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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Sen. Kay Hagan

Sen. Kay Hagan answers your questions about the stimulus bills, tobacco taxes and illegal immigration.

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U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan
What is the hardest thing you have encountered since taking office? – Janie, Creedmoor

Unfortunately, issues aren't always black and white, nor are the bills and amendments I am asked to cast my vote on. Right after I took office, there was a proposal to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which I support. However, the proposed expansion was funded with a cigarette tax increase. I worked with my colleague, Senator Jim Webb from Virginia, to offer an amendment which would reduce the impact on North Carolina's tobacco industry and create an alternate and more equitable funding stream. Unfortunately, we were not able to garner enough support from our colleagues to pass that amendment. Ultimately, we were asked to vote on the entire package. As a mother of three, and with the health and vitality of 10 million of our nation's children at stake, I could not in good conscience vote against the bill.

How much of the stimulus bill were you able to review prior to voting for the bill? Do you support all of the earmarks that were in the bill that had nothing to do with stimulating the economy, and which ones do think should have been dropped? – David Butts, Fuquay-Varina

The stimulus bill and its amendments were the topic of discussion for weeks prior to the final vote. I reviewed the bill myself, and was briefed by my staff, throughout the process. In short, no one disagreed that something needed to be done. The question was, what needed to be done? I was unhappy with the version originally passed in the House of Representatives, and I supported the Nelson-Collins amendment that slashed more than $100 billion in spending from the initial proposal. There were absolutely no earmarks in the stimulus bill, which I believe was an important factor in securing its passage with the support of 60 senators from both sides of the aisle.

I have contacted your office regarding some very important legislation in the past four to six weeks. At the same time, I contacted Senator Burr's office and Representative Etheridge's office. I received replies from each of them, but your office has yet to reply to any question. Do you even care what your constituents think about the issues before Congress? Your lack of reply doesn't show any concern. – Dwayne Rich, Fuquay-Varina

Please accept my sincerest apologies and I certainly appreciate your patience during this transition period in my office.

We have received thousands of letters and e-mails and we are responding to them in the order in which they were received. As we continue to hire more staff in my Washington, D.C., and state offices, we will be able to respond to letters in a more timely manner.

I take constituent service very seriously. It was a hallmark of my office in the state senate, and my constituents should expect nothing less from me here in the U.S. Senate. Once I am in my permanent office space in Washington, D.C., I will be hosting "Carolina Coffees" on Wednesday mornings when Congress is in session so that North Carolinians can stop by to chat with me and my staff while they are in Washington. When back in the state, I plan on having open office hours in my state offices as well as in other cities and towns.

On my Web site, http://hagan.senate.gov, you can read about what I've been doing and saying on the issues of the day. You can also see when I will be holding public events in your area (I get back to North Carolina as often as possible). I ran an open and accessible campaign – to the public and to the press – and I intend to be open and accessible as your U.S. Senator.

Due to the economic problems in our country and budgets being cut everywhere, why don't the senators and legislators volunteer for a cut in pay and benefits? This would help greatly and since Congress is expecting all of us to do our part, all of you could set an example and make all of us feel as if you are doing everything you can to get us out of this. – Nancy Whitehurst, Enfield

I agree that we in Congress need to set an example at times like these. Congress recently passed legislation freezing salaries for members of Congress for the next year, and I am proud to have co-sponsored a measure that will permanently eliminate automatic pay increases for members of Congress.

When you ran against Sen. Dole, you got a lot of mileage by portraying yourself as stronger against illegal immigration than she was, saying "Illegal immigration is a threat to national security and our economy. ... The rule of law has been eroded as the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. nearly doubled and enforcement activity fell." You said that you would "work towards a practical solution that is fair to taxpayers and addresses the problem at its roots: by strengthening the borders, enforcing and upgrading laws that crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, and eliminating the shadow economy that drives down wages and working conditions." E-Verify, which enables employers to verify the legal status of workers, is the U.S. government's single most effective program against illegal immigration. E-Verify is free to employers and it has an accuracy rate of 99.6 percent. Yet, in a close vote, you voted to table an amendment that would extend E-Verify for another five years and now it could expire in six months. How do you square your words with your actions in regard to illegal immigration, and will you support E-Verify in the future? – Cassandra Dew, Raleigh

I am a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, as well as the E-Verify program. The amendment to which you are referring was attached to the Omnibus Bill, which would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year and already included a provision to extend E-Verify for another year. Passing the Omnibus Bill was a necessity, since not doing so could have resulted in a government shutdown. Instead of loading up the bill with amendments which would impede its passage, I would support a stand-alone bill that would further extend the E-Verify system.

Senator Hagan, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) has just been introduced in the House of Representatives. I have heard you will support this bill in the Senate. My question is why would you support a bill that takes away a right that Democrats have proclaimed to be fundamental – that being a secret ballot? I have heard your response that the signature cards "could" include language requiring a vote, but let's be realistic – no union is going to actually put that on a card that will put money into their pockets. Isn't it true that unions are just a big business out to make money just like other businesses? And as a follow up, if the card check is such a good idea, then why to decertify is it not allowed under this bill? A secret ballot is still required in this case. If it's OK on one side, it should be on the other. I look forward to your response, and I also hope you will rethink your position on this bill for the good of the businesses in N.C. and the U.S. – Susan Brande, Cary

The Employee Free Choice Act simply allows employees, not their employers, to decide if and how they would like to organize at their workplace. I support EFCA as a way to level the playing field for working families. Importantly, and contrary to public opinion, EFCA does not take away the secret ballot – it allows the employee the right to choose how they cast their vote. They may still choose to cast their vote by secret ballot or by signing cards. I agree with you that decertification should follow the same procedures as certification. I will be supportive of reasonable changes to the National Labor Relations Act to clarify that this is the case.

In your campaign, you pushed higher education and supported helping college students. What do you think of Gov. Purdue's choice to pull money out of the North Carolina Education Lottery fund to pay off other debts in North Carolina? – Barbara, Raleigh

Governor Perdue and governors across the country are facing difficult budget decisions. There are no good answers. While I would pursue every other viable alternative before pulling money from education, I believe that Governor Perdue is doing what she believes to be in the best interests of North Carolina.

Immigration has increased. Do you support a comprehensive immigration reform? Do you support the idea of accepting illegal students to N.C. community colleges, even if they pay as an "out of state"? – Nelson Smith, Durham

I support comprehensive immigration reform and I do not support allowing illegal immigrants into North Carolina colleges and universities.

We need to work toward a practical solution that is fair to taxpayers and addresses the problem at its roots. We must strengthen our borders, enforce and upgrade laws that crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, and eliminate the shadow economy that drives down wages and working conditions.

I know that you campaigned heavily in rural N.C. and asked farmers for their support. How could you do this and then vote for the tremendous tax increase on tobacco? – Joey Holland, Kenly

Less than a month into my service in the U.S. Senate, I was faced with a difficult choice, in which the health of our state's children was at odds with a key industry in North Carolina. North Carolina employs 65,000 people in the tobacco industry – from the large tobacco companies to the distributors and, particularly in eastern North Carolina, the tobacco farmers. These people, and this industry, were tapped to shoulder more than their share of the burden for the expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health care for our nation's neediest and most disadvantaged children.

I support the CHIP program, but my support for the program itself does not mean that I approve of the way its expansion was funded. I voiced my displeasure and encouraged my colleagues to support a compromise I co-sponsored with Senator Jim Webb from Virginia. Unfortunately, my colleagues did not agree. I still believe that singling out cigarettes concentrates the impact in a few states, like North Carolina, and that it is fundamentally unfair.

Furthermore, I am staunchly opposed to the proposal being advanced by some of my colleagues to have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate tobacco. As recent reports about the contamination of peanuts would confirm, the FDA already has their plate full. Recently, Senator Burr and I introduced the Federal Tobacco Act of 2009, which would require full disclosure of the ingredients in cigarettes, but would not allow the government to mandate what actually constitutes a cigarette. We believe this to be a reasonable alternative that does not, once again, unfairly burden tobacco farmers and the industry.

Do you believe in a bigger government to regulate healthcare? And if so, how would you suggest it is handled so we would not start regulating everything and become a socialist country? — Michelle Abernathy, Raleigh

In the North Carolina State Senate, I helped to extend health insurance to uninsured children, expand preventive and primary care for uninsured patients in rural North Carolina and end insurance discrimination against mental health care. In these tough economic times, Americans are fighting to maintain their health care coverage as premiums and drug prices rise, insurance covers less and health plans discriminate against those with chronic conditions. I believe we must focus on expanding affordable, quality health care access for North Carolinians and all Americans. We need to invest in higher quality and more efficient care, focus on keeping people healthy instead of only treating them when they are sick and streamline the system to cut down on costs and waste.

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