Local leaders quiz lawmakers

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 13, 2014 

Over lunch on June 2, Johnston County’s legislative delegation fielded questions about education, Medicaid, fracking and whether Johnston was rural or urban.

The county’s chambers of commerce held their annual legislative luncheon on the Smithfield campus of Johnston Community College. About 80 chamber members attended, and they had plenty of questions for Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield and Sens. Brent Jackson of Autryville and Buck Newton of Wilson.

County Commissioner Ted Godwin brought up a long-running gripe – lottery money state lawmakers are keeping in Raleigh instead of sending to counties as promised. Godwin said Johnston needs that money to build and repair school buildings.

“I feel you’re pain, and I think you’re right,” Daughtry said. The Smithfield Republican said his bid to send more lottery dollars to counties did not survive last year’s budget process.

Chris Johnson, the county’s industry recruiter, bemoaned Johnston’s loss of rural status for economic-development purposes. The change to urban, made by a state agency, has cost Johnston access to some economic-development grants.

“That is an issue that we recognize is needed to change,” Jackson said, agreeing that much of Johnston remains rural despite the change in status. He said lawmakers are looking at other ways to define rural, perhaps by ZIP code instead of county lines.

Three people asked about fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process of getting natural gas from underground shale by blasting it with high-pressured water. The General Assembly recently lifted North Carolina’s moratorium, and a panel is writing the regulatory rules. One questioner wanted to know how the state will make sure gas companies have enough water for the drilling process. Another wanted to know how North Carolina would educate people about fracking.

Newton, who backs fracking because of its potential to create jobs, said an adequate water supply should not be a concern because the water from fracking can be recycled. As for educating the public, Newton said that would be be up to the natural-gas industry.

A third questioner wanted to know how the state will guarantee that fracking is safe. Newton said fracking includes water testing, and the state, he added, has been at work on regulations for years. “There has been a lot of thought, a lot of robust work and regulatory effort in going to make sure we don’t have to worry about that,” he said.

David Johnson, president of Johnston Community College, said he hopes to see the state steer more money to the community college system. “Help the community college system to be prepared to help people go to work in those emerging technologies,” he said.

Newton said he supported helping train North Carolinians for jobs in new industries. “There’s no reason why North Carolinians can’t be doing this work,” he said, referring to energy. That’s why lawmakers want to devote revenue from off-shore drilling to the community colleges, Newton said.

Sherry Harris, head of Reach Out Johnston County, asked the legislators to not cut Medicaid for the long-term disabled. “When you start to cut for the elderly and disabled who are already in long-term care, that is very devastating to them and their families,” she said. Long-term care is a final destination for many, she said, and those people can’t go out and work.

Daughtry said he agreed and added that he feels the same about the mentally ill. “We cannot overlook those people because they can’t help themselves,” he said.

Before taking questions, each guest had a chance to address the audience. The three talked about how they are proud of the state budget. “Some say we tweaked (the budget) a lot, but we stayed within our means,” Jackson said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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