CoastLine Candidate Interviews: NC House District 18 - Hamilton (D) vs. Benton (R)
On this edition of the CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we meet North Carolina Representative Susi Hamilton, a Democrat from New Hanover County, who has held the seat for three terms and is seeking a fourth.
But first, we hear from her Republican challenger this November – Gerald Benton.
North Carolina’s House District 18 includes a northwestern portion of New Hanover County -- most of the downtown area and Wrightsboro – just south of Castle Hayne. The larger geographic part of District 18 covers a northern swath of Brunswick County, dipping down into parts of Winnabow and Leland. But from a population perspective, there are more voters in New Hanover: 64% live on the Wilmington side of the river.
Across the entire district, Brunswick and New Hanover Counties, 62% of residents are white, 31% are black, and 6.5% are Hispanic. Nearly 49% of the voters are registered as Democrats, 24% are registered Republicans, and about 27% are unaffiliated.
Segment 1: Gerald Benton, Republican Challenger for NC House District 18
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about who you are and why you want this job?
Gerry Benton: I’m a father of a five-year-old little boy. He just entered kindergarten, and my wife and I looked at the school systems, and we see that there’s an issue. There’s definitely a problem. Our schools are not performing the way they should. We were fortunate enough that we had a school of our choice in our area, and we utilized that, but you know, that taps out at grade eight. What do you do when your child gets to high school? What do you do for the future of the people here? It’s a tough situation. Your child has to be educated to succeed. Whether that means votech or college, there is definitely a component that a base of education must have.
RLH: And so, if you’re leading on the issue of education, what is it then, if you didn’t have to build consensus and if you could just shape this system according to how you think it needs to go, how would you do that? What would you engineer it to be?
Gerry Benton: I think we need to push for educational savings accounts, which would wrap into the pre-K programs and the head start programs so that the money would be state-deposited into your account, you could use that money at a school and put your child right into a pre-K program and pay for whatever pre-K program you want, no state-approved system. That way, you can use what’s convenient to you as a parent and what your goals are as a parent. It would also allow you to put money into those accounts, and that would be tax deductible. So if you want to send your child to Cape Fear Academy, let’s say, you could pay the tuition out of your pocket, and it would be tax deductible.
RLH: Out of what you saved, tax free?
Gerry Benton: Correct. The state would also, hopefully, allow you to use their per pupil funding as well to go into that account—
RLH: You’re talking about the voucher program here.
Gerry Benton: Correct. I would wrap that in as well so that you would be able to use that money to go send your child wherever you want. If you want to go to the public school, they would have a set amount every year that would just be deducted out, which could never exceed the amount of per pupil funding. The charter schools would be the same way. The per pupil funding would be the amount of tuition. They would just suck that right out, and your child would attend. If you had leftover money when your child graduated high school, they could use that for college. That way, you were able to invest in your child’s future and put a little bit aside even if you’re low income, so they don’t come out with these huge, staggering loans.
RLH: Let’s say that a family did want to send their child to Cape Fear Academy. Let’s say they couldn’t afford to save anything on their own and the voucher program would pay for that.
Gerry Benton: It’s a tough situation there. It absolutely is. The state can give up the amount of money, which is approximately $9,300 for each child. If tuition was more than that per year, you’d have to go out of pocket for that. Like I said, it would be deductible, but it doesn’t solve all of the issues. Like you said, there are some tuitions that are crazy high and that just may not be an option, but it at least gives you the opportunity to go select the charter schools down here, the Christian academy here if you wanted to do so. I know it’s a tough sell for a lot of people to say public money is going into these institutions, but we pay the money no matter where the child goes. That money is gone and spent. The money should follow the child. You’ve paid that money in. It’s your money. You’ve paid your taxes. Your child is entitled to that money. So that money should follow them.
RLH: Critics of this idea would say you’re taking money away from the public school system and it’s the state’s responsibility to educate all children effectively in this state.
Gerry Benton: Absolutely.
RLH: So why shouldn’t the public school system then just get all of the resources and be the finest possible school system it can be so people don’t want to send their children anywhere else?
Gerry Benton: Because money doesn’t solve the public schools’ issues and they don’t cater to all children equally. That’s a huge issue. Government is very inefficient. They waste a lot of money. What curriculum works for one child, for a public school system, has to be implemented across the entire county. We see this in New Hanover County, for instance. In New Hanover County, the schools perform fairly well, except for in our district. Our district, as we said, has a twenty percent proficiency rate in mathematics at our high school level. Our kids are graduating, and twenty out of one hundred can do basic mathematics, and we’re graduating 82-83% of these children.
RLH: What does that say about—
Gerry Benton: It says our degrees are kind of worthless. The teachers are working very hard, but they’re not educating the children. There’s a breakdown in the system.
RLH: What’s the breakdown though? How do you answer that?
Gerry Benton: It’s hard to say. I believe it’s some curriculum, some resources. We need to make sure children are identified early. Representative Hamilton put in Read to Achieve—an excellent law, and then they took the teeth out of it the following year. The law was, if your child wasn’t proficient by third grade, your child was either retained—kept back one year—or they had to go to a summer camp with reading intervention, unless they had a special education need, and parents didn’t want their children missing the summer, so the legislature made that voluntary. Well, your child has been in school for four years by the end of third grade, and for them to have a basic reading proficiency is not too much to ask for. I think the law should go further to say we should give an assessment at that point because I did work with special needs and special education before when I was at NC Central, and this is very important. It doesn’t mean we have to classify your child, it just means let’s have your child tested and provide accommodation. So if your child needs a little extra time on a test, let’s get that accommodation for them so they can have that little extra time. Or if they need a quiet room because they’re easily distracted like my son— My son is very energetic, so a little distraction could set him off.
RLH: And he’s five.
Gerry Benton: He’s five, so that’s age appropriate, but it has continued on and we have to make sure we adjust for those needs. Like I said, it doesn’t mean a child has a disability. It just might mean they need a small environmental tweak to make them successful.
RLH: So if there’s public money going to charter schools, which are part of the public school system and I think they were originally conceived as potential laboratories for best practices, trying things out, figuring what works, and then incorporating those best practices into the traditional school system, should they not be subject to the same transparency standards as the rest of the public school system?
Gerry Benton: They are. They’re all nonprofits, so you can go on their websites and look up where all their money goes. Charter schools do not have a central office, which makes them more efficient in that way, so they do hire outside contractors.
RLH: But then those outside contractors are not subject to that level of transparency, so there is sort of a block in terms of seeing how all the money is used.
Gerry Benton: Correct, on the individual salaries. However, you do know what services they do provide and what they are charging. If we build a bridge in North Carolina, we get a quote for that bridge. We go with the cheapest quote that’s going to do the right quality, and we pay them. We don’t ask what every worker, every welder, every cement pourer on the entire project is making. We say, you had the cheapest price and you’re performing to quality. That quality aspect is important because charter schools do have a quality standard, and if they were at the same level the public schools were, they would be shut down in most cases.
Anna (email): I would like to know where the candidates stand on offshore drilling. Although we have been taken out of the federal plan for offshore drilling, Donald Trump and Pat McCrory have advocated for it in the past. Should Trump win the presidency, the federal plan may be altered to include North Carolina. If this were to happen, would you support a plan to drill or oppose it?
Gerry Benton: At this point in time, we no longer have a choice. It is approved in the state legislature. Representative Hamilton did vote to override Bev Perdue’s veto. She was the overriding vote. She cast the one vote that put us over the edge to make that go through. So at this point, all we can do is make sure the environmental standards are open and public because the way the law is written right now, once they tap in the ground, all of that becomes proprietary corporate information, all the environmental reports, and we can’t see them. So I would probably propose to make sure that those are public record because—
RLH: Are you talking about hydraulic fracturing or offshore drilling?
Gerry Benton: Both are going to be protected as corporate information. So we need to make sure that everything is as transparent as possible. Like I said, at this point, it’s very unlikely the legislature is going to overturn that. I live on the river here. I mean, I go fishing. I have a boat. I live here, and I don’t want to see any oil wash up on our beach, kill our wildlife. In fact, I’m a big proponent for regulating commercial fishing, oyster renewal, all of those types of things, because I’m concerned about our natural resources.
RLH: So do you oppose or do you support offshore drilling?
Gerry Benton: If it can be done safely, I would support it, but we have to make sure that this is done correctly. We have to make sure the state has regulatory action here and is keeping an eye on this because we’ve seen how the feds are not doing their jobs in regulating this properly, making sure the proper cement is being put in. There are a lot of concerns, and at this point, I don’t think it can be safely done. So until I could see something— I’d become a little more knowledgeable on it. I’m going to say I’m hesitant on it, to be honest with you, but I’m on the fence. I see a great opportunity for us to pull taxes in, I see a great opportunity for employment, but a lot of concern over the marine environment. I’m not on the in of this. I’m on the outside here, going for office. I’m not in office, I don’t know all the reports that they have had presented and all the information—
RLH: So it sounds like your gut reaction to this is, “No, I don’t trust the process, but I’m open to—”
Gerry Benton: I see a lot of benefit in doing it.
RLH: Okay, and tell us about that benefit.
Gerry Benton: I think that it will create jobs here, for sure. It’s going to create tax revenue for us. We are able to issue permits and things like that, so we do get a lot of that money.
RLH: Well, we wouldn’t be issuing any permits for offshore drilling because that’s federal waters, and so most of that money goes to the federal government
Gerry Benton: The state has to put in the regulatory actions, and of course all of that is going to have money involved with us. There are benefits here. Not to mention we do have a large gas port here, so we could possibly get a refinery. You know, there are job creation opportunities for people working on these rigs that would have to be stationed here because they’re not going to fly them in from all over the country. There’s tax revenue out of those folks. There’s a lot of infrastructure issues that will need to be met, including their food and water being taken out to them, so those are more businesses that are going to be created. Things of that nature, and that will create economic development here.
RLH: You’re saying to serve the crews on the oil rigs.
Gerry Benton: Correct.
(email): As a healthcare professional, I work with low-income and impoverished patients every day. From a service perspective, it is very disheartening to watch my patients struggle to afford the medical care they need and to go without critical preventative services because they cannot afford them. I would like to know if either of the candidates support Medicaid expansion in state. Why or why not?
Gerry Benton: I do not.
RLH: And tell us why.
Gerry Benton: I do not because number one, the federal government keeps reducing the amount they pay. The first year was 100%. Now we’re down to 90%.
RLH: Right, there’s a schedule for that.
Gerry Benton: Correct, and it’s going to continue to drop off. Eventually the state of North Carolina is going to be having to pay this and continue these services because once you give somebody a service, you really can’t take it away.
RLH: I think the federal government has guaranteed a significant amount in perpetuity on this program. And again, you don’t trust the federal government here.
Gerry Benton: We’ll see what Congress does. We’ll see what the new President does—what’s repealed, what’s not. That’s a lot of my concern is there’s so much uncertainty up top, federally, but I think North Carolina’s new way of privatizing is going to be good. It’s going to be a lump amount to the providers for each person they provide, which will then give them the ability to give those services. I myself do not have health insurance. I’m in the VA system, which is about the worst system you can be in, and it’s not because the care is bad. It’s because of access issues. You cannot get an appointment. It is eighteen months for me to see a doctor unless I go sit at the ER in Fayetteville, which is now open, and it used to be just Durham. That’s a difficult thing, and I understand what this is going to look like, and I understand that even with the privatization, it’s going to be difficult to get doctors and to have this done, but we have to be able to control the costs, we have to know that the costs are going to be every year because we have to budget to make sure we don’t run up another huge debt.
Alex (email): I’m wondering if Mr. Benton stands with his party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and what his thoughts are on Trump.
Gerry Benton: I believe in this one, there’s no choice on the matter. If you are a conservative and believe the national debt will crush us and our children, there’s only one choice there, and that is Mr. Trump. I believe the Supreme Court is probably the most compelling reason to vote for Mr. Trump because honestly, the Supreme Court is going to create laws by interpretation because we all know that there is legislation from the bench, and we need to make sure that we have a letter-of-the-law type person up there.
RLH: So what makes you a conservative?
Gerry Benton: I believe in conservative spending. I believe in property rights. I believe the government should do nothing but provide services. We shouldn’t be offering incentives. We shouldn’t be giving money out and deciding who is going to be successful. A general rule is, if you can’t do it as an individual, the government shouldn’t be able to do it as an entity.
RLH: So you are against corporate incentives across the board?
Gerry Benton: I am because they take money from small businesses who tend to pay a higher tax rate than their corporate counterparts, takes their tax dollars and then gives them to the corporations to come in and compete against the very people who funded them to come in, and that’s not right. You work very hard. With businesses trying to raise money, with all the federal regulations now on banking, it’s very difficult to start a small business. I opened a gun shop. I had to run it up on my credit card for my collateral because the ability to borrow from the bank, unless you already have money and a lot of collateral, it is almost impossible, which hurts everybody—anybody who is middle income down to below the poverty line. To open a new business, it is almost impossible.
RLH: You said, across the board, you’re against corporate incentives. How do you feel about film incentives because that is something that has been such an integral part of southeastern North Carolina’s economic landscape?
Gerry Benton: Sure. At the state level, I do not support them, and the reasoning is, we have two counties who primarily benefit: Mecklenburg and New Hanover. For us to go in front of a hundred other counties and ask them to support a credit that only benefits two counties means we’re indebted to them. The legislature, while I’m not sitting there, I know it is a give-and-take situation. So when they ask for the sales tax redistribution to go after our tourist money, we’re going to have a hard time saying no after they just coughed up millions of dollars throughout their counties to support us.
RLH: So how do you balance your responsibility towards the constituents here in southeastern North Carolina versus all of North Carolina? I mean, if you were elected, you are from this area, and your job, people elected you to represent them here.
Gerry Benton: Sure. I support a county incentive. I support an incentive at the state level that has an ownership issue so it’s more of an investment. So if we owned a small portion of the box office sales, if they took our money, that would be wonderful. I mean, we look at Iron Man, what was that, $1.5 billion? If we just had even a percent, it would have paid back everything we paid into the film, plus a little bit.
RLH: Well, they spent money here, so we gave them a tax rebate. That wasn’t—
Gerry Benton: We did, but we got no tax money off of it. The best money amount of money we ever recover off of the incentives, according to the film industry even, is like 75 cents on the dollar. Places like John Locke have it at 19 cents on the dollar. There’s a big discrepancy, but even then, we’re putting out a dollar for 75 cents back, which is not feasible. It doesn’t make sense.
Linn (email): What are your positions on the state’s school voucher program? This program shifts money from the public schools, which are already underfunded, and reallocates the money for these private voucher programs. Do you support this venture, or would you advocate for keeping the funding in our public schools and why?
RLH: You actually addressed this earlier on the show. Say it once again.
Gerry Benton: I fully support the voucher system. It does not take money from the public schools, let’s be clear. They never see the children. Therefore, they’re not entitled to the money for those children. The public school system cannot have money for children they do not teach. It’s that clear.
Anonymous (email): I’m aware of Representative Hamilton’s stance on HB2, as she cosponsored the bill to repeal it, but I am less familiar with challenger Benton’s position on this matter. If elected, would Mr. Benton support the full repeal of HB2?
Gerry Benton: Sure, I support two parts of the three parts that are there. The first part is, can the government tell you who can use your bathroom on private property? The answer is, no they cannot. That is reaffirmed in the first part of HB2, saying that private entities may set their own bathroom policies. I support it fully. The second part is setting use of restrooms on public property. I fully support that men should use the men’s room, women should use the women’s room. The third party is limiting discrimination suits in the state. I do not support this. We have a long history, especially here in Wilmington with the Wilmington 10 being wrongfully accused. I think that we need to keep every avenue open for people to be able to clear themselves and bring discrimination suits if they’ve been discriminated against. North Carolina does not have a great history with this. I mean, we even go back to the race riots in the 1800s. So I want to be clear that I believe that there’s an issue there. The reasoning for it, from what I understand is, so you don’t fight the suit four times because you’d fight it in state court once, an appeals court at the state level, federal court, then federal appeals, which forces an employer to defend a case four times instead of just twice.
Jim (email): How do you feel about universal background checks for people buying guns?
Gerry Benton: I was a gun dealer here in Wilmington. I fully support background checks. The legislature just closed huge loopholes and problems with the system, which was that the courts in North Carolina hadn’t reported felons for five years, so the [National Instant Criminal Background Check] NICS system was out of date so potentially, if you were convicted within the last five years and got out, you could go buy a gun. They’ve closed that and provided funding to make sure it remains close. I also support a mental health check of checking all the state institutions because that is a key problem. I mean, I don’t think anybody, even the NRA, [doesn’t] believe in backgrounds checks and mental health checks. Nobody wants violence from guns.
RLH: On your website, you accuse your opponent of voting against banning the sale of children’s body parts, and you have a link to a story about an unrelated bill, a story about a bill that Governor McCrory signed in June of last year that actually expands the waiting period required before a woman can have an abortion—related issues but different bills. What is your concern about fetal tissue, specifically? Is it currently legal to sell baby parts?
Gerry Benton: It is not. That was part of the bill that was put through last year, making it illegal and a misdemeanor, I believe at this point, for selling fetuses that were aborted. My opponent did vote against the bill, and you can ask her why she did that.
RLH: What is your position in general on abortion, on women’s reproductive rights, a woman’s right to choose?
Gerry Benton: I’m a pro-life candidate, but I believe you may choose up until the end of your first trimester, and if you have a case of rape or incest, any of those things, I have no problem with you, that is your choice in situations, that is a difficult choice—
RLH: It’s not a woman’s right to choose after the first three months.
Gerry Benton: Yeah, that is where I sit because at that point, you have a child and that is an innocent soul, but I also believe if you have Tay-Sachs disease, a horrible disease where you’re going to watch your child grow to age three and die a horrible death, you have the right to choose not to have that and to save the child of that pain. So I do have a lot of compassion there, and I do want to leave room, and I’m not pro-life to the edge, saying you can never have an abortion. Look, it’s your right up to a certain point, but I think at that point, [after the first trimester], we now have to protect the human being.
Segment 2: Representative Susi Hamilton, Democratic Incumbent, House District 18
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: With any job, there is always a learning curve. You’ve held this seat now for almost three full terms. How are you different as a legislator today versus Susi Hamilton from six years ago? What have you learned, and how have your positions evolved or shifted?
Representative Susi Hamilton: Wow, that is a really good question. I can tell you that the learning curve is the steepest I’ve ever experienced. You don’t really realize it’s happening to you until, generally speaking, you start the next session and you think back to the former and you realize, my preparations for this session are going to be a lot different based on what I learned from the last. Every session has its own culture. The groups change dramatically sometimes after the end of a two-year session. I think I’ve become much more skillful at working through the process because that’s the piece that’s really the most difficult to grasp when you get there. Being in the minority party, we were really not encouraged to put forward a lot of legislation nor were these things covered during the sessions that I’ve been there. Truthfully, it’s learning how to navigate, and that’s an important piece.
RLH: So when you look back at the time that you’ve served, and you have been in the minority party, do you consider yourself a power broker? How do you get anything done?
Susi Hamilton: That’s a fair question as well. It’s just collaboration. There’s outreach. You know, there’s certainly more outreach from my end of the initiatives that I want to take and things that I want to accomplish, and I work very well in a bipartisan way. When we disagree, obviously we disagree sharply, but every issue creates a different opportunity. You never really know where your allies are going to be found. For instance, film. Danny McComas and I worked very closely together. We got the incentive program extended for two years, and in that two-year period from 2012 to 2014, the state did record numbers of filming. That’s the year we did Iron Man. I believe that we collected over $300 million in sales tax revenues and paid out right around $80 million.
RLH: This was a tough battle for you when the discussion about dismantling the tax rebate structure and then creating a grant fund emerged later, but that was a battle on which you and Ted Davis and other folks from this region really went to the mat.
Susi Hamilton: Absolutely.
RLH: And we still lost that tax rebate. We’re looking now, there was an article in the Star News today on the impact of the restructuring of the incentive for film, whether you can tease that apart from the impact of HB2. Is there any thought, on your part, of going back to Raleigh and trying to get the tax rebate reinstated or is that just a dead issue?
Susi Hamilton: We have to begin a rational conversation among the legislators about how to restore the industry to the state. I’ve always said that the grant program would be ineffective. We did vote for the budget that had the grant program in it because when you’re faced with nothing, then we had to choose something to protect the cast and crews here in New Hanover County. And not just in New Hanover County, but across the state. The film industry has had an economic impact on I believe it’s 77 out of 100 counties in the state. This myth that it’s simply a New Hanover thing is really just a myth.
RLH: Can you explain that because your opponent would take issue with that?
Susi Hamilton: Well, he’d be wrong.
RLH: He actually said the film industry benefits New Hanover and Mecklenburg counties, and that’s about it. So how do you go in front of your fellow legislators and say, “Actually, no, it benefits all of you.”?
Susi Hamilton: We’d show them the facts, and they’re impossible to refute. You see the numbers. The thing about the film incentive as it was, it had the most rigorous audit process in the country. The film incentive had to be, the production had to have come into town, have recorded all its expenditures. Once the show wrapped, all the expenditures were sent to the state Department of Revenue. The auditors combed through this. They disputed expenditures. They accepted expenditures. And then they gave the production a number that they were going to receive. So it was the most fully vetted film program in the state. Not so with the grant program.
RLH: And that is something you’re going to try to revisit if you are reelected.
Susi Hamilton: We certainly have to, and I do believe that the attitude within the General Assembly is changing because they’ve seen the impact, they’ve felt the loss, and we can show them the numbers of all 77 counties out of 100 that have in fact benefitted from it.
RLH: On your opponent’s website, he accuses you of voting against a bill that would ban the sale of fetal tissue, baby body parts. There’s a link to a story on WWAY TV3 about an unrelated bill, a story about a bill that Governor McCrory signed in June of last year which expands the waiting period for a woman to get an abortion. So, let’s just tease apart these issues here. First of all, why would you vote against a bill banning the sale of fetal tissue?
Susi Hamilton: Because it was what I would refer to as a “poison pill.” It was put into the bill to defund Planned Parenthood. I find the question ironic in the month of October, being Breast Cancer Awareness Month because Planned Parenthood does so many things for women’s health and reproductive health across the country. They fund free mammograms for women who otherwise would not be in a position to receive one. So, of course, I was unable to support a bill that defunded Planned Parenthood, no matter what was in it.
RLH: What would you say to critics of Planned Parenthood who say that is an organization that sells fetal tissue and commercializes a horrible practice?
Susi Hamilton: That would be incorrect as well, and the facts don’t support that they’re in the business of selling body parts. So I think it’s really a sensationalistic issue. It was intended to be. They knew we were all, as Democrats, were going to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood, so they figured they’d just load it up with whatever they could come up with, which they knew would be distasteful to the public, and put it in there.
RLH: Where do you stand on the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to choose and a woman’s right to make decisions about her reproductive health?
Susi Hamilton: I am 100% pro-choice.
RLH: In a recent candidate forum moderated by WECT’s Jon Evans, you opened with a story about taking on the House Majority Leader, a Republican, in your first term, and this was over the notion of cutting funding for Smart Start. First of all, I’ll ask you to talk about why early childhood education and early childhood services funded by the state are important to you. Secondly, would you have approached that differently today?
Susi Hamilton: Yes, I’m happy to explain why I think it’s important. Absolutely not. I would do exactly what I did today. It was a necessary challenge to the issue, and that’s what we’re sent there to do. Yes, early childhood education is probably the most important point in the development process for a child. We all know that the first one thousand days of a child’s life is the most important. The [Smart Start] program was started I guess close to 30 years ago now by then-state Governor Jim Hunt, and it has proven to be so incredibly successful that it’s modeled across the country, and we have seen tremendous gains in North Carolina in terms of high school graduation rates for socially- and economically-challenged individuals that would have been brought into the Smart Start program, and by 2008, we had substantially increased our graduation rates among that population. We were the leader in the south for having done that, and I believe it has to do with Smart Start.
RLH: Regulatory reform has been an important priority for the Republican majority, both in Raleigh and in Washington, D.C. It’s a sweeping category, but where do you stand on the issue? Is there anything within that large umbrella that you would actually support?
Susi Hamilton: Actually, I have supported several regulatory reform bills. I’m trying to think of one instance of regulatory reform that I was most impressed by. The bills are very, very large. They run one now every session. That did not use to be the case in North Carolina. I think one issue that Representative Chris Millis and I worked on together was limiting a local government’s—some of my former city planner friends might not be happy about this—time on when they can call in zoning violations. It’s all very technical, but if they don’t get to it within a ten-year time frame, or I can’t remember what Chris and I were trying to put in there, you wouldn’t be able to do it unless it was a health and safety issue. So, you know, things like that. The regulatory reform bills, although they have sweeping impact and there are some bad things that have happened, for sure, regarding us not allowing local governments to make choices on implementing more strict laws on the environment— That bill I voted against, I’m pretty sure. So I think that there is always a need for regulatory reform to take a look back because not all current laws apply to the current situation.
RLH: The voter ID law in North Carolina was struck down by a federal appeals court, described as targeting African Americans with almost surgical precision and imposing cures for problems that don’t exist, and I think you’ve been fairly vocal about where you stand on that law to begin with, but what do you say to people who argue that you need a state-issued ID to buy certain over-the-counter drugs at a drug store, you need an ID to open a bank account, to apply for a job, to apply for unemployment, welfare, Medicaid, food stamps. You need a photo ID to apply for Social Security, so why shouldn’t you need a photo ID to vote?
Susi Hamilton: You have to look very specifically into what state IDs the legislation allowed. If you read the total brief that the courts sent back when they struck it down, they’ll tell you that there are certain IDs that were excluded that were state-issued ID, one of them were college IDs, that favored a population: young students, elderly people, African Americans. When you look into the details of the bill, that was the problem with the bill. In addition to that, where would you think the most opportunity for voter fraud would be? I would think it’d be in the absentee ballot process, and this legislation specifically excluded absentee ballots from a voter ID requirement. As the judges have recognized is that it was very targeted, and in the language and in the discussion behind the scenes, they were looking for very specific information on a very specific demographic.
Jennifer (email): How specifically do the film incentives filter money to counties other than New Hanover and Mecklenburg?
Susi Hamilton: When filming occurs in other counties, the expenditures occur in other counties. The sales tax is collected at the county level and then sent to the state and then the state sends it back based on a formula, so if you have a film crew come into town and stay for a week, which used to happen with frequency—not just in New Hanover but all over the state—the expenditures that were made in those locations benefitted the county overall.
RLH: To be fair, that was a difficult part of the fight for you, that was a harder argument to make because it did happen more in New Hanover County.
Susi Hamilton: Sure. Is it disproportionate? I’ll give you that. To Mecklenburg and New Hanover, perhaps. But there’s always— I mean, Buncombe County, for instance, with Last of the Mohicans. And Mockingjay, yeah, those were all filmed in that part of the state. New Hanover County and Mecklenburg County certainly were the leaders. The hope was that it would grow throughout the state over time.
RLH: Throughout our CoastLine Candidate Interview series, we’ve had countless people write in about offshore drilling. One person wrote in today and said, “I understand that the mid-Atlantic region has been removed from the current administration’s plan for drilling from 2017-2022, but there could be a change of administration, a change of philosophy. Where do you stand on that issue?”
Susi Hamilton: I’m completely opposed to offshore drilling.
Susi Hamilton: First of all, I think it’s not necessary.
RLH: Not necessary for?
Susi Hamilton: For the economy. I would think you’d be hard pressed to show me the profit versus the risk to the environment and the unknowns.
RLH: That’s one of the big selling points for it is that it would bring jobs to North Carolina, revenue sharing agreements with the federal government.
Susi Hamilton: Well, the revenue sharing agreements with the federal government is a big question mark. That actually was an argument that Governor McCrory tried to make, and as best I can tell, the federal administration did not respond to his request for the state to benefit from offshore drilling. So that is a huge question mark. But the benefits to the economy, I think, could be seriously outweighed by the risk. To me, a lot of it is what happens onshore. You couldn’t see the offshore rigs, but bringing the product onshore is where I have concerns, and it also increases security risks, and we already have five military bases in North Carolina. That puts us in a unique situation.
RLH: Approximately half a million people in this state don’t have health care coverage because of North Carolina’s decision not to expand Medicaid. There was a recent study published in the journal Health Affairs. It analyzes the impact of that decision on rural hospitals, and this was across the country. It was a nationwide study. It looked at the financial stability of rural hospitals. Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found rural hospitals saw an improved chance of turning a profit if they were in a state that expanded Medicaid. While in city-based hospitals, there was no improvement to overall profitability, across the board, hospitals earned more if they were in a state where people had coverage and saw declines in the level of uncompensated care that they gave. What’s your position on Medicaid expansion and why?
Susi Hamilton: We should have expanded Medicaid the minute it was offered. Where do I begin? It would have covered 5% of our population—500,000 people in North Carolina. But in addition to that, it would have created about 25,000 jobs, and no one really refutes those numbers. It was a political move where the population and the issue was used to stir up a political argument at the expense of healthcare in our state. It’s really inexcusable and inappropriate not to expand Medicaid in this state to help our citizens. I will also say that it’s our money. We sent this money to the federal government, and effectively, we’re letting other states benefit from that. There were, I believe, 13 Republican governors across the country who took the Medicaid expansion. There was really no excuse not to do so in North Carolina.
RLH: Opponents of Medicaid expansion say it’s a concern because it may sound like a sweet deal for states right now because the federal government would support the expense of that, and it slowly tapers off, but they still have said they’ll support the lion’s share of that in perpetuity. But then, you know, there’s the very pragmatic, “Can you trust that kind promise?” Things change all the time with the federal government, and what do we do when we wake up and we find out that that burden is on the state?
Susi Hamilton: Well, I think you can make the argument that governments can change their position all the time and at every level, so to focus that issue solely on Medicaid really is not very responsible. So I don’t know what to say other than that it’s our money. Again, the federal government offered to return taxpayer dollars to their respective states to support the expansion of Medicaid, so for us to refuse to accept that, even if it’s only 90% down the road, we’re not getting 100% right now. So, I feel like if there is a change in the administration this year, we’ll be able to have a more rational conversation about it. I’ve seen statistics over the last four or five years where the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina only grew by about 3%, but the administrative costs associated with Medicaid were up about 54%, and that’s been under Republican leadership that, you know, has expressed so much consternation and concern over the cost of Medicaid.
RLH: What do you think about North Carolina’s issues around redistricting? In one case, of course, you know a court ruled that several congressional districts in the state were racially gerrymandered, but what is the solution to the built-in conflict of interest that exists when it comes time for legislators to adjust districts? I think you can always make the argument that Democrats racially gerrymandered districts when they had a majority.
Susi Hamilton: Sure. In my first session, I joined with Representative Carolyn Justice in a bipartisan bill to create an independent committee to perform redistricting.
RLH: And the independent committee would have been made up of who?
Susi Hamilton: I don’t remember the specifics of the legislation, but the spirit of the legislation was that it would no longer be in the hands of the legislators. And it was listed as a bipartisan committee to do the redistricting for the state and the congressional districts. So, I support that today. I don’t know that it will ever happen.
RLH: So, let’s say you’re reelected. It’s now 2018. You’re looking back on your fourth term. What happened?
Susi Hamilton: Another really great question. I hope sincerely that I represented my district well. I love southeastern North Carolina and of North Carolina, and I hope I’ve made some folks proud.