that’s wrong. The governor has always had the powers that he has now, and the only reason they’re looking to change that is they’re afraid they’re losing their GOP supermajority and they’re up against a Democratic governor. They want to take away as many powers from him as they can, while they can. It’s bad for democracy, and it’s not how we do things in North Carolina, no matter what the party of the governor is. They’re trying to trick the voters into thinking it somehow makes sense, but it does not. We need separation of powers. It’s a basic tenet of democracy.
Q: In your opinion, what should be done to improve the educational system in North Carolina?
Clark: We need to give the public-school system more funding. Kids don’t have textbooks; teachers have to buy supplies with their own money. They each spend, on average, $500 dollars a year on supplies for the classroom. It’s time for us to put more funding resources toward our public schools to make sure they can be the best they can.
Tarte: First of all, you have to realize that the education system is three different tiers: pre-K, K through twelve, and post-secondary or higher education. One thing we’ve done is provide everyone access to pre-K education. The legislature this past year appropriated enough funds to even send everyone on the waitlist. There’s a desire and a focus to provide universal pre-K because we all understand that being on grade-level reading level by 3rd grade is an important pivot point… If you’re not on reading level by 3rd grade, it’s very hard to catch up, even through high school. With higher education, tuition costs have ratcheted out of control. So, we’re going to have to address that. We’re looking at ways to change the way that we deliver education, like the Socratic approach, which centers responsibility on the student, not on the teacher, who becomes a facilitator instead of a regurgitator of facts… In a sense, it would be taking a Davidson College environment into the first grade.
Marcus: We need to pay our teachers the national average, at least. We need to raise per-pupil spending to the national average; we’re way below where we should be. We need to respect teachers, and by that, I mean we need to not give some teachers a raise and not others. Recently, new teachers got a raise, but veteran teachers got nothing. That’s not respecting what teachers do. The GOP supermajority has stopped paying an additional salary to teachers who have a Master’s degree, and that’s disrespectful. Also, we need to have teachers at the table when we set education policy. Most folks in Raleigh in the legislature have no idea how to teach a class–and maybe have not been in one themselves in years–yet they set education policy as if they know when they don’t. It’s part of my platform to always have educators at the table when we’re making education policy, so that we’re not dictating. Instead, we’re assisting in the mission of improving public education.