Basnight, Richardson debate

Published 9:23 pm Friday, October 8, 2010

Staff Writer

Two state Senate candidates — one the Senate leader, the other a veteran county commissioner — engaged in impromptu debate Thursday afternoon at the offices of the Washington Daily News.
State Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, of Manteo, accepted a debate challenge from his opponent, Washington Republican Hood Richardson, and the two met in a conference room at the newspaper.
The pair held discourse on everything from economic incentives to energy policy.
With occasional humor and respectful exchanges, the candidates revealed the fundamental differences between them — Basnight, a longtime member of the Senate and president pro tempore of that body, and Richardson, a longtime Beaufort County commissioner and GOP stalwart.
Asked what measures he would prescribe to help overcome a projected $3.2 billion shortfall in the state budget next year, Basnight indicated there is a broad spectrum of options that could win his favor.
The senator stayed true to his policy of not publicly settling on budgeting solutions before Senate budget-writers have a chance to deliberate.
“I’m sure there’s different ways of us obtaining our goals,” Basnight said. “One is to make certain you do not degrade the universities and the community colleges. It is there that you train and prepare the work force in general, not to take away anything from public or private schools.”
Examining how the state taxes its residents on income and goods is on the table, he suggested.
“Would you extend the sunset on … high income and sales?” he asked. “Is that an option? Everything would be before us. Is that one we would use? I do not know.”
Basnight made it clear he wouldn’t favor taking money from Medicaid, the government program that helps pay some health-care costs for the needy.
“Would you take from Medicaid?” he asked rhetorically. “Our hospitals or doctors rely on that source of income, and if you take it away, how do you fill the gap of need for old people who are poor, who cannot work, or children? So, you weigh those options.”
Posed the same question regarding the state budget, Richardson said one of the problems is that the N.C. General Assembly produced a budget though it knew “they had a $3.2 billion shortfall.”
“And that, to me, is somewhat irresponsible from a budgeting standpoint,” he said. “I would never go along with a budget that I did not have the revenue to fund at the time the budget was passed. The sad thing about this is the decision for the funding will not be made until after the elections this year. That was done by design from the House and the Senate. It’s what they’ve done every election year for the last several election years, is, ‘We cannot raise taxes and we cannot adjust taxes until after the elections this fall because if we raise taxes on these people and they know about it they may not vote for us.’ So, that $3.2 billion is going to be raised by the next Legislature, whoever it is.”
One way to get a handle on the issue is to reduce expenses, Richardson proposed.
“Expenses in North Carolina can be reduced greatly if we look at our illegal-immigrant population,” he remarked. “Every student that’s in our school system that should not be there is a $9,000 hit to the state. It doesn’t take long to get a lot of money from that particular system. Also attached to that is the welfare system that goes with the illegal immigrant, and once that anchor baby is here, then they are allowed to tap into that particular system.”
Avoiding expenditures for certain social programs is a way to scale back, he said, adding he opposes imposing a tax on personal services provided by people like hairdressers and veterinarians.
Enacting a personal-services tax would, in effect, make some professionals, like doctors, and service-industry workers, like barbers, “tax collectors,” Richardson asserted.
“You’re talking about everybody that does work for you now that you are not paying a tax to,” he said.
Richardson said he would “take a look at Medicaid.”
“The public is not generally aware that the state has a big say in how large those Medicaid benefits are and in exactly what the benefits are going to be,” he added.
The state could, for example, reduce benefits for obese people, he said.
“We need to cut out some of those benefits,” Richardson commented. “I don’t think obesity should be looked at from the same standpoint as cancer or heart disease or anything else. It seems to me as though it’s a self-imposed condition. And while I’m a little obese myself, and I know how hard it is to push away from the table, I don’t think we should be paying for that.”
Lawmakers could allocate more funds for things like roads by lessening the amounts dedicated to social programs, he said. Richardson pointed to the prekindergarten program More at Four as an expense the state could do without.
“I will not go to Raleigh and vote to impose a new tax on the people of the state of North Carolina to balance this particular budget because, if it’s there, the $3.2 billion that’s there has to be new spending,” Richardson concluded.
In rebuttal, Basnight iterated his conviction the General Assembly won’t end up cutting the entire $3.2 billion in spending.
“If you do, you will lay off (workers),” he said. “The lion’s share of what we are debating is education. That would be the largest portion of this budget.”
The state has “total control” over More at Four, and much of the funding for that preschool program comes from the N.C. Education Lottery, Basnight pointed out.
“Now, you could shift that away and eliminate More at Four,” he stated. “I would not eliminate that program at all. I believe it has great value in preparing kids who have no other way of entering a school, for preparing them for that kindergarten experience.”
Nearly every U.S. state, with the exception of around a dozen, has initiatives and funding mechanisms for programs like More at Four, he said.
Basnight theorized he’d be willing to look into taxing legal services, with certain caveats.
“Would I vote to do that? I’m not sure that I would,” he said of a personal-services tax. “Would I consider it? Absolutely I would. That is a way of shifting the burden that is placed on the general citizenship into a service. Would I do it on repairs? Only if that shift was made to reduce taxes, such as income. Would I consider corporate taxes? On a sliding scale, yes. Not on the higher income that would affect say IBM or major international companies. I would retard that effort to move quickly into that category of companies.”
For more coverage of the debate, see Sunday’s edition.