Election 2020: Howard, Townsend talk issues in 77th District race
By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — While Rep. Julia Howard wishes to continue promoting tax incentives to recruit businesses to the district, challenger Keith Townsend wants an economy where “working class people have a chance.”
After serving more than 30 years in the state House, Howard is seeking her 17th term to represent House District 77, which includes Rowan and Davie counties. She’s being challenged by Townsend, a Democrat from Mount Ulla.
Townsend foresees more economic development in the district after the state’s tax laws are changed, adding that the General Assembly has over the years eliminated the earned income tax credit and estate tax.
The earned income tax credit, according to the IRS, can be given to singles who earned between $15,000 to a little more than $50,000, or families earning between $21,000 to nearly $56,000, depending on the number of dependents claimed.
“I think the best thing we can do is to give working class people a chance,” he said. “If you want to stimulate the economy, help the people who don’t have the resources because they will immediately put that into the economy. They don’t have any other option. They need it then. The need is right in front of them.”
Townsend also expressed concern with Howard’s part in the amount of additional money given to unemployed workers in the state amidst the pandemic. When the state budget was passed in September, lawmakers only increased the state’s share of benefits by an additional $50 per week. And while he’s sure some may have taken advantage of such a program, the “vast majority of the people on a program like that are on there because they need it.”
Howard said tax incentives must continue to be pushed in the district, adding that Rowan County presents a prime area for jobs and such incentives.
She noted COVID-19 will continue to be an issue for lawmakers to address. Because of that, broadband expansion also will continue to remain a major issue, particularly with many children learning virtually from home. She mentioned progress already achieved with broadband expansion, which includes the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant passed in 2018. That grant program incentivizes and pushes for broadband growth in rural areas. In early September, Gov. Roy Cooper announced an additional $4 million in supplemental GREAT grant funding through the COVID-19 Recovery Act. Additionally, part of the 2020-21 budget includes about $30 million for broadband expansion.
As a retired history teacher who taught at West Rowan High School, Townsend says he’s is concerned with funding for public schools. He said funding and resources have been undermined, particularly with voucher programs such as opportunity scholarships. While it’s a program that means well, he said, money is being siphoned to private schools from public schools. Instead, he proposes private schools should use private sources of funding and grants.
He notes that, while religious schools are within their right to accept or reject students based on “moral clauses,” it becomes problematic when, for example, LGBTQ+ students may not be accepted despite their parents are still paying taxes for those vouchers.
“They’re simply shifting resources and children into the private sector and out of the public schools,” he said. “(Public schools) are one of our great institutions. We really are resegregating schools themselves.”
Townsend supports the expansion of Medicaid and notes it’s something that works to everyone’s advantage and something rural areas need.
“A lot of times Republicans will pat themselves on the back about how frugal they are,” he said. “They talk about their rainy day fund. I saw in March they had $1.2 billion in the rainy day fund. That’s supposed to be for rainy days. Well, it’s pouring down rain on many North Carolinians right now.”
Additionally, he noted North Carolinians still pay taxes on the Medicaid program, jointly funded by the federal and state government, that “they’re not able to benefit from.”
Townsend said he feels for business owners during this time, but agrees with Cooper’s response to the pandemic and said dynamics must be evaluated before forcing reopenings, particularly as some health experts predict the pandemic may get worse before it gets better.
Howard said she believes, if done carefully, people can go back to work and “do the things that they need to do in a safe manner.”
Unlike some of her Republican colleagues who have criticized the governor’s COVID-19 response, Howard said she believes Cooper has done the best that he could.
“Far be it for me to be critical because I certainly wouldn’t have known the right thing to do,” she said. “Nobody knew (in March), and we still don’t know everything. I know it was very harmful to some businesses, but I believe with all my heart that Roy Cooper did the best he could — made the best decisions that he could at the time.”
Nonetheless, she’s optimistic the numbers are improving and credits Cooper with lifting restrictions in the economy.
While Howard said she couldn’t name a strength of her opponent since she’s never met him, Townsend said he commends her decades-long dedication to public service.
But Townsend wants to bring new ideas to the district.
“I can’t wave a wand and push them all through, but I’d be willing to work for them right away,” he said.
With Howard, “what you see is what you get,” she said, adding that there’s more to being a legislator than pinning a legislative pin on a jacket and driving to Raleigh.
“You’re there to help resolve problems and create an atmosphere that is for the betterment of all the people.”
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.
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