Farmers, politicians, lobbyists, educators and advocates came to downtown Raleigh on Tuesday to talk to legislators and hear speeches from top state officials as part of the state’s first-ever “Rural Day.”
The event sponsored by the N.C. Rural Center brought hundreds of participants to the N.C. Museum of History and the state Legislative Building across the street. Much discussion focused on the “rural-urban divide” – a term Rural Center President Patrick Woodie says he dislikes, but which many people use to sum up geographic gaps in North Carolina on education, jobs, health and more.
Topics addressed by politicians who spoke to the group included the state’s shrinking amount of farmland, unemployment outside major cities, continued struggles due to Hurricane Matthew’s flooding and the link between education and economic development.
“Their presence here shows that rural issues affect us all,” Woodie said.
Here are some of the ways those state leaders agreed and disagreed.
Using a half-billion dollar surplus
North Carolina will finalize its budget for the next two years this spring or early summer. Lawmakers have about $580 million more to work with than they expected.
How to put that surplus to use is a topic of great debate.
Republican Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate president pro tempore from Rockingham County, took the stage first on Tuesday.
He touted the income tax cuts North Carolina enacted after Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, and he said he wants to enact a further $1 billion in tax cuts this year.
The budget the Senate proposed Tuesday includes the tax cuts, along with average teacher pay raises of 3.7 percent.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat originally from Nash County, spoke about increasing funding for a variety of public services.
“We know we’ve got to invest in public education,” he said. “And we can do that. The second thing we’ve got to have is a real plan for infrastructure.”
Cooper said he wants to update or build roads, bridges, water systems and manufacturing sites around the state. He has also sent a wish list of projects to the federal government for possible funding.
The clearest area of bipartisan agreement was that rural North Carolina needs better internet access.
Cooper said he wants to include broadband internet in his infrastructure spending plan; he previously suggested spending $20 million to do so in his budget proposal.
Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest touted the state’s progress on internet access in schools.
“Our state will soon be the first state in the country with every school connected to broadband internet, “ Forest said in a pre-recorded video message.
One in every five households in North Carolina lacks internet either because of its price or availability. About 7 percent of North Carolinians couldn’t get broadband internet even if they wanted to, and almost all of them live in rural areas.
The opioid epidemic kills multiple people in North Carolina every day through accidental drug overdoses, and public data from the state shows the victims are disproportionately white, middle-aged men from rural counties.
To fight it, Berger touted the STOP Act, a bill that would make it harder for people to get prescription painkillers.
Cooper said he’s pushing for attention from the federal government. He was appointed by President Donald Trump to a committee tasked with addressing the issue.
Cooper said North Carolina’s best options for fighting substance abuse include expanding Medicaid, the government health insurance for the poor, and treating drug addicts instead of arresting them.
Medicaid expansion is a long-shot, but Cooper said it would boost rural economies statewide.
“I’ll tell you a way we can bring hundreds of millions of dollars to rural North Carolina,” Cooper said, as well as “thousands of jobs.”
A Republican-backed plan called Carolina Cares would extend Medicaid coverage to more adults, and charge hospitals to help pay for it.
“The estimate is that in the first year we would save $45 million in Medicaid if Carolina Cares was approved,” said Rep. Donna White, a Johnston County Republican who is a main sponsor.
Rounding out the health-care discussion was Sen. Don Davis, a Pitt County Democrat who has sponsored a bill that would address health problems by working with local business owners and farmers to get more fresh fruits and vegetables sold in areas where there aren’t grocery stores.
“We can battle over Obamacare, Trumpcare, Carolina Cares,” Davis said. “I think people just want to know that someone cares.”
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran