PENDER COUNTY — John Johnson is running for the North Carolina House of Representatives seat for District 16.
The district covers Pender County, as well as Eastern Columbus County, from Whiteville to the eastern edge of the county. Johnson, a Democrat, is running against Carson Smith, who is retiring as Pender County Sheriff to run for office.
District 16 is an open seat with no incumbent; former Representative Chris Millis resigned in September after two terms and Representative Bob Muller, appointed to fill the vacant seat, chose not to run.
Below are Johnson’s answers to Port City Daily’s questions.
How has your previous career experience shaped your view of state politics and what you’d like to accomplish in Raleigh?
I came from Burgaw, a small town in southeastern North Carolina. My parents were not wealthy but they were supportive and knew that a college education was valuable. We did not have money for college. Yet through an academic scholarship recommended by Mr. Dudley Robbins of Penderlea, I was able to attend college, graduate and later go on to earn an MBA and have a successful career with one of America’s great companies, AT&T. I know from personal experience the value of a quality public education. That is why among my priorities in Raleigh will be to support high quality public education: by raising teachers’ salaries K-12 to compete with those at the national level, by supporting the recruiting of highly qualified teachers for all subjects including the arts and physical education and by working with the Governor and the Legislature to provide tuition-free community college for all who qualify.
As a Project Manager for AT&T, I learned the importance of respectful, honest communication with a variety of people across the globe. I also learned that to reach a common goal, individuals in an organization must collaborate, cooperate with one another, work to build consensus and commit to a coordinated effort toward that common goal. This is what is missing in the North Carolina General Assembly and what I will bring to Raleigh
What can the General Assembly do better to help Pender and Columbus counties? What state legislation do you personally think will benefit the region?
NC Tourism generated over $22.9 billion in revenue including $1.2 billion in state tax receipts and generated 218,340 jobs statewide. Therefore, it seems clear that preserving and maintaining our beaches through renourishment is a sound investment. I endorse renourishment and would seek to continue Corp of Engineer engagement with state support as needed. As it has in the past, this results in valuable economic development and tax revenue that benefit the entire state. Similarly, I join the almost universal agreement among local businesses owners and residents in opposition to off-shore drilling to preserve our beaches and estuaries.
Many local residents recognize a rural / urban divide separating the urban piedmont and the rural eastern region. The perception is that rural areas receive less legislative support and fewer economic development incentives. To address the inequality, we should weight economic development funding so that incentive applicants are strongly encouraged to locate in rural areas. Further, we should consider balancing economic development funding dollar for dollar between rural and urban locations.
It’s a tense political atmosphere in Raleigh. What’s one specific bi-partisan issue you feel you could and would work on?
History has proven that catastrophic events like the recent hurricanes, Florence and Michael, unite people toward finding communal solutions. The most damage from hurricanes we experience typically occurs from flooding. We should allocate expenditures to ensure bridges, dams, and levees throughout the state are routinely inspected and repaired. Had this been done prior to the catastrophes in Princeville and Rocky Mount during Fran and to Fair Bluff during Matthew, much of the damage and astronomical cost of repair may have been avoided. I believe that awareness of the hardships many North Carolinians have been experiencing as a result of recent hurricanes will prompt all legislators to want to work together to minimize flood damage from future storms.
Do you feel like water-quality issues in the region have been handled acceptably so far? If not, what steps would you take?
My principal concern is the delay in response in addressing this issue. Also, while additional assistance to our research universities is positive, I question why funding was not applied to the department (DHEC) tasked with managing environmental quality.
North Carolina’s General Assembly banned Medicaid expansion in 2013. Do you think that was a good idea? Why or why not?
The NC General Assembly’s decision to ban Medicaid expansion was a very bad idea for a number of reasons.
According to the UNC School of Public Health, over half of NC rural hospitals are losing money.
Since 2012, five hospitals in North Carolina have closed. These are (1) Blowing Rock Hospital in Blowing Rock; (2) Davie Medical Center in Mocksville; (3) Our Community Hospital in Scotland Neck; (4) Vident Pungo Hospital in Bellhaven; (5) Yadkin Valley Community Hospital in Yadkinville; (6) Morehead Memorial Hospital in Eden is open but facing bankruptcy.
According to Health Resources Service Administration (HRSA) these closures are due to the number of uninsured patients. The issue affects rich and poor alike. If local hospitals close, healthcare is difficult for everyone to obtain. The General Assembly made a poor decision by not expanding Medicaid; 34 states have expanded Medicaid. Had we done so, we would be better prepared to protect our rural hospitals such as Columbus Regional and Pender Memorial that have great dependence upon Medicaid reimbursements.
Had we expanded Medicaid, we would also be better equipped to fight the opioid epidemic. 2,323 people died in North Carolina from opioid overdoses in 2017. The epidemic is across-demographics. Accessibility to mental health care and drug treatment would have been facilitated through the expansion of Medicaid. Lives would have been saved.
This issue goes beyond public health. It extends to rural economic development. For example, if a potential new business has two choices between locating to either a community with a local hospital or one without, they will choose the community where the hospital exists.
By rejecting Medicaid expansion, the General Assembly shifted the financial responsibility from the state to the counties. When one is uninsured, the last recourse is the emergency room of the local hospital. If the patient cannot pay, the county foots the bill. In the rural and poorer counties, the county commissioners must provide an overdraft of unpaid/underpaid expenses which stretches the county’s budgets beyond the breaking point. This has many detrimental effects including increased property taxes and fees and the reduction in services. In extreme cases, local hospitals are closed.
Lastly, the wave of retiring baby boomers is already upon us. AARP reports that every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 Americans will reach the retirement age of 65. As the public ages we need greater medical services. It is imperative that policy makers plan accordingly for the increasing demand in health services.
Is education adequately funded at the state level? Are there changes you’d make to the way funding is currently delivered to schools?
Public education is not adequately funded at the state level. According to the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), in 2017 North Carolina ranked 39th in per-pupil spending and 39th nationally in average teacher pay and $9,600 behind the national average. I support Governor Cooper’s revenue-neutral plan to raise average teacher salaries over 5% this upcoming year and another 5% the year after. This would be the largest two-year investment in North Carolina teacher salaries in a decade. This plan would also include a small but helpful $150 annual stipend to off-set teacher’s out-of-pocket expenses. If enacted, this would match NC teacher salaries with the national average income of $62,261 in FY 2021-2022. We also need to begin to increase per-pupil funding to pre-recession levels.
North Carolina is the 10th and soon to be the ninth most populous state. We are rapidly growing. The number of school-age children is increasing while the number of teachers is decreasing due to low salaries, a decrease in per-pupil funding, and a significant drop the number of college students entering teacher preparation programs (down 30 percent across the UNC system since 2010).
Recently I attended a Community in Schools breakfast meeting where I sat at a table with four teachers. I listened as each told me about their experiences. Each of the four teachers confided they work a second job. Each of the four teachers stated they pay out-of-pocket for classroom supplies and are not reimbursed. The shocking response when I asked if they would recommend education as a career for their own children was that not one would.
In order to have a reasonable teacher/ student ratio, it is imperative we make immediate changes. And we must find a solution to equitably staffing rural teaching vacancies on par with our urban districts.
Is North Carolina economically competitive enough? If not, what can Raleigh do to change that?
Our legislators certainly are aware that when a company is considering a site, it generally considers five factors: (1) operating cost; (2) available workforce; (3) lifestyle; (4) access; and (5) incentives. In comparison to most states, we are ahead in operating cost, available workforce and lifestyle. Yet we fall behind in access and incentives.
Because the NC General Assembly abysmally managed our incentive program, we lost Honda (Alabama), Hyundai (Alabama), Toyota (Mississippi), Kia (Georgia) BMW, (South Carolina) Volvo (South Carolina), Mercedes (Alabama & South Carolina).
And while this loss record is impressive, it does not take into account the loss of the many peripheral vendors that supply these giant businesses. Therefore, the NC Generally Assembly is directly responsible for the loss of thousands of jobs, millions in wages and billions in tax base.
According to an article in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “North Carolina slashed its incentive program and saw its film workers flee to other states with more stable incentives like Georgia. North Carolina quickly revised its grant-based program to allocate more funds, but even the threat of tinkering with an incentive program is enough to make many Hollywood producers cross a state off their list.”
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Georgia enjoyed another record-breaking year in film and TV productions. In the past 12 months, 455 productions, and $2.7 Billion in direct spending. This is a direct result of the Georgia General Assembly’s successful film incentive program.
The Georgia program yields $1.52 of tax revenue and $9.1 of direct spending for every $1.00 of tax credit provided by the state. (Georgia Institute of Technology / Atlanta Journal Constitution Supply Chain Study on Economic Impact.)