Western Carolina University students coordinating the Cullowhee Voter Initiative, a nonpartisan effort to improve voter education and participation in Jackson County, hosted a bipartisan, bicameral debate on Monday in which members of the North Carolina General Assembly debated issues ranging from education cuts, to the government’s role in restricting religion in public schools.
The debate included North Carolina Republican Senators Jim Davis and Ralph Hise, and Democratic House Representatives Ray Rapp and Rick Glazier. Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of WCU’s College of Arts and Sciences, served as the moderator for the event.
“The debate went great. It was very informative and everyone had a great time,” said Corey Duvall, Franklin native and one of the event organizers. “We had a great audience, made up of both students and the citizens of Jackson County. The point of this debate was to inform citizens about the actual policies more than the individual candidates, and I think the Senators and Representatives did a great job getting this across. It’s our belief that this will play a bigger role in the coming elections than those in the recent past.”
The debate was broken into two segments. During the first portion, each of the four debaters were given a question to answer and the remaining three members of the debate were given one minute for a rebuttal.
The debate opened with Senator Hise speaking to the audience about his stance on the Voter ID bill, which was passed last year by the NC legislature and would require voters to show a photograph identification card when voting. Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the bill and the legislature failed to produce the supermajority needed to override her veto. “I am a huge supporter of the Voter ID laws,” said Hise. “They have put requirements in the law to provide anyone who wants an ID to be able to get one, free of charge to them. It is in no way an imposition.”
Hise argued that the voter ID was a common–sense law and was drafted with the intended purpose of protecting the citizens’ rights. According to Hise, the majority of voters already have a photo ID and those who do not, have access to means necessary to obtain the required identification.
During Rep. Rapp’s one minute rebuttal to Hise’s answer, he stated that the law shouldn’t be considered a Voter ID bill, but instead should be referred to as “the voter disenfranchised bill.” “Older adults, those bound to a nursing home who lack the transportation to go get a state issued ID, college students would all be adversely affected by this bill,” said Rapp. “These laws would exclude the majority of democratic voters and this might be the most partisan bill that has been put forward. The problem isn’t with voter ID, but instead the majority of fraud cases come from absentee voting.”
Davis noted in the 2008 election, after Georgia and Virginia had implemented strict voter id laws, there was a record high number of minority citizens who went to the ballot to vote. He argued that was evidence that the laws in NC wouldn’t prevent minorities from voting.
Glazier argued Davis’ point and stated that despite voter ID laws, he believed the reason why a record number of minorities in those states voted in record high numbers because of their choice to support President Obama.
Rapp received the second question in the debate which asked what he thought was the best direction to take to ensure that North Carolina children are given the highest quality education. “One thing that I don’t think anyone can argue is that we have to start as early as possible in educating our children,” said Rapp. “We have to start early with childhood programs like preschool. What concerns me the most are the devastating cuts which have occurred this past year to our education system. What we have done this past year is turn our back on a system that we have been investing in for so many years,” he continued. “We have basically turned our back on the state constitution, which says that we must provide, for as cheaply as possible, a public education for all of our students.”
Rep. Rapp cited that out of the $414 million that was cut out of the university budget last year, $35 million of those funds were allocated for need based scholarships. He also noted that 95,000 students lost their financial aid because of the cuts handed down by the Republican controlled General Assembly.
“It is time for us, Republicans and Democrats, to come together and stand firm for what this state has been about for so many years, which is a sound education system,” said Rapp.
While Glazier argued that North Carolina ranks 49th in the state in per pupil spending in education and that the state should be embarrassed that only one other state in the nation spends less on their students, Hise claimed that actually, North Carolina ranks 45th and has never been second to last in the nation. Hise also cited a report from the White House, which he described as, “probably not being a friend of the conservative legislature in NC,” which ranks North Carolina 13th in the nation for higher education.
During Davis’ one minute rebuttal of Rapp’s answer to Knotts, he explained that although the cuts to education have had countless negative effects, the budget cuts were targeted at administrative positions that he considered to be too high. Davis noted that the top ten highest paid employees in North Carolina are university employees. “I don’t want to cut funding to education any more than we have to,” said Davis. “We have targeted our cuts to administrative positions. We need to get rid of some of these high paid positions in the university system and may need to get rid of some courses. Maybe we have duplicate courses that need to be eliminated.”
Rep. Glazier noted that because of the devastating budget cuts to public education, 4,000 teacher and teaching assistant positions have had to be cut. “In addition to the positions that have been eliminated as a result of the budget, it is also not a good idea to cut 4,000 preschool slots, which we did.”
During his closing statement, Davis claimed that the Republican budget has increased the number of teaching positions throughout the state. “In North Carolina, 2,000 more teachers were able to be paid as a result of the Republican budget than in past legislature, and we believe in that investment,” said Davis.
According to Rapp, the investment in teachers Davis was referring to is a direct result of federal stimulus dollars provided to states by President Obama. “It would take more than two minutes to explain the ins and outs of the budget, but those teachers were funded due to federal stimulus monies that were shifted to the state level.”
Knotts asked Senator Davis the third question for the event, which was what method he thought needed to be taken in order to provide economic development and job growth across the state.
Davis mentioned two possible solutions for improving the economy within North Carolina. “We have already started down the road of economic recovery by reducing the tax burden,” said Davis. “We had the highest tax burden of any state in the southeast when we [Republicans] took office and we have lowered that significantly.”
Senator Davis explained that the tax burden for corporations to develop business is so excessive that it makes it nearly impossible for a company to thrive in the Tarheel state.
He added that the state needs to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses because it makes it difficult to stay competitive with other markets who lack the same strict government regulations. The senator used Jackson County’s Jackson Paper Company as an example of unnecessary spending due to government mandated regulations. “Jackson Paper, which has 120 employees, were told by an environmental regulatory agency that they had to reduce their emission of arsenic from 10 parts per million to four parts per million,” said Davis. “So they went out and spent $200,000 hiring consultants and scientists to figure out how to do that, and you know what they found out? That the technology didn’t exist to reduce the emissions from 10 to four and that in nature, arsenic occurs in 10 parts per million.”
Davis noted that Jackson Paper could have used the money spent on the pointless regulations to hire more employees.
In Glazier’s rebuttal to Davis’ response to Knotts’ question, he stated that at a conference he attended last summer, one of the guest speakers was the government relation head for IBM International. According to Glazier, the IBM representative informed him that when fortune 500 companies are scouting areas to bring new business to, they look for two things, the quality of the area’s education and the quality of the workforce. “I asked him what tax base his company looked for and he said that North Carolina falls well between the desired tax rates, and has for some time now,” said Glazier. “He said that North Carolina’s tax base was not an issue, but instead, the state’s recent display of a lack of commitment to the university system has given them pause when considering coming to North Carolina.”
During a question and answer portion of the debate, members of the audience were able to submit questions to be answered by one Democratic debater and one republican debater.
One student asked the elected officials what their stance on religion in the public school system was. Rep. Glazier was the first to volunteer to answer the question. “As a member of a minority faith, I believe that the United States has, at its core, a faith based tradition and that it is not eviscerated in the public school system,” he said. “Everyone has a right to express their beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are. Faith is a spiritual part of every human being and I think it is incumbent on us to understand that it is a critical part of the First Amendment.”
Senator Hise answered the question for the Republicans and said that he is all too aware of circumstances within the district he represents where students have been told they couldn’t pray before ball games, or where the Ten Commandments are currently being battled to be displayed at Town Hall. “We have been attacked all over this country because of faith,” said Hise. “The First Amendment is a prohibition of the rights of the government. How I pray will not be dictated by any individuals because an individual did not give me those rights. Those are inalienable rights.”
The event organizers were pleased with the turnout of the debate and intended to schedule more events to further promote voter awareness on WCU’s campus.
Duvall, who is a member of WCU’s College Democrats, joined the nonpartisan effort to work in conjunction with the objectives of the College Democrats and the nonpartisan voter initiative. “Two of the primary goals for the WCU College Democrats are to promote citizen and student involvement, and to inform the voters and I think the event, along with the Cullowhee Voter Initiative have helped us to accomplish those goals greatly,” he said. “In the coming weeks before the primary election, we plan to invite as many candidates as possible to visit campus and reach out to the students of our great university as well as to the citizens of Jackson County.”
“We want to educate students and members of the community in a nonpartisan way about the important issues that will be on the ballot in May, get them registered to vote and then provide easy transportation to polling stations in both May and November,” said Seth Crockett, a senior from Whittier majoring in political science who serves on the Honors College Board of Directors.
In addition to political primaries, the May election will include an amendment that would add language providing that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union valid or recognized in the state, and the Jackson County alcohol referendum that would allow sales countywide.
Anderson Miller, a senior from Candler majoring in philosophy and international studies, said he co-founded the Cullowhee Voter Initiative with Crockett after becoming keenly aware in the last year of how much his life is affected by the decisions made by local, state and national officials.
Both also said they were particularly motivated to develop the Cullowhee Voter Initiative by voter turnout figures in Jackson County, especially from 2010, that they believe could be better. Turnout among registered voters ages 18 to 25 in Jackson County in 2010 was 17 percent, while turnout was 27 percent for voters ages 26 to 40, 55 percent for voters ages 41 to 65, and 60 percent for voters ages 60 and above, according to statistics posted by the organization Democracy North Carolina.
Miller and Crockett formed a nonpartisan steering committee of six students to lead the initiative, and their first goal is to register 1,000 people to vote before April.
“This effort crosses political divides,” said Crockett. “The Cullowhee Voter Initiative is about giving people a voice and empowering them to shape the future of their community and their government. Our core mission is to inform citizens of the issues and get them to vote, regardless of how they vote.”