News: CJ Exclusives

Education, Medicaid, Fracking Divide Presnell and Hicks in HD 118

GOP Incumbent Presnell faces tough fight in far western House district

Education is the campaign focus as the North Carolina House District 118 race heads toward the finish line.

At least that’s the issue Democratic opponent Dean Hicks will concentrate on as he hopes to defeat incumbent Rep. Michele Presnell, a Republican.

Hicks touts his experience as a former teacher and successful golf and basketball coach during his years in the Yancey County school system as the reason why District 118 citizens should send him to Raleigh.

In a phone interview with Carolina Journal, Hicks said that after years of watching education cuts in Raleigh, he decided it was time to do something about it.

Hicks also served three two-year terms on the Yancey County Board of Commissioners, so he has seen both sides of the school funding issue.

“Having been a county commissioner, I know what a budget’s about. You only have so much money,” Hicks said.

“But the issue is the money was distributed in the wrong way,” he said. “I think we need to prioritize education. You don’t get the benefit giving the tax breaks to the wealthy and the corporations. You get the benefit if you put that money into education.”

Hicks agrees with educators who say the hotly debated 7 percent teacher pay raise doesn’t add up.

“I’ve talked to many teachers, and it wasn’t as if 7 percent wasn’t enough,” Hicks said. It just wasn’t distributed well. When younger teachers get the majority of the raise, and experienced teachers get hardly anything, it leads to discouraging teachers who have put a lot of years into a really hard job, and not being rewarded for all those years they’ve put in.”

Presnell disagrees that education in North Carolina is underfunded.

“Education already takes more than half the state budget,” Presnell told CJ in a phone interview. “If you’ve got 10 dimes, six of them are going toward education.”

While Presnell is not unsympathetic about the magnitude of the teacher pay increase, she says there are other state employees who deserve a raise.

Presnell believes that problems in schools are due to the “breakdown of the family.”

When the question was raised that perhaps the breakdown of the family was due to cuts in government entitlements, she replied that “government is not there to bring everybody up to the same standard.”

On the subject of government entitlements, Presnell and Hicks disagree on the divisive issue of Medicaid expansion in North Carolina.

Hicks favors the expansion, adding “it bothers me that people would vote against Medicaid funding when they’re getting their health insurance from the state for free. It’s just wrong.”

Hicks has issues with the legislature voting not to expand Medicaid when the federal government was helping with the cost.

“We were going to get money from the federal government to help offset the cost, but we didn’t take it. I don’t understand that,” he said.

Presnell countered that it’s not that simple, considering the possibility that the federal government “could pull the rug out from under us” by reducing that funding and shifting the costs to the state.

Presnell was against expanding Medicaid because of massive problems within the state Department of Health and Human Services. Those involved $1 billion in cost overruns over four years, deep and widespread problems with expensive new computer systems, staff shortages, and mismanagement.

“If your house is falling down, you don’t add on. You fix the foundation,” she said.

Still, Presnell believes DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos has done an excellent job, and said she would carefully reconsider Medicaid expansion.

Presnell also touts dealing with the state’s unemployment insurance debt to the federal government, which is set to be retired next year, as one of the accomplishments of the Republican-controlled General Assembly during the last legislative session.

While the effort to retire the debt drew criticism from many Democrats because it reduced unemployment benefits, retiring that debt has had a two-pronged effect, Presnell said. It not only helped reduce unemployment, but it helped reduce unemployment taxes paid by employers. She is a small business owner.

“It’s exactly what we needed to do,” Presnell said. “Businesses are now looking at North Carolina.”

Fracking is another issue on which the two candidates disagree. Hicks is dead set against it.

“I don’t see the profit. I don’t see the job creation. What I do see is the great potential to damage property without getting the benefit,” he said.

Presnell said there is no shale in western North Carolina, so fracking is not an issue for District 118 constituents.
That said, she believes fracking in other areas of the state plus offshore drilling will help lead to energy independence.

House District 118 is in the far western part of the state, running along the Tennessee border and covering most of Haywood County, and all of Yancey and Madison counties.

Although Democrats hold a 42.4-30.7 percent margin over Republicans in registered voters, with 26.6 percent unaffiliated, the North Carolina Freee Enterprise Foundation, which monitors historical voting trends, lists the district as leaning Republican.

Presnell, who also served as a Yancey County commissioner, took the 2012 election in her first run at state office. Republican candidates also won the presidential and all Council of State races. In this election cycle, Presnell had a campaign cash on hand advantage, with $41,751 at the end of the June filing period, compared with $10.296 for Hicks.

But a flash poll of registered voters by the Civitas Institute taken at the end of September had Hicks ahead of Presnell, 51 percent to 39 percent.

Presnell said her first term wasn’t easy, but the leadership of Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, now in the stretch run of his U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, was a big help as she navigated the halls of the General Assembly.

“It was overwhelming. My head was stuffed with information,” she said. “But Tillis’ leadership was excellent.”

Hicks has no illusions that his first time in statewide
office would indeed have its challenges.

“I’ll be a rookie. I’m going to have to go to Raleigh and take a look at this situation just like everybody else does,” he said.

But he’s optimistic he can do his part help the two parties work together.

“Let’s go to Raleigh and have Democrats and Republicans say ‘What do we need to do?’” he said.

Sam Hieb blogs at Piedmont Publius and is a contributor to Carolina Journal.