Raleigh – Dear Friends –
This is likely the last legislative newsletter for a while since we adjourned today. The short session has seen a lot of bill activity but not a lot of agreement between the chambers, and therefore not a lot actually accomplished. Left undone is Medicaid expansion – the House didn’t like the Senate’s proposal and the Senate didn’t like the House’s proposal, so we remain one of 12 states without expansion. Extremely disappointing.
Also left unpassed is legalization of medical marijuana, with the House again not taking up the Senate’s proposal. While most of us want to legalize medical marijuana, the bill as currently structured hurts our hemp farmers and small hemp-based businesses, so I am not sorry it didn’t pass. Hopefully we can address some of these concerns before the bill returns next session.
Speaking of hemp, the legislature did get it together to make the production of hemp and sale of hemp products permanently legal in North Carolina. The pilot program adopted several years ago was set to expire on June 30, and the Senate took the final step to permanent legalization on June 29. A close call and the right outcome for this industry.
That leaves the budget, which House and Senate leaders introduced on Tuesday after 5:00 pm. North Carolina has over $6 billion extra to allocate in this budget, and the leadership has chosen to spend only $1.9 billion of that and to put the rest in reserves for savings, to mitigate against inflation, and for capital projects. For many, that is a rational approach in a time of such financial uncertainty. And the money allocated for spending is mostly good – small raises for state employees, state retirees and teachers; much more for capital projects and grants for water, wastewater, and sewer projects; funding for school lunches; recurring funding for the menstrual product grant program that I helped secure initial funding for last year; and hundreds of millions for specific projects (mostly in Republican districts).
On the negative side, there is more funding for pregnancy crisis centers, including the one in Buncombe County, that purport to offer full and complete information to pregnant women but that really push them away from abortion as an option. And there is yet more funding for opportunity scholarships, much of which will go to private parochial schools that are held to no educational standards.
The budget passed on a bi-partisan basis in both the House and Senate. It was a close call for me, but I voted against it mainly because of the lost opportunity it represents. We could do so much more for the people of North Carolina with the surplus we have – such riches that could help meet such need, especially regarding education. I also object to the process, which did not involve Democrats and through which only a handful of specific projects requested by Democrats were funded. If Republicans want more of our support, they need to help us help our constituents. And of course, the budget again fails to expand Medicaid. Finally, those of you who took the time to email me asked me to oppose the budget, so that’s what I did.
Occupany Tax Victory
I entered this session with three priorities: changing Buncombe County’s occupancy tax allocation (S914), securing authorition for civilian crash investigators for Asheville (S903), and securing a larger COLA increase for local government retirees (S778). Unfortunately, the latter two issues did not move past bill introduction, but we did pass the occupancy tax language in H1057! This is monumental for Buncombe County, changing the allocation of the tax from 75%-25% to 66%-33%, so millions more tourism dollars will come to the county for projects. Another big change is the creation of the Legacy Investment From Tourism Fund that will fund projects that specifically bring a benefit to the community beyond the normal tourism projects. This is not all many of us wanted, but it’s a great step forward for now.
Rep. Caleb Rudow and I had the opportunity to visit with the good folks at the Leicester Community Health Center, run by Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers. What a great facility, offering primary care, mental health counseling, pediatric care, and soon to be dental and OB-GYN care. They also have a pharmacy. Like other community health centers, this one is open to anyone with or without insurance. I was heartened to see such a great facility serving everyone in our community, and I look forward to touring out other community health centers in the coming months.
As I mentioned, we adjourned today and don’t expect to return until after the election in November and maybe not until January. It has been my great honor and pleasure to represent and advocate for you this biennium, and I look forward to continuing my job next year. I hope you all have a good summer and fall, and please remember to reach out to me if you need anything. Just because we’re not in session doesn’t mean Irma and I aren’t still hard at work for you in other ways.