Wednesday, June 12, 2024

2020 Election: Michael Lee (R), seeks to reclaim Senate District 9 seat [Free read]

State Senator Michael Lee is running for his second full term after being appointed in 2014 and winning elections in 2014 and 2016. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy North Carolina General Assembly)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Former Senator Michael Lee is looking to reclaim his seat serving N.C. Senate District 9.

In 2018, Lee lost his re-election bid to Democrat Senator Harper Peterson by just 231 votes.

Related: With roles reversed, Lee and Peterson face off again for N.C. Senate seat

Now, Lee and Peterson will face off again for the seat, with Lee hoping to be elected for a third term after winning in 2014 and 2016.

Early voting is underway. Same-day registration is available during the early voting period, which ends Oct. 31. Election day is Nov. 3. Check your voter registration and county elections office to confirm polling locations, dates, and hours.

Port City Daily emailed both candidates the below questionnaire and will run their responses ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Port City Daily edited responses for spelling and grammatical errors only.

Port City Daily (PCD): How would you grade Governor Roy Cooper’s response to the pandemic (A-F)? Did the state’s executive branch overstep its authority or act in the interest of public health? What, if anything, do you think should have been done differently?

Michael Lee (ML): I’m not going to grade Governor Cooper’s pandemic response. People are suffering from COVID-19, and people are suffering from our response to it as well. While I disagree with how he handled closing schools (should have been left to each local district) — and what appeared to be an arbitrary decision in what businesses he allowed to re-open, how much and when — nitpicking the past now does nothing for the future. If there is any good that can come out of this pandemic, it can be found by looking forward. 

My focus as state senator is going to be on the immediate future of New Hanover County. People here will need help; people here will need jobs.

The NC Chamber endorsed me over Harper Peterson because I am better qualified and more capable of creating jobs in our region, and building our education system so that it produces young people who are qualified and confident in their abilities entering the workforce.

I also consistently brought hundreds of millions of dollars in local funding to our region as state senator.

Harper Peterson has failed to do any of the above. He’s a politician, but he’s not a lawmaker, and that has hurt New Hanover County over the past two years.

PCD: Do you support the current flexibility given to the state’s elementary schools to reopen, or do you think there should be more concrete recommendations and guidelines? Should this same level of flexibility be extended to all grade levels?

ML: We need to get our children back in schools, as quickly and safely as possible. I strongly support decision-making flexibility and more control of school systems at the local level. Given the governor’s mandates, there is little flexibility granted to local boards of education, the elected body best situated to evaluate the risks and benefits involved in any reopening plan. School reopening should be made by these local boards of education as they are in the best position to evaluate the health and safety protocols needed to analyze the risks and benefits of their district, students, parents and teachers.

PCD: Are you satisfied with the state’s current grant-based film incentive program? Should the state aim to bring back its previous refundable tax credits to entice filmmakers to bring projects back to the region?

ML: When in the NC Senate, I tripled the film incentive to over $60,000,000.00 in each biennium budget and made it permanent. I also revised the legislation, in cooperation with local stakeholders in New Hanover County, to make it easier to access the funding. As you have seen in many articles over the last year or two, that work has film and TV productions returning to North Carolina because of that hard work and planning. Harper Peterson has done absolutely nothing.

If I return to the NC Senate, I’ll continue working on increasing the funds available film and TV production incentives, regardless of the format in which they are extended.

If Harper Peterson returns to the NC Senate, he’ll do the same thing he did this term: nothing.

PCD: Over the past decade, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has lost more than one-third of its funding. Should the state increase funding for DEQ? Do you have a stance on the Hardison Amendment?

ML: First, funding should absolutely be increased to address the various recognized needs. There are many environmental challenges in North Carolina relating to our water resources, air quality and natural environment. In fact, when I was in the NC Senate, North Carolina spent over $10 million in response to the PFAS issue in our state.

Second, as to prior funding reductions (most of which occurred prior to my tenure in the NC Senate), NCDENR was divided into two separate departments – the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A significant portion of the reductions related to positions relating to DNR was transferred out of DEQ and into DNR. So, while there was a reduction in funding to NCDENR, a large portion of such reduction was related to positions, due to the fact that these positions were transferred to DNR.

In addition, certain divisions were consolidated (including the Division of Water Resources absorbing employees and operational duties of the Division of Water Quality to streamline, and avoid duplication of, efforts — now one division manages both water quality and quantity). Some funding and positions were eliminated for reasons unrelated to the restructure into DEQ and DNR.

From 2008-2018, air emissions dropped dramatically as a result of the Clean Smokestacks Act (“CSA”) (reducing nitrogen oxide emissions by 80% and sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 90%). For the first time in 18 years, NC achieved compliance with all national air quality standards in 2016. As a result, DEQ lost positions to some extent from its own success.

Finally, almost all states have some form of what you refer to as the Hardison Amendment. North Carolina’s version has a significant difference, in that there is a clear exemption when agencies need to deal with issues that pose a “threat to public health, safety, or welfare” or when the legislature acts (as with the Water Safety Act). In those instances, the regulatory authorities can take whatever action is needed to protect our citizens. This safety valve ensures protection of North Carolina citizens while providing consistency in regulation.

PCD: Should the state increase teacher pay? Why or why not?

ML: Yes. I voted for a pay increase every single year while I was in the NC Senate.

Harper Peterson also said that teachers should be paid more … but he voted against raising teacher pay multiple times in two years.

During my senate service, we started recovering on teacher pay, after our state bottomed out in teacher pay under Governor Perdue and during the 2008 recession. By my last year in the NC Senate, we’d closed much of the gap on the national average and were ranked second in the Southeast. NC teacher salaries have risen at the third highest rate in the entire country over the past five years. According to the NEA, the average teacher salary for the 2018-19 school year was approximately $53,975.00.

North Carolina is now ranked 29th in the nation for average teacher salary, up from 34th last year. If elected, I will continue to raise teacher pay every year (as I have done in the past and to continue to move up in the rankings), reinstitute “masters pay,” and provide other incentives for teacher recruitment in North Carolina.

Harper Peterson voted against teacher pay increases during his time in the NC Senate. There is much more work to be done and unlike Harper Peterson, I will continue to increase teacher pay.

PCD: If elected, what local issues do you plan to advocate for at the state level?

ML: New Hanover County has been shortchanged by Harper Peterson’s shortsightedness over the past two years, so a lot of work needs to be done.

My initial focus will be on creating jobs and rebuilding a robust local economy, as well as on continuing to improve education in our community and state. I will continue my efforts in film, where I tripled the film incentive program to over $60,000,000 in the biennium budget and made it permanent. Harper has not accomplished anything with the film program since he has been in Raleigh.

I will continue to fight for clean water and to protect our valuable environmental resources that make our area such an amazing place to live. I will start with a bill to increase funding for water quality research and enforcement as well as to pressure the governor to use the power granted in the Water Safety Act to shut down those that pollute our streams and rivers.

Also, I’ll restore the local project funding that Harper Peterson voted down in the most recent budget, including tens of millions of dollars in funding for UNCW, CFCC, the City of Wilmington, our beach communities, beach renourishment, shallow draft inlet dredging, local school repairs and program expansion at every level. I will also ensure that our local communities receive the storm damage mitigation funds, disaster-hardening, harbor and port-repair funding we need.

Harper Peterson picked politics over people last year, and tanked every penny of local budget funding that could have helped New Hanover County.

I always remembered that my first obligation is to my community when I served in the senate. That approach allowed me to focus on finding the best solutions and maximizing available funding resources for New Hanover County, instead of getting caught up in political squabbles like Harper Peterson. 

PCD: If elected, do you plan to advocate for stronger water quality monitoring and contaminant limitations of public drinking water and discharges? If yes, what specific solutions do you think are needed at the state level to address the region’s water quality concerns? How do you expect to interact with companies such as DuPont and Chemours, which have been accused of contributing to water pollution in New Hanover County?

ML: Absolutely. Harper Peterson voted against over $1,000,000 in water quality testing last year for political reasons and that was wrong. Access to clean water is a basic human right. When in the NC Senate, I introduced the Water Safety Act, which established: (1) a statewide monitoring network (see; (2) additional funding to DEQ for enforcement of bad actors and to clear up a backlog of permitting, (3) the governor’s power to shut down polluters; (4) all industry to identify and report every compound they intend to discharge into surface waters; (5) 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); (6) funding for pilot tests to clean PFAS (and GenX in particular) out of the water; (7) 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; (8) much more.

Professor Ferguson of Duke University stated the following as to the Water Safety Act in a letter to the editor of several publications (the below is a small excerpt of the 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.

[T]he 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.”

When re-elected, we need to expand the monitoring to include other emerging compounds beyond just PFAS (which includes GenX) and make sure we are punishing polluters and other bad actors. I have never met with or talked to Chemours or Dupont. To say differently is simply false and undermines legislation that helps everyone in our county and state. My family lives here. This is our county and our water. I will always protect families in New Hanover County.

As for interaction with any company that pollutes our waters, they should be shut down and made to pay for any damage they have caused. The governor and Harper Peterson have not done that. In fact, the Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority [sic] had to step in and file suit because our elected officials have simply not done their job. 

PCD: Do you support a national health insurance plan for all Americans? Why or why not? What will you do to bring down healthcare costs and help all NC citizens receive coverage?

ML: While not an issue in the NC Senate race, I do not support socialized medicine where the government provides health insurance for the nation. There are many reasons, not the least of which is that it would shift a fifth of GDP into government spending, provide bureaucratic administration of all health care, lead to limited supply of capacity to treat patients and, ultimately, limit access to care as a result.

One of the first things we must do is to incorporate telehealth into the modern healthcare delivery arsenal. Previous to COVID-19, there were a variety of federal and state barriers to the use of telehealth and served to hinder adoption rates. As you know, the federal government approved the use of telehealth services as a part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. We now need to make sure that North Carolina adopts similar and permanent regulations to allow for telehealth initiatives to provide better access to quality care and bring down costs.

Further, we need to provide guidance and incentivize the use of artificial intelligence systems in the fight against chronic disease. It is estimated that the rising chronic health-care conditions account for 75% of the nation’s health-care costs, and this is one area for which we need to focus. There are a variety of other initiatives that were promoted while I was in the NC Senate that will be coming to fruition in the next few years as our state begins to focus on a capitated Medicaid delivery system, providing incentives for positive outcomes rather than fee for service healthcare. This transition began while I was in the NC Senate and should be rolling out soon.

As far as healthcare coverage, we need to look at plans like that initiated (but not yet passed) last year by the legislature that provided a safety net for those who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough for private insurance. I will review the pending legislation and support efforts to fill in the coverage gap for these citizens. 

PCD: How would you rate the economic health of southeastern NC, and what would you like to see happen to strengthen these numbers?

ML: UNCW recently gave an economic update on our local economy. We are in a tenuous spot. Southeastern NC is essentially a tale of two economies, and one pandemic. Key industries and contributors to New Hanover County are suffering terribly from the pandemic — such as bars, restaurants, other small businesses, non-profits, museums, hospitality, and all travel-related sectors. Even if we come to grips with this virus within the next few months, recovery for some of our local businesses and non-profits will still be a long time in the making if recovery is even attainable.

Other areas of local industry, particularly areas that allow employees to work outside with good social distancing, such as construction, or work from home, have been much less affected. However, every part of our local economy has felt ripple effects from the shutdowns, and some of the hardest hit industries employ people who can least afford the shock we’ve absorbed.

As far as strengthening our numbers, the first and most important step is reopening as much of our community, as wisely and safely as we can — and as quickly as we can!

I value personal responsibility, and I trust the people of New Hanover County. It’s going to be up to us to help ourselves – to be smart, to be careful, and to be brave enough to reopen and kickstart our economy. If we marry common sense and common courage, we can help everyone in our community get back on their feet. When back in the legislature, we will work to provide our small businesses whatever programs are needed to support New Hanover County businesses and non-profits to come back stronger than ever!

PCD: The N.C. Division of Employment Security was slow to respond to millions of unemployment insurance claims filed this year in response to the pandemic. What would you do to address such a logjam in the face of a future crisis?

ML: Even before the challenges related to COVID, the current governor’s administration was last in the nation in the timeliness of paying our unemployment benefits. Since the pandemic began, this administration has simply failed to meet the challenge, and desperate North Carolinians have paid the price for that. That must change.

As to the legislative side of the unemployment insurance equation, thanks to prudent financial planning when I was in the NC Senate, there was over $4 billion in the unemployment insurance reserve when I left office in 2018. Today, there is approximately $2.3 billion in the state’s unemployment insurance fund, even after all the distributions during the pandemic.

PCD: How do you perceive the evolution of the UNC System Board of Governors in recent years? In your eyes, has the board become overly politicized? If elected, what would you do to ensure the interests of students and universities are represented in good faith by the board of governors?

ML: The UNC Board of Governors (“BOG”) appears to have taken a more proactive role in serving as the UNC System’s Board of Directors. While I realize this has caused some controversy in several respects through the years, the board members I have encountered are spending significant time, energy and effort on one of the most well recognized and regarded higher education systems in the world.

The individual views of members of the BOG are always going to align more with the legislative body that appoints them. The viewpoint and priorities of the current BOG are more conservative than they were under appointees chosen by a legislature controlled by Democrats. That’s not a reflection of politicization; that’s a reflection of the voters’ current will in the legislature.

I believe the current BOG is acting in good faith. They care about the best interests of students and universities. Disagreement over direction is healthy, provided it is resolved in the best interest of our students and state.

However, if I find that an individual board member — or an entire board — has failed to act in good faith and in the best interests of our North Carolina universities, I would vote to remove them from the board, regardless of party or ideology.

PCD: Can you speak to your position on N.C.’s redistricting process? In your opinion, are there significant reforms needed regarding the processes by which N.C.’s congressional lines are drawn? If so, do you have any proposals?

ML: When I was in the NC Senate, I never engaged in redistricting my own NC Senate District. Harper Peterson changed the district lines of his own district to include more Democrats and many less Republicans. That was wrong. Once again, his actions directly conflict with what he says.

In an ideal world, there would be an independent redistricting process that provided the will of the citizens as to the districts. The NC Constitution requires the districts to be drawn by the legislature, as our forefathers contemplated a representative democracy could accomplish such a result. Many states and many of us in North Carolina have struggled with how to create an “independent” process. I feel confident we can accomplish it and then we will need to ask the citizens of North Carolina to vote on a constitutional amendment to change the current language in our state constitution to allow for it.

PCD: Should localities and municipalities have the ability to enact laws that differ from N.C. legislation? This issue has come up with statue removal and civil rights legislation as of late, but could also be applicable to other, not yet challenged areas of the law.

ML: In some instances, yes, and in other instances, no.  There are 100 counties and 552 municipalities in North Carolina, and each of them has the ability (granted by the legislature) to enact a variety of local laws (ordinances). They look at the law through the lens of what is best for their jurisdiction. The North Carolina legislature looks at the law through the lens of what is best for North Carolina, as a whole. In many areas of law, it is important that our state have consistent, general application of laws. This is true, for example, with respect to many of our laws relating to health, safety and business regulation.  There would be significant confusion and unfairness if each municipality in New Hanover County could each make their own laws in these areas.

Municipalities and counties are not sovereign states — they have no inherent power — the North Carolina legislature determines what rulemaking authority they can exercise. That is the “legal” rule, but it is also a practical rule. As such, the state legislature is the proper body (and best choice) for determining whether municipalities and counties should be granted the right to enact laws on a subject, and, if so, whether those local ordinances can vary from statewide laws.

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