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State Senate Candidates Cover COVID Response, Legislative Topics

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Oct 21, 2020
Two candidates vying for the District 9 seat in the N.C. Senate discussed issues for the region Wednesday, including views on business recovery and actions at the state level in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Incumbent candidate Sen. Harper Peterson, D-New Hanover, and Republican Michael Lee, who previously held the Senate seat, took the stage during the Business Journal’s Power Breakfast series covering the 2020 election. Lee served two terms in the state Senate, from 2014 to 2018, and ran against Peterson, who two years ago beat Lee in a close race.

Because of the limited audience size, the Power Breakfast was streamed online. Click here to watch the full video.

During Wednesday’s question-and-answer session, Peterson said he believes Gov. Roy Cooper has taken a proactive approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting public health at the top of the list.

“Obviously if you don't have a healthy community and our workplace and our schools in our communities, business will suffer,” Peterson said. “And this is … very uncharted territory, but I think the governor has held the line looking at the state statistics, facts, relying on scientists."

Lee noted the difficulties going into the pandemic but said more work needs to be done on the regulatory side to get the economy going.

“What we need to do is really get our businesses open with reasonable regulations in a safe way, [and] our schools,” Lee said. “And then we need to look at recovery once we kind of see where we are from a budgetary perspective, really supporting small businesses, supporting institutions like Genesis Block, who are really working on some empowerment processes in their incubator.”

Lee said there needs to be planning to find no-interest or low-interest loans, and ways to provide more workforce training and get funding to incubators and educational institutions.

“We need to have a plan, and we need to execute on it. And a lot of that's going to have to do with your legislators being able to bring funding back to our area. That has not happened in two years,” Lee said.

Peterson said he would reintroduce a bill to help the hospitality industry through the crisis.

“That was $50 million for restaurants, small independent restaurants, throughout the state that hire hundreds of thousands of workers. It was a loan and grant program to keep these businesses afloat through the summer when they are most profitable so that they get through the pandemic. And I will reintroduce that [bill]," Peterson said. "That was also $75 million for our small hotels.”

Peterson said he would also reintroduce legislation for a GenX task force that would focus not only on the chemical tied to The Chemours Co. operations in Fayetteville, but other chemicals, and make industries responsible for the damages that have been done to the environment.

State-level funding for education, transportation and more coming in at the local level, is a key issue for Lee, he said.

“I'm uniquely qualified to vote yes on the budget and to have hundreds of millions of dollars flow into our area because people are suffering right now,” Lee said. "So that's what I'll do. I'll vote yes on the budget, so we can get funding for our area."

The candidates also talked about the county's deal with Novant Health to buy the New Hanover Regional Medical Center health system.

Peterson, who has been outspoken about his opposition to the sale, said that he is still concerned about the issue.

"When you go to your shareholders and explain to them in clear terms, what you were doing and why you were doing, a plausible reason; we haven't done that with the citizens of New Hanover County in the region. This is their hospital. They voted on it. It's their dollars, and they shall have every right to vote on his future, period. This process has been flawed," Peterson said.

Lee said he would be a leader and work professionally on the hospital issue.

"So Harper wrote a two- or three-page letter excoriating everyone involved in the process. That's not what you do as a leader. That's not what you do when you're trying to work with people who represent our community," Lee said.

Film incentives are another issue impacting the local economy, the candidates agreed. But they differed on the best way to go about them.

Lee said that when he served in the state Senate, North Carolina's tax incentive program had changed to a film grant program, adding that he worked to get more funding in that grant program and get the funding recurrent every year. 

"Why is that important? You're business owners out there. You know you have to plan for the next year and year after. So if you coming here with a production, you had to know that that money was going to be there for next year. Well, that's not the way it was set up. And that's what I accomplished," Lee said, adding that he hopes, if elected, that he would be successful in getting more funding to the program.

The movie industry, Peterson said, needs to be able to count on state funding.

"The grant program doesn't work. It's an obstacle. It puts a ceiling on what we can be. We were a leader in the film industry 10 years ago and 30 years ago. We can again gain that position worldwide," Peterson said. "But it's going to take an open opportunity tax credit incentive program, where they put money into our community and they get money back."

Also at Wednesday's Power Breakfast the six candidates vying for three seats on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners also weighed in on local issues. Click here for coverage of their discussion.
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