The four-person panel consisted of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell and two Obama cabinet members: Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The purpose of the Rural Tour is to listen to the concerns of individuals in rural areas, and share what the administration is putting in place to answer those concerns. The meeting at Cole was scheduled to focus on education and workforce development.
Following the meeting, the four panelists attended a short press conference, where the majority of the questions revolved around health care.
Both Burr and Vilsack agreed there must be some type of reform.
Vilsack was asked if the lack of healthcare questions in the forum was evidence the fervor of healthcare protests is dying down.
“I think there is a growing consensus about this,” Vilsack said. He said he was prepared to answer questions on healthcare had they been posed.
“Despite all the problems, the consensus is that the current system is not sustainable. You can’t have 20 percent of your Gross Domestic Product going toward healthcare spending and still be competitive in the world economy,” he said. “... I think what the debate has really done is forced those of us who are sitting on the sidelines to think about what we want in a healthcare system.”
Burr agreed with that assessment, though the figure he used was 17 percent of GDP. However, Burr issued a warning that getting reform wrong would impact rural communities harder than other areas.
“If, for some reason, you got health care reform wrong, where you’re going to feel it first and feel it the most is rural America,” Burr said. “That’s where the health care delivery doors will shut.”
He reacted to a question about the proposal to drop the public option from any reform attempts as “a good sign.”
“There seems to be a willingness to create a lot of different pathways,” Burr said.
During the forum, the only question related to healthcare was from local resident Perry Parks, who asked about the administration’s stance on medical marijuana as an alternative to addictive, opiate-based pain medications.
“I know nothing about this subject,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack immediately began to discuss the green economy that is developing.
“This new economy is taking hold, and we’re making investments in that economy,” Vilsack said as he introduced himself.
He said the payoff of these investments “is hard to see in terms of jobs,” but insisted there is progress being made.
Duncan responded to a question about job opportunities by Nancy Bryant of Stanly County by saying community colleges help people “get back on their feet,” and will train people for “the next generation of jobs.”
He pointed out President Obama has proposed $12 billion in funding for community colleges over the next 10 years. “This will help us transition from tough times to better times,” he said.
A question was posed to the panel concerning biomass. An individual who didn’t identify himself asked how the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency could work to have biomass categorized as either a solid waste or industrial boilers.
Vilsack responded that he was scheduled for a conference with the administrator of the EPA the following day.
“We really do want to move away from our dependence on foreign oil and more toward using our own natural resources,” Vilsack said.
He said biomass would be part of the USDA’s forest policy, calling it a “foundation for the new economy.”
Another individual who didn’t identify himself stood and asked the panel if they would be interested in participating in a business venture with an unidentified renewable energy source “that has a negative carbon cycle.”
“Yes, I would be interested,” Burr replied.
Vilsack didn’t speak directly to the offer, but took a moment to discuss innovation in America, which he said “is what makes this nation great.”
The Farm to School Network was brought up twice during the hour and a half forum.
Vilsack said the USDA is working to reauthorize the program which allows local farmers to sell their products to school systems.
In addition, Vilsack said grant-funding will be made available to school systems to upgrade their kitchen equipment.
“I support local production and local consumption,” Vilsack said.
Burr offered his partnership and support in an effort to change food stamp reform to allow for more nutritious foods to be purchased with the benefits.
Kissell also pointed out his office was instrumental in bringing an agricultural research extension office to Kannapolis in Cabbarus County to “improve nutrition and improve lives.”