The Four Seasons

The 2019 long session kicked off on a cold day in January. The majority’s budget was crafted in the warmth of spring and vetoed in the heat of summer. Fall’s beauty has taken a back seat to brief floor sessions with a paucity of votes, many ‘no vote’ sessions, a few hastily called committee meetings, stripped bills with titles that in no way reflect their contents, and several nonsensical recesses of varying lengths. Like a plane without tower clearance to land, the legislature remains in a holding pattern, waiting for Speaker Moore, Senator Berger and Governor Cooper to negotiate a compromise budget.

In a controversial floor vote on September 11 (whose negative aftershocks continue to ripple through the Chamber), the House overrode Governor Cooper’s budget veto and all eyes turned to the Senate. After 6 weeks of failed attempts to flip a single Democrat to get the 30 votes needed, the Senate finally put the veto override vote on their October 28 calendar—and promptly removed it when all 50 Senators showed up. At this writing, the high stakes game of ‘cat and mouse’ continues.

Unlike the federal government where a budget impasse results in a partial government shutdown, North Carolina law requires our government to operate on the previous fiscal year’s budget until a new version is passed. The current stalemate has led to a unique work-around: passage of “mini-budget” bills to bridge funding gaps between last year’s budget and the vetoed budget. These have included salary increases for law enforcement and other state employees, as well as additional DEQ and DOT funding for disaster relief and recovery. Spending levels for these purposes were never in contention and unsurprisingly these bills passed with strong bipartisan support and then signed by the governor.

However, some controversial mini-budget bills were vigorously debated, passed with split votes and subsequently vetoed by the governor. These include bills for UNC system and community college pay (increases much lower than in the governor’s proposed budget); salaries for teachers and support staff (3.8% for teachers, 1% for support staff, no COLA for state retirees); lowering the franchise tax (revenue loss of $1 billion over 5 years); and information technology ($20 million to a private college for a new cybersecurity program although cybersecurity programs currently exist at several UNC system schools).

Teachers who’ve written to me did not support the raises in the mini-budget bill (3.9% compared to the 5% state employees received and the 8.5% proposed by the governor). Teachers have told me they want a salary plan that recognizes the significant contributions of all teachers, new and experienced, rather than one that targets a single group (i.e., new or mid-career teachers). They want to keep  critical support staff in the classroom. They also seek reinstatement of increased pay for Master’s education and national certification.

As this newsletter arrives in your inbox the legislature is returning after a 12 day adjournment. This pre-Thanksgiving session is for the purpose of redrawing Congressional maps as a gerrymandering lawsuit advances through the court system. Although the legislature should have adjourned in early July, and instead has remained in session throughout the summer and fall, we are also due to return once again on January 14, 2020 to continue the long session (the short session begins in mid-May). All pretense of a part time legislature has evaporated.

Important bills passed during a marathon long session

Redistricting
After a landmark partisan gerrymandering decision handed down by NC courts in late summer, many state House and Senate districts had to be redrawn (Wake county districts had already been redrawn in 2017).

This was the most open and transparent process for redistricting that North Carolina has ever undertaken. Computer-generated base maps were used to determine the initial shapes of the new districts and were drawn without partisan, demographic, or past election outcome data (court requirements). All map drawing and requests for information were done in sight of the public via live-stream. The datasets were made available to anyone who wanted to upload them to a GIS system and analyze the maps independently. Perhaps most importantly, when considering amendments that would avoid ‘double-bunking’ incumbent legislators into one district, the redistricting committees accepted only limited changes, turning back attempts from both parties to create more comfortable partisan districts.

Even with all these measures, the process was fundamentally biased and skewed. At the end of the day, legislators were gathered around the mapping computer trying desperately to ensure that they would not have to run against one another.

Legislators should not be in the business of picking our own voters. I remain convinced that we must implement independent redistricting in North Carolina. I hope you will join and support me in advocating for a new Independent Redistricting Commission.

Sexual assault
On September 19 Governor Cooper signed HB 29 “Standing Up for Rape Victims Act” into law. It provides $6 million over the next two years to collect and outsource testing of over half the current rape kit backlog, including almost all of the kits considered eligible to be uploaded to a national database for comparison against known criminals. It requires every law enforcement organization in NC to participate in a new rape kit tracking system. This is a big step in North Carolina, recognizing that every victim who undergoes the process of having a rape kit collected after the trauma of rape deserves to know that NC will do everything possible to deliver justice and protect others from future assaults.

On November 7 Governor Cooper signed S 199, “Child Sex Abuse/Strengthen Laws”. The new law tightens sexual assault laws (making it unlawful to have sex after revocation of consent and also with someone incapacitated by drugs or alcohol) and increases by a decade the time victims of child sex abuse can seek prosecution of their abusers (from age 18 to age 28).

I was proud to cosponsor the corresponding House bills and to vote for the final Senate versions.

Juvenile justice
One of the successful mini-budget bills described earlier funds additional needs of the judicial system after the passage of Raise the Age legislation, allowing 16- and 17-year-old offenders to be prosecuted as juveniles instead of adults. Sixteen new assistant district attorneys and 97 juvenile court counselor positions are now funded. Of the 16 new ADA positions, 10 are in counties with the most need. I supported this funding and voted for the Raise the Age bill last year.

Around the district

In addition to floor sessions, committee meetings and caucuses, I’ve made time for the following:

Events

June. I was the keynote speaker for the North Carolina launch of HepConnect, a new 6-state initiative to increase education, testing and treatment of hepatitis C, the most common cause of liver failure/transplantation. The combination of education outreach, harm reduction programs, increased screening, and new curative therapies can reduce the incidence and spread of hepatitis C and the need for transplantation. *Later in the month I joined Rep. Graig Meyer and Rep. Holly Grange to speak to health IT business owners and employees at the Digital Health Happy Hour.

July. I met with home health representatives about increasing Medicaid rates for in-home nurses and personal care aides. I have perspective as a legislator as well as a former public health nurse who made home health visits in inner city and rural Wake County. *I participated in a well-attended Wake County delegation ‘listening tour’ at American Legion Post 67 in Cary. *I was a panelist at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce Health Care Forum. *The energy and sense of community was inspiring when I participated in the ribbon cutting for Alston Ridge Middle School. Principal Rick Williams was tapped to lead this new western Wake county school after many years as principal of Davis Drive Middle School.

August. As always, I enjoyed the annual Indian Independence Day events held at the Hindu Society of North Carolina in Morrisville. *It was a thrill to be present during Governor Cooper’s announcement that Xerox will open its next Center of Excellence in Cary, bringing 600 jobs and investing $18.4 million in Wake County.

September. Along with other state and local leaders, I attended the first sustainability event sponsored by the Cary Chamber and held at MetLife in Cary.

October. At the RLGH Against Gun Violence rally I provided a working context on this public health emergency from my experience as a legislator, nurse practitioner and former Wake County public health nurse.

November. Along with Cary Council members, county commissioners and library officials, Rep. Allison Dahle and Rep. Julie von Haefen, I cut the ribbon for the official opening of the Cary Regional Library. Hundreds of Cary citizens turned out for this long-anticipated facility overlooking the Cary Downtown Park. Groundbreaking for the final phase of the park is planned for spring 2020.

Partnerships

I value and enjoy my connections with local elected leaders. Understanding their priorities, knowing their views on pending legislation and hearing details about the additional tools they need to meet the needs of their citizens helps inform my votes. I make it a point to give municipal leaders a ‘heads up’ about bills that will impact local government in general or their town in particular.

Over the summer I had lunch with Morrisville council members and staff, met with Lana Hygh, assistant to the Cary town manager, and had many issue-specific communications with council members from Apex, Cary and Morrisville. I receive a lot of email from parents with school board questions and my go-to Wake county school board members are Lindsay Mahaffey and Bill Fletcher who represent schools and students in western Wake County. Our county commissioners are always a call or email away, very accessible and eager to help. Governing is a team sport.

Business Focus

I belong to the Apex, Cary and Morrisville Chambers of Commerce as one way to stay abreast of the interests and needs of businesses and business owners in the district. I attend monthly Cary Chamber ‘eye-opener’ breakfast meetings and in July was moderator for the Morrisville Chamber’s health care issues forum. In August I attended the annual Cary Chamber leadership dinner (I’m the senior member of the western Wake delegation). At the Cary Chamber’s annual September banquet I was honored to introduce keynote speaker NC Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland. These Chambers are energetic organizations that make our communities great places to live, work, play and own a business.

Paying it forward

As a legislator and nurse practitioner, I get frequent invitations to speak with graduate students, leadership program participants, and other groups interested in the intersection of policy and politics. Since January I’ve talked with health policy students at Case Western, Wake Forest, Duke and UNC-Chapel, as well as at the NC Nurses Association Leadership Academy, during the government session of Leadership North Carolina Class XXVII, and at the NC Nurses Association annual convention in Winston Salem.

Students

Each session I have the opportunity to sponsor 5 local high school students as House Pages for one week. Pages attend floor sessions and committee meetings, distribute meeting materials to legislators and generally learn a lot about how the legislature actually works. This session I had the privilege of sponsoring:

John D’Ambrosio, Panther Creek
Caroline DeMaayer, Green Hope
Juhi Dighe, Panther Creek
Tarun Karthikeyan, Panther Creek
Tiffanie Lee, Green Hope

If you know a rising high school junior or senior living in District 41 and interested in serving as a House Page, application information is typically available at www.ncleg.net in January each year. They may also contact my legislative office at 919-733-5602 or suzanne.smith@ncleg.net. Once my allotted slots are filled (this happens quickly) I refer students to other legislators who may still have availability.

I also had the pleasure of working with two legislative interns this session, Tyler Ross and Samantha Saunders. These energetic students worked in my office for several weeks as part of their undergraduate college experience. I was fortunate to share these interns with my seatmate in the House, Rep. Brian Turner of Asheville.

Leadership opportunities

Along with two senators and another House member I co-chair the new bipartisan municipal caucus for legislators who served in town/city government before election to the General Assembly. Caucus goals are to improve understanding of municipal issues among legislators without municipal government experience, increase understanding of how local government works, and pass legislation that improves the ability of local governments to meet their responsibilities. Our inaugural legislation is HB 557, Municipal Omnibus Bill. Among other things, it would streamline budgetary timelines, clarify right-of-way ownership for improved EMS response, and increase opportunities to use Parks and Recreation Trust Funds by local governments in Tier I and Tier 2 counties. After favorable reports in 3 committees, it passed the House unanimously on June 26 and was referred to the Senate Rules committee where it remains.

I’m completing my second year as the governor’s House appointee to the State Health Coordinating Council (SHCC). The SHCC works with a phenomenal DHHS staff to study changing regional needs for acute care beds, operating rooms, technology (like fixed and mobile MRI), behavioral health beds, dialysis stations, home health and hospice; evaluate ‘certificate of need’ applications to expand the number/availability of these services; and annually update the state medical facilities plan (SMFP). This year I’ve attended 3 full SHCC meetings, 2 acute care subcommittee meetings, and a public hearing on the proposed SMFP. It is an honor to serve on this group of 25 knowledgeable and committed individuals.

Coming up

On Thursday, December 12 at 6:30 pm I will swear in Mayor Harold Weinbrecht for his 4th term and Council member Lori Bush for her 3rd term on the Cary Town Council. I had the great pleasure of serving with Harold and Lori before my election to the House. Cary is fortunate to have visionary leaders who serve with integrity.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, Rep. Joe John and I plan a community forum at the Morrisville Town Hall in January. The format will be brief remarks by us with the majority of the time devoted to questions from and discussion with attendees. Stay tuned for an announcement of date, time and other specifics.

Thank you…

…for the opportunity to serve as your representative in the House. I appreciate and benefit from constituent feedback. You may contact me at gale.adcock@ncleg.net or 919-733-5602

Yours in service,

Gale