NCGA candidates clash over education funding, voter ID

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Jerry Tillman, Michael Garrett and Trudy Wade (l-r) wait for a candidate forum to begin. (photo by Jordan Green)

Democratic challengers and Republican incumbents in Senate districts 26 and 27, and in House District 62 presented contrasting positions to voters during a candidate forum in High Point on Monday.

State legislative candidates clashed on education funding, voter ID and other issues during a forum hosted by High Point’s YWCA on Monday.

Michael Garrett, a Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Trudy Wade in state Senate District 27, cited the Red for Ed march, which drew about 30,000 teachers to Raleigh in May, as evidence of widespread discontent about education funding.

“Unfunded mandates are not only a bad idea, but it’s poor governing policy,” Garrett said. “When I was raised, I was always taught: Put your money where your mouth is. I hesitate to say that to this General Assembly, because when it comes to education, we can’t find money for anything. We’re 37th in teacher pay, and we’re 39th in what we invest in our children. And that is immoral and horrific. We are a Top 10 state; we can do better.”

But it was Bill McCaskill, another Democrat challenging Jerry Tillman in Senate District 26, whose criticism drew the sharpest response from the two Republican senators on the panel.

McCaskill cited a 2017 bill passed by the legislature that mandated a reduction in the ratio of students to teachers for kindergarten through third grade, adding that lawmakers did not increase funding to pay for additional teachers.

“We had a crisis situation where the local school boards were trying to decide what they were going to cut — teachers, athletic equipment,” he said. “That’s typical since 2011 [the year Republicans took control of the legislature].”

Republican Jerry Tillman, an eight-term lawmaker from Archdale, who serves as the Senate majority whip and previously chaired the Education Committee, defended the legislature’s handling of the matter.

“We funded every one of the K-3 positions, according to the numbers the school system sent in,” Tillman said. “If they didn’t send the right numbers in, they got the wrong number of teachers. We took the K, 1, 2 and 3, and funded them — all those positions. There was no unfunded mandate there, unless they erred in their numbers. We wanted to count art and PE teachers. And I got the legislation through that separated them out of that K-3 allotment, so that wouldn’t skew the number and make the class size larger and larger. We took those out of the numbers. We’re funding those separately.”

Tillman’s district has always traditionally covered parts of Randolph County, although a past iteration also included Moore County to the southeast. The new map shifts the excess coverage to High Point in the southwest corner of Guilford County.

Trudy Wade, who is defending the District 27 seat against Garrett, echoed Tillman’s position.

“The school system — your school board — lets us know how many teachers — and your superintendent — you need,” Wade said. “We funded that amount of teachers. The problem was they put in art teachers, PE teachers, so they didn’t have enough funding because they also have flex spending, where they can certainly take the money and use it somewhere else. We ask for accountability, we ask to see the numbers. I think that took us six months to get that. And I did call Guilford County to see what happened to the money. I would also say that we have increased funding every year I’ve been in the General Assembly to the tune of $2 billion more since I’ve been down there. And I think that will continue under the leadership we have now.”

The loudest fireworks went off when the candidates responded to a question about voter ID — a Republican-backed initiative that the moderators described as an example of “systemic racism.”

Republican incumbents Tillman and Wade, along with Rep. John Faircloth, ardently defended the measure. Democrat Garrett lobbed pointed barbs, while McCaskill and Martha Shafer — who is challenging Faircloth in House District 62 — expressed more measured reservations.

“I believe in voter ID, and I believe it has nothing to do with racism,” Wade said. “I think everyone should have a valid ID, and I think everyone of us in this room should help anyone who doesn’t have one have the access of getting one…. I cannot imagine you’d be able to get around in this world without having an ID and be able to get a prescription, drug, or be able to go event to an X — to a movie that’s R-rated — you can’t even do that without showing an ID. So I can’t even imagine people in this day and time not having a valid ID. I really think if we as a community would help people get a valid ID that we’d do a lot more for this community.”

Tillman made no apology for the measure, which was included in a 2013 law struck down by the federal courts and is now on the ballot as a statewide referendum.

“Voter ID is favored by 73 percent of North Carolinians; 46 percent of black voters favor voter ID,” he said. “They don’t want their vote nullified by someone voting illegally, and you don’t either. Folks, it makes sense…. Georgia did voter ID, put it on the books four years ago. Voter participation went up. Black voter participation went up. It’s a good thing. It’s a common-sense thing. Who in the world could oppose it unless you’re wanting to do something illegal like cheat? It does disenfranchise certain groups, and that’s called cheaters…. Do you want someone to go in and vote fraudulently for a dead person? I don’t want that. No, I don’t.”

Faircloth argued that it’s not a problem for voters to obtain a photo ID.

“I can assure you that if someone wants to vote in this state, and they require an ID, that the ID will be provided,” he said. “We did a lot of work. And it’s a very simple process. Nobody seems to have any problem with a driver’s license…. People find a way to do it. If they need an ID, they find an ID somewhere. We’ve said we’ll provide the IDs. Everybody that votes should have one, so we’ll know that they only vote one time.”

Garrett said he opposes voter ID even if the measure is broadly supported by voters.

“I know it’s an unpopular position to take, but I am opposed to it because I do believe that it is a solution in search of a problem, and it discriminates,” he said. “Let’s say we disagree on it in principle. Well, this General Assembly, when they tried to do it before — before it was struck down as unconstitutional — they said, ‘Well, we’ll take IDs of hunting and fishing licenses, but not IDs issued by state institutions. And if a college student votes at her school instead of at her home, we’ll revoke the tuition tax deduction.’ So does that sound like integrity of the ballot box to you, or does it sound like trying to discourage a certain group of people from participating in democracy?”

McCaskill offered conditional support for voter ID.

“I am not opposed to having an ID for voters if the legislature will appropriate the funds for every citizen to get an ID free,” he said. “I have no problem with that. However, if you look at the latest federal court order finding our voter ID law unconstitutional, they specifically documented over and over in this court order how the Republican ID law was being used to suppress low-income, minorities, and to keep those type people as much as they could from voting. So if we could get an ID into the hands of every voter, I would support that.”

Shafer noted that voter ID laws in other states vary in their degree of restrictiveness.

“So to me the devil is in the details,” she said. “What are we talking about? And with this constitutional amendment we don’t know because the implementing legislation has not been written. So let’s talk about some details. I do know that the Brookings Institution says a person’s more likely to be struck by lightning than to attempt in-person voter impersonation.”

At the end of the program, candidates took questions from the audience, which numbered about 50 people. An unidentified man expressed frustration. “I’d like to know what happened to the truth, and when it didn’t matter,” he said. “Because it seems like a lot of stuff is thrown around that is not truthful, and facts don’t matter anymore.”

Tillman asked him for an example. Wesley Hudson, who represents Ward 4 on High Point City Council, jumped into the fray.

“Voter fraud is made up,” he said. “It doesn’t happen. Why are we protecting ourselves from something that doesn’t happen, and in the process creating a problem?”

Disputing Hudson’s argument that voter fraud is nonexistent, or statistically irrelevant, Faircloth recounted an experience in which he said five college students told him that they voted for president on their college campus and also in their home states outside of North Carolina.

On another issue, Democrats McCaskill and Shafer argued that North Carolina should allow undocumented students to attend state universities at in-state tuition, as opposed to out-of-state tuition, which is the case under the current law.

“I think it’s a shame for us to take children who come here through no fault of their own, and educate them from K through 12th grade, and then throw up obstacles to them to be able to earn a college degree,” Shafer said. “Once they earn a college degree, they can get better jobs, earn higher wages, pay more taxes, make major purchases, and contribute and help support themselves and their families at a higher level.”

Faircloth didn’t close the door on the idea.

“Our problem as policymakers is that we have to choose between what’s available and what exactly we’re going to do,” he said. “We can have a lot of things, folks, if people are willing to pull about three times the money out of their pocket every year…. I think there are ways we can work together across the aisle and across communities. There’s a way to do it, but it takes us being willing to sit down and find the common ground.”

For more election coverage, see the Triad City Beat voter guide.

Republican Jerry Tillman argues a point to Democrat Martha Shafer, with opponent Bill McCaskill caught in the middle. (photo by Jordan Green)

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