North Carolina Senate hopefuls spar over economy

U.S Senator Kay Hagan, right, works the crowd outside of her campaign field office September 19, 2014 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
U.S Senator Kay Hagan, right, works the crowd outside of her campaign field office September 19, 2014 in Chapel Hill, N.C. MCT

Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate, says he’d take his conservative revolution to Washington if he wins next week and try to help shrink the federal government.

Sen. Kay Hagan, the Democrat Tillis is hoping to unseat, says cuts Tillis already made in the state as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives have hurt the middle class.

While economic issues at times have been eclipsed by Ebola, terrorism and other concerns, they’re never far from voters’ minds.

A High Point University poll of likely North Carolina voters, released Thursday, found that the economy carried the most weight with them and that many were pessimistic. The economy was the single top issue of 35 percent of voters, outranking health care, education, terrorism and other issues. And among likely voters or those who already voted, 31 percent thought they were better off economically than a year ago, while 45 percent said they were worse off and 23 percent said neither better nor worse.

At the same time, however, consumer confidence this week went up to its highest level since October 2007, before the Great Recession. And the government announced Thursday that the economy grew at a healthy 3.5 percent since July.

Tillis presents himself as a former businessman who led a conservative revolution in state government that cut taxes, spending and regulations, which resulted in reduced unemployment and an improved business environment.

“In spite of the failed economic policies enacted by President Obama and Sen. Hagan, North Carolina has created hundreds of thousands of jobs over the last few years through common sense pro-growth policies,” Tillis said in a written response to questions.

Hagan says Tillis gave tax cuts to the wealthy that resulted in cuts to education, and that he’s “rigged the system against the middle class in the General Assembly.”

“A strong education system is the key to a sound economy, but Speaker Tillis cut $500 million from education to give a tax cut to the wealthy,” she said in a written response.

The legislature’s 2013 increase in education spending was comparable to previous years, but state school officials said it was $482 million short of what was needed to factor in the enrollment of more students. As far as Hagan’s claim of “a tax cut to the wealthy,” the legislature changed the tax code in 2013 that resulted in reduced taxes for everyone, but more so for the affluent than the low income.

Hagan also criticizes Tillis for not supporting a federal minimum hourly wage increase proposal from $7.25 to $10.10; a decision by the General Assembly not to expand Medicaid, the insurance for low-income people, to 500,000 people under the Affordable Care Act; and legislative cuts to state unemployment insurance that made the state ineligible for federal unemployment insurance.

The differences between the two Senate candidates also extend to broader issues about the role of government on economic issues. Tillis sides with congressional Republicans who want to see major changes.

“I believe that the federal government is a roadblock to achieving the American Dream in far too many instances, and that we owe it to future generations to pass a balanced budget amendment, rein in wasteful spending and get our debt under control,” Tillis said in an email message.

But what waste should be cut? That’s not clear.

Tillis replied by email only that “there is a tremendous amount of taxpayer money wasted every day by Washington” and that he would “work toward cutting waste and identifying efficiencies so we work towards a leaner, yet more efficient government.”

His campaign website says he would work to “shrink the size of our federal government to its core constitutional role so the private sector can thrive.”

That actual shape of that role isn’t spelled out. Tillis said that the country should “make sure we’re investing in the core functions of the government, especially national defense.”

The conservative Heritage Foundation has said on its website that getting back to the core would mean areas such as health care, education, transportation, criminal law enforcement and homeland security would be better handled at the state and local level, instead of by the federal government.

Tillis also supports a “cut, cap and balance” approach. A Republican bill by that name passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in 2011, but died in the Senate. It would have required deep spending cuts immediately, caps on future spending and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The Obama administration said the approach would lead to significant cuts to education, research and other programs and could lead to severe cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Tillis also says that President Barack Obama and Hagan “have supported failed spending programs like Obamacare, the stimulus, and the bailout of Wall Street banks.”

Hagan voted for the economic stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans refer to derisively as Obamacare.

Mainstream economists generally think the stimulus and the bank rescue were two factors that actually helped the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession. Other factors included the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler and a payroll tax holiday that put more money into people's pockets that circulated back into the economy. The federal aid to banks and the auto industry began under the Bush administration in 2008.

Another difference between the two is over equal pay for women. Hagan often talks about it. Polls show she has a significant advantage among women voters, while Tillis has one with men. He has said that the law already guarantees equal pay. Hagan says revisions are needed for further protections.

She supported the Democratic-sponsored Paycheck Fairness Act, which would require businesses to show that wage discrepancies between men and women are not based on gender. It also bans retaliation against workers who reveal their wages. Republicans opposed it as a show vote, and it did not passed the Senate.

The chamber did, however, pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, and Hagan voted for it. It extended the time in which a person could sue for pay discrimination in response to changes made in a 2007 Supreme Court ruling.

Kevin G. Hall of the Washington Bureau contributed.

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