As part of an assessment of how the state is doing heading into a critical election Nov. 8, The News & Observer asked the candidates for governor about transportation, the environment, crime and access to the internet — all factors in North Carolina residents’ quality of life. Here are answers from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his challengers, Democrat Roy Cooper and Libertarian Lon Cecil.
Q: As governor, what actions will you take to ensure crime rates continue on a downward trend in North Carolina?
Cecil: Strong support and continued state funding of police resources for public safety. Stop civil asset forfeitures, unless there is timely conviction of related felony. Review prisoner convictions that are of nonviolent offenders to consider returning them to public and family life. We spend a lot of money on incarceration and it keeps families torn apart.
Cooper: We must ensure that we have well-trained law enforcement to help keep our communities safe. But we must also realize that poverty is a core contributing factor to violence that cannot be overlooked. In many cases, we can stop violence before it starts by addressing important challenges like adequate funding for public schools, affordable and accessible housing, and lack of economic opportunity in urban and underserved areas.
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We must work to break the cycle of poverty – inadequate housing, lack of access to transportation or after-school activities, underemployment – that drive children to gangs and organized violence. And we must find effective ways to stop the cycle of incarceration.
This year, I joined a nonpartisan campaign, Test400k, to call for reforms to the handling of rape kits across North Carolina and the nation. Test400k asks state, local and national leaders in both parties to work toward the goal of testing every rape kit connected to a victim within 15 to 30 days and set up a comprehensive rape kit tracking system to ensure victims don’t fall through the cracks. We have also pushed for millions of dollars in additional resources for the state’s crime lab system, which has been a disaster under the leadership of my opponent, Roy Cooper.
Our administration successfully pushed for millions in additional funding for specialty treatment courts like drug and veteran courts, which will help give people a second chance to get back on their feet. We also ended sanctuary cities, but need to continue to follow through on our administration’s efforts to address drug trafficking, human trafficking and mental health challenges.
Q: Opioid drug abuse, prescription pill dependency and drug overdoses are claiming more lives nationally and in North Carolina than ever before. Will you support North Carolina joining and participating in an established interstate prescription drug monitoring system, and would you support a state law requiring all prescribing doctors in North Carolina to check the current state system before writing a prescription for pain-relieving narcotics?
Cecil: No. Stopping the “drug war” will go further in helping identify and treat people that do or will abuse opioids and other drugs. Doctors have few options for chronic pain treatments, except the high priced prescription opioids. Our current control is to prescribe only opioid-and-acetaminophen pills, and the acetaminophen has now been ‘discovered’ to cause permanent liver damage with little more than the prescribed dosage. The state law on cold pills did not eliminate meth, as it was originally hawked to the legislature.
Cooper: Opioid abuse, both heroin and prescription drugs, is a killer. I have supported North Carolina’s prescription drug monitoring program and encouraged prescribing physicians and their practices to participate and will continue to do so. If participation in the program does not improve, we must consider measures that are more strict. Just as important is proper funding for drug and mental-health courts. Those courts combine treatment with accountability to help those struggling with addiction. Unfortunately, under Gov. McCrory, our drug courts have been underfunded and mental-health courts are still pilot programs without adequate state support.
Because of this lack of funding, our jails are filled with people who are unable to beat their addictions and are likely to re-offend. We must dedicate more resources to stop this cycle of addiction.
McCrory: Since taking office, my administration has partnered with the law-enforcement community in tackling North Carolina’s mental health, substance abuse and addiction crisis, which is severely impacting our communities. The latest state budget includes $20 million to implement the strategic recommendations from our task force on mental health and substance use, including the expansion of specialty treatment courts like drug and veteran courts, mental health first-aid training and tools to combat the heroin and opioid epidemic, like naloxone.
Our administration has also initiated a major campaign against underage drinking, encouraging North Carolina parents to “Talk it Out” with their kids.
Q: U.S. Census data shows more than 1 in 5 households in North Carolina do not have home internet access for school work, employment searches and other uses. What policies could North Carolina adopt or update to ensure home internet is affordable and reliable for more families?
Cecil: Add a data plan to their free cell phone, so it could be connected to their computer.
Cooper: A modern economy depends on high-speed broadband access. We must ensure everyone in North Carolina has access to affordable, high-speed broadband internet service. Although we have come a long way in bridging the digital divide over the years, residents in some of our rural areas are still among the least connected. Today 13 percent of the population remains underserved – 235,000 residents do not have any wired Internet providers available in their community and 895,000 residents lack access to a wired connection with fast download speeds. As Governor, I will work to leverage the existing middle-mile network of MCNC to reach more unserved and underserved areas. Additionally, and just as important, I will also continue to emphasize the use of fiber-optic connections to anchor institutions, particularly our public libraries and public hospitals, to ensure they have access to advanced telecommunications and information services.
McCrory: Our administration has made significant progress to improve North Carolina’s broadband infrastructure and increase access for affordable high-speed internet, especially for small businesses and in our classrooms. When I entered office, just 22 percent of North Carolina classrooms had robust Wi-Fi. Today, nearly 65 percent of classrooms are connected, and we have committed to connecting 100 percent of classrooms by 2018.
A Federal Communications Commission study shows 93 percent of North Carolinians have access to broadband, compared to an average of 90 percent of people nationwide, with rural areas showing the greatest need. Our administration developed a broadband plan to connect the entire state by 2021, and set out a series of strategies to meet that goal, including involving the transportation department to enact a “dig once” policy along highways to install more fiber optics quickly.
Q: Federal and state data show significant air quality improvements in North Carolina since the passage of the Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002. What specifically do you think N.C. officials should do next to improve air quality statewide?
Cecil: Encourage plant growth on and around any bare soils. Construction dust from land clearing and soil movement should be controlled. Pass road tax exemptions for any compressed-natural-gas vehicles.
Cooper: I was proud to help push through the Clean Smokestacks Act and to enforce it by forcing the Tennessee Valley Authority to reduce air pollution that damaged the health and beauty of the North Carolina mountains. More recently, as attorney general, I have disagreed with the state environmental regulators who were focused on scoring political points rather than protecting our water, air and other natural resources.
We should work to put together a consensus plan that involves business, our utilities, consumers and people who want to protect the environment. We already have a foundation in place to put forward a plan that will work for North Carolina. We need to be actively encouraging renewable energy instead of actively opposing it as Gov. McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality has done.
McCrory: Under our administration's leadership, North Carolina has continued to improve its air quality while fighting overreaching federal power rules which will do little to improve our air quality but cost thousands of jobs and increase power bills. Our state should focus on North Carolina solutions, including more public transportation and transit options.
Q: In the state’s most crowded and congested metro areas, residents face increasing commute times. How would you use state resources to help localities handle increased demand on roads, keep commute times reasonable and provide for public transit alternatives for commuters?
Cecil: Encourage development of self-drive vehicle fleets in North Carolina. They can be managed and controlled for load leveling and route optimizations, once the destination is more than eight blocks from an existing rail terminal.
Push the N.C. Department of Transportation to accelerate construction of “ring” access roads around major cities, for earlier optimization of traffic flow and business development sites.
Cooper: We need to pass a transportation bond – unfortunately, Gov. McCrory has failed to get that done.
We know that North Carolina’s population will continue to grow. We need infrastructure investment now, not just in improving our roads and bridges, but in upgrading our water and sewer infrastructure, modernizing our energy grid, and investing in public transit. With low interest rates and construction costs that aren’t going any lower, now is a better time than ever to invest in our infrastructure.
McCrory: I am very proud of our administration’s accomplishments when it comes to setting a long-term vision and plan for transportation in our state. During the Easley-Perdue-Hunt administrations, with the support of my opponent, our state had ignored some of our long-term transportation needs. Our state had to play a little bit of catch up when I took office.
First, we reformed the state’s transportation funding formula to take the politics out of road building. It used to be that new roads were built or expanded because of a powerful politician pushing for funding for their pet projects. Now, projects are built based on key factors, including congestion, need and economic impact, instead of politics.
We then laid out a long-term, 25-year vision on how to best leverage our transportation infrastructure for all regions of North Carolina to catalyze and support our state’s future economic and population growth. Anyone can read the vision statement by going to ncvision25.gov. Our administration has also fought against the General Assembly’s efforts to block funding for public transit alternatives.
We ended the practice of raiding the highway trust fund, allowing us to put hundreds of millions of additional dollars into the construction and maintenance of roadways across North Carolina. We have allocated an additional $1.6 billion over the next 10 years to spend more on the construction of new road projects, and an additional $250 million a year for maintenance, bridge replacement and road repaving.