Friday, January 31, 2014 10:19 PM
Rep. Collins seeks third, likely last term
GOP lawmaker touts record on tax reform, job creation
By Corey Friedman | Times Online Editor
If one good term deserves another, Rep. Jeff Collins thinks three deserve a going-away party.
The Rocky Mount Republican said he’ll seek a third term in the North Carolina General Assembly this year, but he hopes to leave office after two more years of working to attract jobs by cutting taxes and regulatory red tape.
"I have no ambition to be a lifetime state representative, that’s for sure,” Collins said. "Every time I’ve served, I said I would love for it to be my last term. As soon as I find an understudy who can continue the work I’m doing and is ready to run, I’m happy to step aside.”
Collins represents portions of Nash and Franklin counties in House District 25. He agreed to seek a third term after meeting with members of the House Republican Caucus.
"I have committed to my caucus to go ahead and run one more time,” he said. "I’ve never promised them more than one term at a time.”
A financial consultant for Axa Advisors, Collins chairs the House insurance and state personnel committees and is vice chairman of the finance committee. He also serves as a member on the commerce and job development, education, government, ways and means and public utilities and energy committees.
Collins plans to make his re-election bid official when candidate filing begins next month. If he is re-elected in November, he said he will continue working to bring jobs to the state and improve eastern North Carolina’s economy.
"Companies realize now that North Carolina is open for business and we’re not looking to tax and regulate them away to other states,” he said. "We’ve taken some big, bold steps as far as the tax and regulatory reform to try to get North Carolina back to work.”
Unemployment is down, but many skeptics say that reduction owes more to long-term jobless workers who are no longer counted than to actual job gains.
Collins points instead to decreases in a federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figure designated as U-6 that counts unemployed, underemployed and "marginally attached” workers. Cable news channel CNBC suggested U-6 may be the "real unemployment rate.”
"North Carolina’s rate was down 2.1 percent — more than twice the national average,” he said. "It’s still way too high, but it shows that North Carolina is recovering faster than the rest of the country.”
Republican majorities in the General Assembly passed sweeping tax reforms last year that reduced individual and corporate income tax rates and added sales and service taxes. Critics say the changes hurt low-income residents who spend more of their money on groceries and consumer goods.
The nonpartisan Tax Foundation ranked North Carolina 17th in the nation for favorable business tax climate last year compared to a ranking of 44th the previous year.
"We’re now competing with our surrounding states, and we’ve needed to be in that position for a long time,” Collins said.
Recent successes include drugmaker Hospira announcing an expansion of its Rocky Mount facility that will bring 200 new jobs to the region and a Connecticut company planning to hire 100 entry-level workers in Edgecombe County.
"That’s what I’m happiest about,” Collins said. "The things we’re doing are bringing jobs to North Carolina, and we need to keep accelerating that.”
Collins wants more people in the region to find jobs, and he also wants to lower their electric bills. He’s working with state Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, to reduce the public utility cooperative ElectriCities’ debt, which in turn would lower electric rates in member cities like Wilson and Rocky Mount.
"I see it every time I pay my bill,” Collins said. "We need to get the debt down so we can get the rates down. Senator Newton and I have been working on the ElectriCities issue since we’ve been here. I think we’re close to making some real progress on it.”
GOP lawmakers are pushing for a public-private partnership rather than an infusion of taxpayer money to slash ElectriCities’ debt.
"We’re looking for a legitimate private market-based solution to that problem,” Collins said. "We’re not looking to the rest of North Carolina’s taxpayers to bail us out.”
Lower electric rates would help families struggling to pay their utility bills and attract businesses that have passed over ElectriCities member municipalities in search of better prices, Collins explained.
"It should matter to just about everyone in eastern North Carolina, because it’s keeping businesses away,” he said. "You can’t draw an electricity-intensive business into an ElectriCities municipality when they’re going to have to pay a 30- to 40-percent higher rate than somewhere else. It just doesn’t work.”
Collins said he also will support pay raises for North Carolina’s teachers. The state now ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay.
"We’ve only given them one raise in the past few years, and that was a pretty modest one,” he said. "I would like to see us start being able to offer some raises as quickly as we can, as quickly as it’s financially feasible.”
Collins would like to see clear black and white boundaries replace the gray area in which North Carolina video sweepstakes parlors now operate.
In the 2013 session, Collins sponsored a bill that would regulate and tax the businesses. A December 2012 state Supreme Court ruling upheld a 2010 law banning the games, but with operators insisting their software skirts the law and cities and counties approving zoning rules for the businesses, many sweepstakes centers remain open.
"My position was if they’re going to be allowed to remain in business, then we need to regulate and tax them,” he said. "I am not a champion for them staying in business.”
Collins said last April that he doesn’t support legalizing video sweepstakes, but he recognized that the industry "seems like a cat with nine lives” that has maintained a near-constant presence in the state despite repeated legislative efforts to shutter the businesses.
Collins co-sponsored the measure to regulate sweepstakes gaming, House Bill 547, with Democratic state Rep. Michael Wray. The bipartisan bill died in committee last year after passing a first reading in the House.
Collins said he’s also working to tweak the pension plan for state employees to ensure it remains financially solvent.
The two-term Republican lawmaker saw his district shift westward when the General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting plans took effect. Nearly half the voters in his redrawn district live in Franklin County.
Collins said he hasn’t heard any Democratic opponents for the District 25 seat named yet. He isn’t sure whether he’ll face a challenger in the GOP primary.
"The last election two years ago, I had people calling me the night before the filing deadline to congratulate me on being unopposed,” he said, "but then somebody filed on the last day, pretty much at the last hour. You never know until the very end.”
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