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Jobs? Debt? What's real? N.C. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker chimes in

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My first impression of Sharon Decker, whom Gov. Pat McCrory appointed as secretary of commerce: positive. Heading for the restaurant where some news people were meeting her for lunch, I saw Decker stooped over one of Raleigh's wretched pay-to-park stations, her press aide at her side. She didn't leave this menial task to her aide. Moreover, her aide was—and I hesitate to use the word, for fear it will ruin them with the McCrory gang—a Democrat.

Decker is a political independent. She started at Duke Power, now Duke Energy, around the same time as McCrory and rose higher, becoming its youngest vice president. But unlike McCrory, who retained his sinecure at Duke while he was also mayor of Charlotte, Decker had the gumption to leave the Duke mothership for foundation work. And in 1999, she took a real private-sector job as president of the Doncaster division of Tanner Companies, a clothing and textile firm headquartered in Rutherfordton, N.C.

Rutherfordton (the proper pronunciation, per my wife's relatives and Decker, is Rufd'ton) is a dying, albeit picturesque textile town west of Charlotte. Decker her husband and four children live there on a farm. When she talks about how the state can spur jobs in agribusiness and new manufacturing jobs to replace those lost in textiles and furniture, it's with genuine passion and insight.

Before McCrory pitched the commerce job, Decker was on a different path entirely. A leader in the Christian nonprofit world, she was working on a graduate degree in divinity at Gardner-Webb University and did an internship as a chaplain at the University of Virginia. The study of spiritual formation—our own and our society's—was driving her.

Naturally, then, Decker was asked how she views Moral Mondays, the swelling protests against Republican policies enacted by McCrory and the General Assembly. Do these policies, which hurt the poor and the needy, violate Christian morality?

She didn't say yes. But she couldn't really say no, either.

"One, I think it's important that folks speak up. I encourage that," Decker began. "It grieves me to see folks without work and to see people challenged to make it economically."

Already she was ahead of McCrory, who dismissed the protesters as "outsiders" to whom he would "not back down."

Decker, whose usual delivery is rapid-fire, took a breath before continuing: "I am reminded," she said, "at a very deep faith level, and I feel very strongly about this, that in all the holy books I know anything about, that the call is for people who believe to care for those who cannot care for themselves."

Thank you.

Faith communities must be a voice for the poor, Decker added. "And I think there's a role for government in these circumstances too."

A role? "But we can't go deeper and deeper in debt," Decker said.

Oh, well. She was off spiritual formation now and onto a Republican talking point, and a phony one at that. But I still have my good first impression.

The fact is, North Carolina isn't sinking deeper in debt. We are rated AAA by all of the major credit-rating agencies, one of just nine states in that lofty category and one of four—according to Decker's Department of Commerce—to be rated AAA continuously for the last 46 years.

Whatever your problems with past Democratic governors, they weren't profligate spenders—quite the opposite.

The debt to which Decker was referring—as McCrory often does—is the $2.5 billion owed to the federal government for unemployment insurance paid out since the Great Recession. But it is a debt owed not by the state but by the state's employers. And they owe it because in the good times that preceded the recession, employers in our state persuaded the General Assembly to let them pay less in unemployment insurance taxes than they should've paid.

Debt didn't cause North Carolina to slash aid to people who've lost their jobs, as McCrory and the Republicans chose to do. Nor did it force them to reject the expanded Medicaid coverage offered under Obamacare—a benefit provided to the working poor that would have cost the state nothing for three years.

These two bone-headed and, yes, un-Christian actions alone will cost the state's economy billions of dollars in lost federal aid and tens of thousands of jobs—blows that will fall most heavily on rural areas with the highest unemployment and where hospitals struggle to care for the indigent.

Most of our discussion with Decker was on the amorphous subject of whether state policies create jobs and how. McCrory insists that taxes must be cut on the wealthy and corporations, claiming we're not competitive with other states. Decker didn't dispute him. She did acknowledge that, as far as she knows, the state has lost no significant business prospects because it wasn't competitive on taxes or incentives for job creation.

Job creation stems from the quality of life in a place—plus luck. Who'll start the next Apple or SAS? Hard to tell, which is why a prudent state will empower as many of its families as possible with a strong safety net, good health care and great public schools for their children—while protecting the environment so the kids will stick around after they graduate.

And sure, offer companies some incentives to create jobs—payable, as North Carolina's are, after the jobs are created.

Why is SAS in Cary? The short answer is that the leaders who preceded McCrory, Democrat and Republican, invested in N.C. State University—and then some N.C. State folks came out of the woodwork with some nifty software and the drive to sell it.

It wasn't tax cuts for the rich. And it certainly wasn't starving the poor. It was building the public realm—which I think of as a spiritual thing.

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