Raleigh, NC – After the General Assembly recessed in June 2017 what is normally a 10 month break for meetings of study and oversight committees was instead punctuated with extra legislative sessions lasting a few hours to a few days. These extra sessions were called to override gubernatorial vetoes, pass special interest legislation and respond to court-ordered redistricting to correct racial gerrymandering.
Re: redistricting, a final appeal was heard and the final redistricting plan accepted by the Court in mid-February. The redrawn maps mean that this year every legislator in Wake County is running in a differently configured district (some by a little, some by a lot). District 41 lost 3 Cary precincts and acquired all but a couple of precincts in Apex and Morrisville. Voters in the new 41 are still predominantly Unaffiliated (now 45%) with remaining voters an almost even split of Republicans and Democrats.
Short Session… a.k.a. the ‘silly season’
The short session convened May 16. As surely as July 4th fireworks follow Memorial Day cookouts, certain legislative shortcuts are common practice during this 6-8 week period. These shortcuts are designed to fast track bills or breathe life into bills that have stalled after passing one chamber in the long session.
A favorite legislative sleight of hand maneuver is bill stripping. Case in point: S99 passed the Senate and House in 2017 with the bill title, DOI to Report Certain CTR Data. Because the House made changes to S99 it was awaiting negotiation by an appointed conference committee. Republican House and Senate budget writers removed the original language, keeping the bill number, and changed the bill title to Appropriations Act of 2018.
Republican leaders continued to refer to this (actually brand new) bill as a conference report. They skipped committee vetting (required for regular bills) and instead allowed only an ‘up or down’ vote. Legislators could not offer amendments or have meaningful debate. Much of the House budget debate centered on the historic closed door process used by the majority and what was missing, questionable and unexplained in the budget.
Obviously the public was completely shut out of this year’s budget process with little time to react and in reality no opportunity to offer meaningful input. I was dismayed and incensed by the majority’s decision to blatantly circumvent the democratic process. This was my fourth budget and the most frustrating experience I’ve had as a legislator (so far).
The main objective of the short session is to adjust two-year budget projections made the prior year. North Carolina’s economy continues to bounce back from effects of the 2008 recession, but recovery is incomplete and uneven across the state. Wake County, especially western Wake County, along with other urban counties, continues to experience job growth, a strong housing market and population growth. Morrisville, Apex, Cary and other Wake county towns are thriving.
Because the state’s economy is generally improving, this year’s revenue exceeded expectations by $500 M. I anticipated an opportunity for North Carolina to grow the rainy day fund and still increase investments in public education, health care and public health protection. Sadly this did not happen. The insufficiencies in the budget coupled with the secretive process used to craft and pass it meant that I voted ‘no’.
Portions of the budget made the news: raises for some teachers and state employees [but not all], funding for additional pre-K slots [not all and not enough] and an increase in the payment rate for caregivers in the CAP-D program [greatly needed]. But these and other positives did not outweigh misdirected spending, missed opportunities and just plain bad policy in the 266-page budget document. Many of the worst budgetary decisions will negatively impact Cary, Apex and Morrisville directly and Wake County generally. The budget should reflect a state’s priorities and this budget simply does not do this in many areas.
Jordan Lake. The legislature shelved the Jordan Lake rules in 2013 in favor of solar bees (failed), again in 2015 in favor of mussels (use denied) and again in 2017 in favor of a study. In this year’s budget the rules are once shelved because the study is not finished. This pattern of delay is to appease upstream interests who do not want to comply with development regulations intended to diminish runoff and improve water quality at the source. The result is that water quality downstream in Jordan Lake continues to be impaired, requiring more treatment than it otherwise would. Western Wake County’s drinking water continues to be a bargaining chip for groups outside Wake County.
Pre-K. The long-term value and impact of pre-K education is widely accepted and legislators give a lot of lip service to eliminating the waiting list. North Carolina received $50 M in federal block grant money ear-marked for pre-K. Instead of adding this federal money to state funds and eliminating the remaining waiting list, the budget writers used the federal funds to supplant state money, leaving a significant waiting list and redirecting funds intended for pre-K to a non-education expenditure.
Salaries for teachers and state employees. Veteran teachers with 25+ years of experience get no salary increase. While many state employees have their hourly wage increased to $15/hour (which is terrific) there are 36,000 state employees who do not get this salary bump. State employee retirees get only a one-time 1% cost living adjustment.
Light rail. Until the budget technical corrections bill was passed two weeks after the budget bill passed, light rail projects were essentially derailed by budget language requiring that federal money be guaranteed before state funds would be appropriated, although federal transportation funding policy is clear that federal funds cannot be secured until state funds are allocated. This not-so-subtle attempt to kill light rail projects in Wake, Orange, Durham and Mecklenburg counties caused so much furor in the transit and economic development communities that it was fixed in the budget technical corrections bill.
K-3 class size. No funding (and no bond issuance) for capital improvements to build classrooms needed to meet the state’s mandated smaller class sizes.
School nurses. $10 million for additional school mental health personnel (defiined as school nurses, school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers) and setting up a process for the Department of Public Instruction to fund needed personnel positions. The money is nonrecurring, which makes it an unreliable source for salaries, and is a fraction of what it would cost to provide the recommended number of mental health personnel at each school. It would cost $79 million per year to provide a school nurse in every school.
Disease prevention. For the 8th year in a row the life-saving Teen Tobacco Prevention Program received less than half the $17 M needed to fully fund it.
Public health. Insufficient funding for DHHS and the Department of Environmental Quality ($14.9 M needed) to address drinking water safety and quality.
Health care access. No effort to close the coverage gap by expanding Medicaid. H662, Carolina Cares, would provide coverage for an additional 300,000 North Carolinians, most of whom are working yet cannot afford health insurance, and funded by hospitals. The language of this bill could have been included in the budget. Instead H662, a bipartisan bill with 4 Republican primary sponsors, was allowed to die in committee.
Suicide Hotline. Completely overlooked in the budget. This oversight—which could have been caught and fixed if the budget process had been transparent and open—was only caught after the budget passed. Funding was added in the budget technical corrections bill.
Some of these slights might be easy to attribute to difficult budget decisions except that there is $107 M in pork spending in the budget. This $107 M for special projects in some Republican districts is euphemistically referred to as ‘member money’—but pork is pork no matter the creative semantics. In my opinion this money could have been better spent.
The budget passed the House 66-44 on June 1 after passing the Senate 36-14 the previous day. Governor Cooper vetoed it on June 6 and on June 12 his veto was overridden.
Good bills torpedoed
Here is just one example of short session craziness.
The number of school psychologists in North Carolina has steadily declined since the 2013-2014 school year. H933, Reciprocity/School Psychologist Licensure was one response to this need. It was a bipartisan bill allowing licensure reciprocity for school psychologists living in states bordering North Carolina. After passing the House the bill went to the Senate where they added language about controversial ‘health benefit plans’ and sent the ‘new’ H933 back to the House for concurrence.
The problem? These ‘health benefit plans’ are not regulated by the Department of Insurance, they are allowed to ‘rate’ older and sicker people which can price them out of the insurance market, and they do not have to follow the same solvency rules that state-regulated insurance plans must. This means their members have no guarantee that funds will be available to cover their medical expenses when they are sick.
After vigorous debate, the changed-up version of H 933 failed with many Democrats and Republicans voting against it because of shared concerns about these health benefit plans. This meant that the good part of the bill—psychologist licensure reciprocity—also failed. The following day the language of H933 pertaining to psychologists was added to an unrelated bill so that the initiative would not be lost. This bill passed the House and returned to the Senate where it died for lack of action. A sad, but unfortunately not unusual, end to a good idea.
After vigorous debate and much controversy 6 constitutional amendments passed both chambers. The bracketed wording is what will appear on the November ballot:
- Voter ID [“Constitutional amendment to require voters to provide photo identification before voting in person.”]
- Right to Hunt and Fish [“Constitutional amendment protecting the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife.”]
- Marsey’s Law [“Constitutional amendment to strengthen protections for victims of crime; to establish certain absolute basic rights for victims; and to ensure the enforcement of these rights.”]
- Judicial Vacancy Sunshine Amendment [“Constitutional amendment to implement a nonpartisan merit-based system that relies on professional qualifications instead of political influence when nominating Justices and judges to be selected to fill vacancies that occur between judicial elections.”]
- Maximum Income Tax Rate [“Constitutional amendment to reduce the income tax rate in North Carolina to a maximum allowable rate of seven percent (7%).”]
- Bipartisan Ethics & Elections Enforcement [“Constitutional amendment to establish a bipartisan Board of Ethics and Elections to administer ethics and election laws, to clarify the appointment authority of the Legislative and the Judicial Branches, and to prohibit legislators from serving on boards and commissions exercising executive or judicial authority.”]
It will be up to voters in November to determine which if any of these amendments should be added to the state constitution. Here are my concerns about two in particular:
Voter ID. This will limit access to voting for people of color, rural and low income citizens, the elderly and people with disabilities. The amendment includes no details about how a photo ID requirement will be implemented. If the amendment passes details are left to the legislature. This means voters will not fully know what they are voting on in November.
Maximum Income Tax Rate. Since income tax is the biggest source of state revenue, lowering the cap precipitously could make it difficult to fund schools, health care and other public services in future economic downturns. North Carolina works best when policymakers have flexibility to pay for schools, roads, health care programs, and public safety. A 7% cap limits that flexibility, and in addition could jeopardize our AAA bond rating, important because it allows the state to borrow money at lower interest rates for roads and other infrastructure projects.
Some 2017-18 successes
I was a primary sponsor of 6 bills that became law during this biennium: H11 (reduces red tape for drivers who need handicap parking placards), H55 (authorizes Apex police to serve as SROs at Apex High School while it is temporarily relocated to Cary), H357 (updates regulation of licensed nutritionists), H399 (makes posting on social media of sexually explicit photographs by individuals 18 and older a Class H felony; makes it a Class I misdemeanor for those under 18), H550 (adds North Carolina to the enhanced nurse licensure compact making employment easier for relocating nurses, including military spouses) and H741 (authorizes DHHS to study the state’s maternal and neonatal care).
Outside the General Assembly…good news about mental health
WakeMed Health & Hospitals recently announced a collaborative effort to create a connected community to better serve individuals needing behavioral health and substance use services. The collaboration, called the Network for Advancing Behavioral Health (NABH), addresses the need for a coordinated outpatient care system across Wake, Johnston and Durham counties to help patients and families meet their health and wellness needs and improve outcomes.
The goal is to bring together community providers and resources to enhance access to the right care at the right time, to better coordinate existing resources, to address the social determinants of health and, ultimately, to improve the quality of care and outcomes for patients and families suffering with mental health and substance use issues.
Governor Cooper appointed me to a 3-year term on the State Health Coordinating Council (SHCC), the one seat open to a member of the NC House. The group drafts the annual State Medical Facilities Plan for approval by DHHS Secretary Cohen and Governor Cooper. I have attended 5 meetings since January and will attend 3 public hearings on the proposed 2019 SMFP in Greenville, Greensboro and Raleigh in July.
Around the district
In addition to meetings with constituents and advocacy groups, since my last newsletter I have attended graduations at Panther Creek and Apex High Schools***read to first graders at Horton’s Creek Elementary on National Reading Day***participated in the annual KIRAN Walk to support domestic violence prevention in the Asian Indian community***met with Moms Demand Action to discuss gun violence***attended numerous Chamber of Commerce events in Cary, Apex and Morrisville***attended the annual Indian Independence Day celebration at the HSNC***discussed the impact of the STOP Act with groups of health care providers***served as a food judge at the Morrisville East Meets West Festival***toured a Duke Energy Coal Ash Operation in Lee county***was video-interviewed for the Institute of Political Leadership***toured the new children’s campus of Holly Hill Hospital***toured Granville Health System in Oxford and discussed challenges for rural hospitals with their leadership***recorded a podcast series on political advocacy for the NC Healthcare Association***attended monthly meetings of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health & Human Services***and celebrated at the groundbreaking of the new Cary Regional Library in downtown Cary.
Until next time
The General Assembly adjourned June 29 to reconvene at 12:00 noon on November 27. During adjournment my Legislative Assistant Suzanne Smith will be in the office Monday through Friday handling calls and emails, managing my calendar and doing research as needed to address constituent issues.
I enjoy meeting with District 41 residents and find that doing this in the district is more convenient for you and more relaxing for both of us. If you want to chat with me between July and November please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 919-733-5602 and Suzanne will handle scheduling.