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House 117 candidates talk Ecusta Trail, taxes, Medicaid expansion

Dennis Justice responds to a question as Chelsea Walsh (left) and Jennifer Balkcom look on.

The three Republican candidates for the open N.C. House 117 seat made their pitches during a Chamber of Commerce forum on Thursday morning and tackled questions about the Ecusta Trail, Medicaid expansion and the corporate income tax.

Opening statements

Dennis Justice: I’ve been resident here for 42 years. I have deep family roots. Zeb Corn was my great-grandfather. My paternal grandfather was William Leonard Justice, who owned a packing house in Hendersonville. I’ve been involved in politics for 30 years. I’m asking you to kindly ignore the 30 days of sign pollution you’ve seen from all my opponents on all these races and instead focus on the 30 years I have fought for you on the front line. Starting with the 1997 school bond referendum, I was part of a nonpartisan group that defeated that bond, but I was also part of a group to try to come up with alternatives. … I’ve done customer service for over 30 years, and I’m damn good at it. And there’s two things I’ve learned in customer service. Every job is a customer service job. And the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. My focus as your representative is improving on the recreation infrastructure in the state.


Jennifer Capps Balkcom: I’ve been a part of the chamber since 2004. I’ve served on the education and workforce development and I’ve also graduated from the Vision Program in 2017. I help with the Junior Leaders program and I’ve helped in many aspects with my banking industry experience. ... I’m an eighth generation native of Henderson County. I’m a wife. I’m a mom of two boys. Me and my husband run a construction business here in Henderson County, a small construction business. I’m also a community volunteer and a community leader. I’ve been doing that for 20 years. I’ve been in the financial institution industry for 25 years. My main goals are to take those life skills that I have with my family and my work skills and my community service and support Henderson County in Raleigh.

Chelsea Walsh: Many of you may recognize me from running for the City Council race this last fall. I was able to garner a little over 1,000 votes and the way the cards fell left no incumbent in this seat. And knowing how hard I worked for the city council race and the relationships that I built and seeing that many people didn’t realize that they lived in the city limits came to vote for me and were not able to. This was an opportunity for people to really show up and step up and show their support. I grew up in Henderson County. This is where I want to raise a family. It’s where I want to retire. I am self-employed. I work primarily in the financial industry with life insurance, health insurance and retirement products. The reason that I want to do this, I have a brother who suffers from addiction. He’s about 18 months sober. We have a lot of money coming to this county over the next 18 years — $8.8 million has already been earmarked for that. I want to make sure that Henderson County gets what it deserves and it’s allocated properly. I am one of the most relatable people that you will meet on this stage today. I have been involved in this community going through the entire education process from elementary, middle and high school. I was able to earn a four-year degree from Appalachian and I graduated in 2011. One thing that I learned, though, is if we don’t focus on the economic opportunity here in this county, people like me will be forced to leave.” After seven years in Charleston, “I realized that I need to be here. I need to continue to make an impact on this community and serve this community. I volunteered for a campaign about two years ago, and I realized that there’s a lot of changes happening in this county over the next 10, 20 years."

Are you in favor of the construction of the Ecusta trail and will you provide support for the project if elected?

Balkcom: “I am in favor for the Ecusta Trail. I think it will be a benefit to our community as far as the tourism. The only concern I have is maybe the property rights for those people it may involve but I am in favor for the Ecusta Trail.”

Walsh: “I am also in favor of the Ecusta trail. I think it’s going to be bringing great economic opportunity for our community. I know I’ve gone to Greenville and I’ve used the Swamp Rabbit trail. And the fact that we are going to have people here, businesses here, we’re going to be able to connect two different counties. I commend anybody who has worked on this project over the last 10 to 12 years because you have garnered relationships with town council, city council, commissioners, state  House officials, not just from our county but from multiple counties. And it’s exciting to know that relationships we can build across county lines are going to last for decades. … People are going to be able to come here and spend their money. They’re going to use our hotels, our restaurants. They’re going to see how beautiful this community really is. And I think that if we plan properly, especially as they’ve done over the last 12 years, we’re gonna have a great, great, great benefit from having the Ecusta Trail in our backyard."

Justice: "I support the Ecusta Trail and as someone with a sports background and someone who has an elementary education background, let me point out that we have a 33 percent adult obesity rate in this state. I lost my wife 13 years ago and obesity had a lot to do with it. So I absolutely support this project. I do think that the property owners need to get their fair share and if we have to bump up a little more for that then so be it."

Are you in favor or do you oppose a Medicaid expansion in North Carolina?

Walsh: “If we want to talk about our right and our left responses, our Republican and our Democrat responses, the general response as a Republican is say no, continuously. Here’s what I want to educate you on and I think this is very important. There is not one level of Medicaid and when I say that there is Medicaid that is allocated for earmarking lower costs and prescriptions. There is Medicaid that’s allocated for different health conditions. There is Medicaid that is available for saving money on your insurance premiums. There is Medicaid that is available for women who are having babies or children that need dental. So that is the most broad question that you could ask because it’s not just a yes and no question. I believe first that we need to look at the budget and figure out where the funds are going and if there’s an opportunity to reallocate the funds, we need to do that. Two years ago, over 50 percent of the births in North Carolina, were on Medicaid. So to answer your question, yes, maybe no. And I don’t just say that because that’s the most political answer. A lot of people don’t realize that Medicaid is not a black-and-white issue. And we really need to go in and look at the line items and see where the funding is going and how we can save the taxpayers money.”

Justice: “Republicans in North Carolina offered a compromise that involves a work requirement and a copay for some expansion and that would not be allowed today in the Biden administration. We should have 50 states and the District of Columbia competing against each other for the right to develop their own innovative plans. So I’m not in favor of expansion the way to Democrats would want it. As a small business owner and as a self-employed man, I drive for Uber…. I’d like to see some expansion and some help for those of us who are startups because we always love to give out corporate welfare to the big names but we’re not talking about the startups we need to start talking about giving grants to startups, not loans.”

Balkcom: “I agree with Chelsea, I think there’s all different levels as well. As far as expansion goes, I’m not in favor of that. I think the concern is where are we going to find it in the budget.”

Over the past eight years the state has strived to reduce business taxes in order to grow North Carolina businesses and to attract new business investment in jobs. Are you in favor of continuing to build a business friendly tax environment?

Walsh: “Absolutely. So I was doing some research and I found out that North Carolina I think nationwide has some of the lowest corporate tax. So that applauds our General Assembly for being able to accomplish that. The more our business owners have in their own pockets, the more they can grow, the more they can hire, the more they can give pay raises, the more they can give back to this community by way of educating our kids by providing better lifestyles for their employees and by giving to our nonprofits. … I think that when we allow people to do what they want to do with their money, they become more giving. I think money makes you more of the person that you already are. And if you have a servant’s heart, if you have a generous heart and you’re able to keep more of your money, you’re going to want to give away that money in return. So I am all about reducing the corporate tax and about reducing the income tax. I think by 2027 it’s going to go down to 3.99 percent for the statewide income tax, and I’m in favor of reducing it even more.”

Justice: “The issue with me is not the taxes. The best economic plan, the best foreign policy plan you can have, the best policy you can have period in any level of government is to be debt free. … We should be paying off our debts and I want to say something about job growth. I’d rather be an employer than an employee and yet all the grants go to big businesses but don’t go to startups. It should be easier for a startup to get a grant than it is to send your kids to college.”

Balkcom: “So am in favor? I run a small business so I know what it’s like to pay taxes and I pay a lot of them. So yes, I’m in favor of continuing to do that. Our current representative, Tim Moffitt, has taken on that seriously, and I as your representative will continue to do that as well.”

Closing statements

Balkcom: “I just want to thank everyone for your questions. I hope we did a good job of answering them to give you some results to make the best choice. I hope we’ve earned your vote. But thank you all for coming and spending your morning with us and hope I have earned your vote.”

Walsh: “I’ll be at the polls if you guys have any additional questions for me, I’m happy to answer all of them. … I really want to work for you guys. This is not about me and my special interest or pet projects or the things that I specifically want to work on for myself and my family. This is about you guys. And it’s about going out and having the time to be able to communicate and relay the message not just to Raleigh, but make sure that we have the relationship with our council members, our commissioners, our other state officials. I hope and pray — and this is gonna open up a can of worms down the road —but our professional firefighters in the county need state retirement. They don’t have that and we are losing firefighters every single day and if we don’t have our first responders in this area, we’re not going to be able to keep our area safe as it continues to grow. … And so you’ve got to ask yourself, Who are you going to hire for this job? It is a big commitment. It is four hours one way, it is four hours back and sometimes there are emergency sessions and somebody who you choose to represent you in Raleigh has got to have the time for it., has got to have the heart for it, has got to have the energy for it, and they’ve got to be ready to go now.”

Justice: “This is not a networking job. This is a lawmaking job and before we get to spend other people’s money, we better have our laws correct and we better ever governance correct or things will get fouled up. As I mentioned in my opening comments is the gambling bills that I care about, that’s the most important thing for me. Before we do any expansion we should do what the original study called for, which is create a real Gaming Commission and consolidate all gaming laws under that. … I’m probably the only Republican who was absolutely in favor of that casino in Kings Mountain because I’m from the working class. We’re very happy. It’s faster to get to that casino from this room than it is Harrah’s at Cherokee. … I’ve been in this for 30 years. In 2000, I was just 633 votes away being a county commissioner. … If you want to win independents, infrastructure wins independents. … Y’all go down and go and vote for me because I’m the one who did not pollute this county with campaign signs. I think it’s a better approach. I’ve shown for 30 years I put what’s right ahead of what’s right for me.”