SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Senator Michael Lee is running for re-election in the North Carolina State Senate District 9, serving New Hanover County.
Senator Lee was first appointed to the seat to replace Thomas Goolsby, who resigned in August of 2014. He won election to his first full term that November, and reelection in 2016.
Lee is running against Democrat challenger Harper Peterson, the former mayor of Wilmington, and Libertarian candidate Ethan Bickley.
Below are Lee’s answers to Port City Daily’s questions:
How has your previous career or record as an elected official experience shaped your view of state politics and what you’d like to accomplish in Raleigh?
My career as a lawyer and training in law school has given me a good foundation when it comes to drafting legislation. As for my experience as a legislator, it has taught me that the best outcomes are those that involve lots of input from many sources. In particular, it is important to receive input from those who you know have a different position on an issue.
Many times, you will find that the two positions are not so far apart, and you may even end up co-sponsoring legislation with someone with whom you originally thought would oppose the legislation. While this does not always happen, it is great when it does. I would like to accomplish NC providing every child with the opportunity to meet their full potential in life. I think this comes from having an education system that has strong standards, but flexible enough to meet the needs of each child where there are and not where they necessarily should be.
What can the General Assembly do better to help Wilmington New Hanover County? What state legislation do you personally think will benefit the region?
While I have already advocated for legislation directly addressing issues we have in New Hanover County such as with gang violence, the opioid epidemic, film grants, mental health concerns, beach nourishment, Hurricane Florence relief, education and otherwise, it is important to continue monitoring the progress of these important issues.
In many instances, prior legislation needs to be reviewed and tweaked as time progresses. Two good examples are legislation dealing with the Film Grant Program and Gang Violence.
When we tweaked the Film Grant Program language, it enabled a number of productions to qualify for the program that may not have done so or to the extent they needed in the past. As such, you see a busy production season out at the studios. One way we can further improve the Film Grant Program is to increase the amount of funding. I would like to see the funding increase significantly in the coming years and will advocate to do so.
The second example is that of the Gang Violence bill we passed previously. In discussions with the City of Wilmington and the Police Chief, there is room for improvement and we will be working on it next year during the long session. The revisions needed to this legislation will help our local law enforcement to continue the fight against gang violence and crime in our region.
It’s a tense political atmosphere in Raleigh. What’s one specific bi-partisan issue you feel you could and would work on?
Although it appears to be a tense political atmosphere based upon what you read in the news, I do not see that is the case in the NC Senate. In fact, most legislation reaches consensus by the time it is voted upon and there is wide and bipartisan support for most bills.
There are, however, issues that do create a divide that is many times along party lines or close to it. These are the ones that are reported so they are the ones that garner the most attention. Currently, I am working on a bipartisan and bicameral committee to reform the way we provide education funding in North Carolina – The Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. This is certainly an issue where both Republicans and Democrats agree we need to resolve. I have and will continue to work on this and many other issues related to education and otherwise in a bipartisan and collaborative manner.
Do you feel like water-quality issues in the region have been handled acceptably so far? If not, what steps would you take?
Access to clean water is a basic human right and I think the policies we have implemented and the plans for the future will go a long way to ensuring everyone that they have access to clean water. I introduced the Water Safety Act which established a statewide monitoring network, provide additional funding to DEQ for enforcement of bad actors and to clear up a backlog of permitting, gave the Governor the power to shut down polluters, requires all industry that discharges into our waters to identify and report every compound they intend to discharge into surface waters, provided funding for cities and towns to begin the process of municipal connections for those on contaminated wells (with a provision of reimbursement from the polluter), funding for additional pilot tests to clean PFAS (and GenX in particular) out of the water, funding to UNCW to look into bioaccumulation of GenX in sediments and shellfish, and required polluters to pay for connections to municipal water supplies or whole house filtration in the event of contamination.
As to the statewide monitoring network, Professor Ferguson of Duke University stated the following in a letter to the editor of several publications (the below are excerpts of the letter but not the entire letter).
“The efforts by the NC Legislature this past session have been nothing short of visionary in this regard. As an environmental scientist and associate professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, I want to assure the residents of NC: positive action IS BEING TAKEN to protect their water…
The eventual legislation on water quality protection that was included within the state budget this summer was modified from the original bills after discussion to focus on polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) such as GenX and related compounds. However, even as modified, the monitoring network thus established is without question the most sophisticated and comprehensive emerging pollutant monitoring program for water that has ever been established in the United States.
This action by the NC General Assembly will open our collective eyes to the extent of PFAS pollution in public drinking water statewide. It will provide crucial data to state and federal environmental regulators. It will pave the way for application of technologies to remove these contaminants from water. Finally, it will serve as a model for how states (and nations) should respond to potential chemical hazards in their drinking water sources…”
As for the future, we need to expand the monitoring to include other emerging compounds beyond the 5,000+ compounds that are in the PFAS family (which includes GenX) and focus on toxicology. While there are various government-funded toxicology studies currently in the works on PFAS (and GenX, in particular), we need to look at ways to model the toxicology to streamline the process and get results faster. These results will enable us to determine the correct levels and we can adjust them accordingly.
What role, if any, do you see for the state in beach renourishment?
The state typically funds a portion of beach nourishment projects today as a match to federal funds. However, due to the uncertainty of federal funds in the future, I fought to establish a storm damage mitigation/beach nourishment fund (the “Fund”) at the state level. According to recent studies, the state should maintain between $20 and $40 million dollars in the fund depending upon the availability and extent of a federal match. In addition to the tourism component, beach nourishment is one important part of a comprehensive resilience system as it is an effective tool to prevent erosion and mitigate storm surge risks. We need to establish a stable funding stream into the Fund in the coming long session to increase its balance to provide for the federal match and to offset any decrease in federal funding.
What’s your opinion on the rail-realignment project in Wilmington and the surrounding areas? Is state-level investment warranted?
I support studying it further and advocated for the state to provide funding for feasibility studies. I will continue to advocate for funding on feasibility studies to determine the cost and timeline of any potential realignment. At that point, the state (along with other partners) can determine whether the investment is warranted. While I think the studies will show that relocation is warranted, we will need the results of the various due diligence information and studies to prove out.
North Carolina’s General Assembly banned Medicaid expansion in 2013. Do you think that was a good idea? Why or why not?
I absolutely think we should expand Medicaid Innovation Waiver slots. I also think we need to look at potential expansion in addition to the Innovation Waiver slots but we need to do so in a way that is different than the blanket expansion originally proposed.
As for the decision on Medicaid expansion, we must remember that at that time NC was looking at over $2 billion dollars of debt to the federal government, a $2 billion dollar structural deficit, an education system that saw teacher pay frozen for almost 5 years, and per-pupil spending billions of dollars lower than it is now. NC was in a financial crisis in 2011 and the few years to follow and that was not the time to expand Medicaid in the way that was proposed. Originally, Medicaid was designed for low-income mothers, children, pregnant women, plus the elderly, blind, and disabled – our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. Qualifying for Medicaid was originally based on the condition of either having a severe disability or dependents.
Blanket Medicaid expansion as originally proposed would put traditional program enrollees at greater risk. They will have to compete with a half-million more people for adequate access to health care — 82 percent of whom are able-bodied childless adults. Not only would current Medicaid patients have been potentially squeezed to seek care from a medical provider, but expanding would prioritize people who normally don’t qualify for government assistance over thousands of developmentally disabled people in NC who are currently on Medicaid support waitlists.
Finally, I support expansion of Medicaid Innovation Waiver slots and think we need to look at other systematic ways that we can help our citizens through Medicaid who are not otherwise able to support access to adequate healthcare.
Do you think the shift to the current grant system hurt the local film industry? What can Raleigh do to help reinvigorate Wilmington’s film scene?
The switch to the grant program occurred years before my tenure started in the legislature and we saw a decrease in productions as a result of the shift. When I was elected, I fought to triple the amount of money in the grant program and modify the language in a way that would provide more of an incentive where it was needed to attract productions in NC. As we can now see through a recent article in the Star News, there are multiple productions running and sets are now busy again at the studios. We still have work to do because I would like to see the current grant increased by another $30 million. While I think we have made progress over the last few years, there is still work to do on this front.
Is school safety a state issue? If so, what state-level measures would help address the risk of school shootings?
School safety is an important issue to me as a State Senator and as a father with children in our schools.
Yes, school safety is a state issue. This is accomplished through a partnership between the state, county and local school districts. This is not a new phenomenon though. In 2013, the state budget established the school resource officer grant program which provided $7 million in recurring funds via grants to school districts to hire school resource officers to protect elementary and middle schools. In 2015, the General Assembly included a proactive approach to school safety. The budget directed the Center for Safer Schools to construct and maintain a statewide school risk and response management system and provide guidance to local school districts on hazards to plan and respond to, including intruders on school grounds. It further directed local boards of education to adopt School Risk Management Plans relating to incidents of school violence in coordination with local law enforcement and emergency management, ensuring that schools and law enforcement are ready to respond should a worst-case scenario take place. The budget also required a statewide panic alarm system to launch real-time 911 messaging to public safety answering points.
The 2018 budget built upon previous efforts made in 2013 and 2015 as to school safety. It made a significant investment in mental health support programs for students, including $2 million for community partners to provide mental health-related grants for students in crisis, $3 million in grants for mental health training for school safety employees, and $10 million in mental health grants for personnel.
Instead of just focusing on threat prevention, it was very important to deal with this problem at its core and get children the help they need to make sure we have safe and healthy students in our schools.
Also, the 2018 budget provided $12 million to the School Resource Officer grant program for middle schools and elementary schools. It also fully funded an app for middle schools and high schools in NC that will allow students to confidentially report information to school faculty and law enforcement personnel.
Is education adequately funded at the state level? Are there changes you’d make to the way funding is currently delivered to schools?
Per-pupil funding declined to a low in the 2011-12 school year. Since then, funding has consistently and dramatically increased and will continue to do so along with reforms to improve education at all levels. Since that time, funding has increased billions of dollars with an increase of $700 million dollars in just the last few years. While we have increased funding to education significantly, I suspect that funding will continue to increase. We will have a better idea of adequacy when we revise the formula by which schools are funded. As referenced previously in this questionnaire, we are now looking at changing the current manner in which funding is delivered to schools. Currently, it is a resource allocation method that is complex, cumbersome and not transparent in any matter. We are taking a bi-partisan approach to change the formula to be student-centered. As the funding becomes more transparent and student-focused, we will be able to determine the adequacy of funding from a state, local and federal perspective.
Is North Carolina economically competitive enough? If not, what can Raleigh do to change that?
While lower personal and corporate income tax rates and removal of outdated and duplicative regulations have made NC more attractive to business, we continued efforts to grow the economy through changes to our business incentive programs in order to attract major companies to NC. In particular, we made a number of changes to various incentive programs in 2018 to make NC more competitive. We will need to monitor the results of these changes to make sure we continue to be competitive regionally, nationally and internationally. As we see record lows in unemployment, we also need to work with all levels of our education system (K-12, Community College and University System) to make sure we provide our citizens with the tools to work in all the new jobs created.