GARNER — State senators Brent Jackson and Buck Newton, along with Rep. James Langdon visited Cleveland, and a small but eclectic group peppered them with questions and criticisms from education and courts funding to environmental concerns.
The Thursday night town hall meeting at Johnston Community College campus in Cleveland hosted about a dozen guests asking questions of the three representatives, two of which represent the Cleveland area.
The trio of Republicans mentioned the rapid growth of Cleveland, particularly the residential neighborhoods continuously popping up.
“This is probably the biggest metro area I’ve got in my district,” Jackson said, somewhat jokingly.
Jackson’s district includes the southern half of Johnston County (not including Clayton or Smithfield) as well as Duplin and Sampson counties.
Asked about local priorities after the meeting, Jackson said the growth in Cleveland made improving the transportation infrastructure in the area pivotal.
He said he knows the Department of Transportation has been surveying I-40 in the area, but added that he’s been pushing to widen N.C. 42 at key choke points.
“It’ll probably have to be put into the priority list, but this is definitely a high priority, bottom line,” Jackson said. “It’s not something that’s getting swept under the rug because I’m constantly letting them know this area needs some attention, because it’s had such tremendous growth – which is a good thing but it comes with its own set of problems.”
Another issue local to Johnston County was court technology upgrades. At least two Clerk of Court candidates for the May 6 election attended, and the issue of decades-old records-keeping technology arose.
“It is absolutely desperately needed,” Newton said of an upgrade. “Too many folks don’t appreciate what the responsibility is of the court system and what is required, and don’t fully appreciate how badly it has been abused mistreated and squeezed in the past 15 years.”
Newton, whose senate district covers the northern Johnston County and borders Jackson’s, predicted more significant long-term problems if the county’s court records don‘t get shored up. But he didn’t think a new computer system funding would come in the next year. He said information technology was just one of many issues for courts that he said were fairly “close” to not being able to meet the constitutional obligation of functioning and providing legal representation. And he said fees have already maxed out.
“I’m not picking on our governor or his budget director, but last we heard was we’re looking for 2-3 percent savings across the board. I’ve told the governor in private meetings with him, ‘We don’t have it.’ This red headed step-child over here has been...we don’t have two percent to give up.”
Broader statewide issues provided the most confrontational exchanges, particularly involving the environment and education. Johnston County Community College president David Johnson asked about increased funding for the community colleges. He also complained about how extra money from efficiencies and other money ended up earmarked, leaving the colleges with little discretion.
“You tell us to run the schools like a business, so let us do that,” Johnson said. “It should be finders keepers. If we find efficiencies, we should be allowed to decide how to use them.”
Newton said the need in the community college system outstripped the need of the university system, which he said is rife with inefficiency.
Johnson’s comments come on the heels of a series of stories published in The News & Observer detailing money shuffling and changes in compensation packages for several community college presidents which led to larger retirement packages for those involved.
More contentious was the conversation between former teacher – and mother of a teacher – Carole Edwards and the lawmakers.
Edwards said the legislature was “using teachers as a doormat” and decried the lack of pay increases for teachers. She said her remarks reflected those of a lot of teachers she’d spoken with.
“You’re going to lose a lot of teachers. You’ve got a whole team of teachers that are ready to walk out the door,” Edwards said. “You need to do something better than what we’re doing... you don’t understand how your teachers are so upset.”
Lawmakers said they understood the sentiment, but phrased it as a matter of limited resources.
“It’s not that we don’t have compassion and it’s not that we are not proud of our teachers. We all are,” Jackson said.
Jackson noted that 56 percent of expenditures went toward education, with another 30 percent tied up in health and human services, including funding for federal programs like Medicaid. He also pointed out that other state employees haven’t had pay raises either.
“So what you need to do is raise taxes,” Edwards said, eliciting nervous chuckles from the Republicans. “Or lower your salary,” she said, bringing more open laughs.
Jackson also pointed to the limited raises the current legislature did provide, something the previous two administrations didn’t do, although some of that time was spent in a post-recession economy.
“They had us taxed. We cut taxes, and still gave them 1.2 percent,” Jackson said. “We did what we had to do to keep North Carolina best we could.”
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland