News: CJ Exclusives

Incumbent Shepard Faces Challenger Morton in House District 15

Winner of GOP primary in Onslow County district likely to take seat

RALEIGH — Voters in the May 6 Republican primary for state House District 15 will choose between incumbent Phil Shepard, a two-term legislator who is a minister and civil service retiree, and Jim Morton, a farmer and retired educator running primarily on parochial issues.

Barring the emergence of a write-in or unaffiliated candidate for the general election, the GOP winner would claim the seat after the primary because no Democrat candidates filed to run.

The North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation lists District 15, covering a large swatch of Onslow County, as strong Republican. Although the registered voter split is just 35.1 percent GOP to 32.2 percent Democratic, 2012 voters favored Republican Mitt Romney over Barack Obama 62 percent to 37 percent, and statewide Republican candidates by similar margins.

Shepard, chairman of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and vice-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has $24,706 cash on hand for his campaign. He was acutely aware of the subjects of Medicaid expansion, education reform, and state subsidies for renewable energy.

In contrast, Morton, who has just $1,243 campaign cash on hand, offered few specifics on several issues that are before the legislature. But he cited a campaign platform focused primarily on reducing speeding tickets on the Jacksonville bypass, which he said cost North Carolinians $3 million a year in fines and court costs. And he wants to bring a vocational college to Onslow County.

Shepard said he opposes Medicaid expansion offered under the federal Affordable Care Act, fearing it would be difficult to end the costly program should the federal government decide not to fund it in future years.

“You open a can of worms when you start taking federal money,” Shepard said.

Morton conceded that he does not know a lot about Medicaid expansion. He said he’s leaning toward being against it, but has not made up his mind.

As a former educator who taught vocational courses in Onslow County, Morton said that he appreciates the difficult work of educators in the classroom. Regarding teacher tenure, merit pay, and education reform in general, he said, “I would do something to help [teachers]. I’d probably get a flavor of all of it and get something we can work with.”

Morton added, however, that teaching positions, like all government jobs, should be evaluated for performance every few years.

Shepard said that he’s spoken to teachers in his legislative district who are not as concerned with tenure as they are with pay incentives for teachers who receive graduate degrees.

He also said it’s important for the legislature to have a more nuanced debate on education reform by involving teachers and parents rather than attaching weighty issues to the budget at the last minute and in the closing days of the session.

“We need to hear from as many of our classroom teachers as possible,” Shepard said, “to try to pull them together, make them a part of the process along with the rest of the community, so they’re owners of the process.”

When asked about House Bill 298, which would end state subsidies for renewable energy, Shepard said he’d support a bill that would lead to lower rates for consumers.

While noting that “this world belongs to everybody to a sense,” Morton said ultimately the economics of the bill are what will matter. Government should ensure utility companies have the resources they need to provide for their consumers, but should not require utility companies to purchase renewable energy, he said.

Shepard said he hoped to the legislature would engage in a more thorough debate on House Bill 274, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, before he would decide whether or not to support it.

TABOR would limit the growth of government tax revenues to a formula tied into population increases and inflation, unless voters pass a referendum to raise them higher.

Morton was unaware of the bill when asked about it.

Both candidates expressed a desire to be fair on legislative redistricting reform. Morton said that it would be impossible to get all the politics out of the system. Shepard said that he does not have an opinion on using legislative staff to draw districts, but is in favor of anything that is fair.

Neither Morton nor Shepard would say anything negative about his opponent.

“He and I are friends. We don’t have any problems,” said Morton, noting that he hopes Shepard does not take his filing to run for Shepard’s seat as a personal affront.

“He doesn’t seem to have any complaints with the way I’ve conducted myself as a legislator,” said Shepard. “I think I’ve done the best to represent the folks of Onslow County.”

Brett Lewis is a contributor to Carolina Journal.