Local legislators proud of work accomplished in 2015
North Carolina’s General Assembly adjourned two weeks ago and local legislators are proud of work accomplished during the 2015 session.
Policy issues, funding measures and regulatory reform were all sprinkled throughout the General Assembly’s 2015 calendar. Passed at its latest date in a decade, local legislators tout the budget as including dozens of important provisions. A $2 billion bond referendum and Medicaid reform were among other significant measures passed this year.
When asked to characterize this year’s work, Rowan’s legislators said delays in the budget and the lengthy session were results of the amount of work completed and new leadership.
“From my personal standpoint of the things that I was able to accomplish, this year exceeded my expectations,” said State Sen. Tom McInnis, R-25. “We were able to get several things done that I didn’t have any idea that we could accomplish.”
Sen. Andrew Brock, the longest currently serving member of the legislature representing Rowan, said the session ran longer than usual because North Carolina had a surplus of money for the first time in recent memory.
“It’s tougher to spend money than it is to cut money during the budget process when you’ve had to cut it for the last five years,” said Brock, R-34.
With the General Assembly adjourned, the Salisbury Post asked legislators about the most important perceived provisions in the budget, medicaid reform, a $2 billion bond package, individual bills and upcoming issues in the 2016 short session.
“I think we accomplished what we needed to accomplish with the actual extension of the session,” said State Rep. Harry Warren, R-77, when asked about the budget. “I don’t think (the late budget) was really as pertinent of an issue that the media in general made it out to be. I think the priority was to get the budget done correctly.”
Warren said his constituents and North Carolina residents will all find different provisions in the budget that are important.
“For people who have children in school, education funding would be a priority,” he said. “For people who are elderly, then the health and human services provisions would affect them more so.”
Rep. Carl Ford, R-76, said he was “80 to 85 percent in on board” with the North Carolina budget. Early during budget considerations, Ford mentioned across-the-board increases in DMV fees as a concern.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get a 100-percent budget,” he said.
Ford listed personal income tax cuts included in and made in conjunction with the budget as positive parts of the legislature’s work.
McInnis mentioned tax cuts, but focused on education-related provisions of the budget. Specifically, he mentioned the General Assembly’s decision to increase base teacher pay from $33,000 to $35,000 per year.
Brock mentioned a transparency provision as the most important budget component. The measure will require state officials to create a website that provides publicly available expenditures for each governmental agency. It’s required to be fully functional by April 1, 2016.
A $2 billion bond package passed near the end of the session marked one of the rare times where Rowan’s legislators didn’t unanimously agree or at least have similar opinions on an issue.
Most of the bond package is funding for construction projects at community colleges and universities.
McInnis was the only legislator representing Rowan who voted for the final bond package, which was noticeably lower than the nearly $3 billion package proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory.
McInnis said he opposed the original bond package because of the large amount of debt, but favored the final proposal because of community college funding.
“I was hot and cold on the $2 billion that we ultimately received, but the thing that tipped the iceberg for me was money that community colleges would receive,” he said.
Not surprisingly, McInnis and Rowan’s other legislators all mentioned hundreds of millions of dollars in water and sewer funding as a positive point in the state’s budget. County commissioners are in the midst of planning a water and sewer system for economic development in rural Rowan. Funding isn’t specifically allocated to certain projects, but local legislators said Rowan would be a “good candidate” for the money.
Ford said he hoped to see more funding for water and sewer projects in the budget.
Brock and Warren questioned whether some of the college-centered construction projects were necessary to include in the bond package.
“They are all good projects,” Warren said. “The bond package was full of projects which are not priority projects. I’m not sure they were worth taking on $70 million in debt service for.”
Brock said the money could have been spent on repairing existing buildings rather than on new structures.
Medicaid reform was among the most significant accomplishments during the 2015 legislative session, according to local legislators.
The change is a mix between two different proposals supported by state legislators. State legislators passed a bill creating two tiers of insurers. One tier divides North Carolina into several regions where provider-led entities can provide health care. The second allows organizations to provide services to patients.
“Medicaid reform was important because it was literally the number one driving issue of the entire budget since Obamacare,” Ford said.
Warren said the method of Medicaid reform approved will allow state officials to project future costs and prevent overruns.
Shifts in Medicaid will be slow, McInnis said. As a result, changes won’t have any abrupt, negative affects, he said.
Future of Individual Bills
Before the state budget, medicaid reform and a bond referendum became primary topics of discussion, legislators were focused on filing their own bills and discussing ones filed by others. Some passed. Others will continue to the short session in 2016.
Ford was a supporter or primary supporter of several bills related to school calendar schedules. The legislation aims to give school systems local control of start and end dates. School systems have some autonomy over schedules. Start dates, however, are mandated statewide. The idea has received support from Rowan-Salisbury School System officials.
Bills had been introduced before. Ford said this year was the first where significant discussion occurred in the Republican caucus about the issue. None of the dozens of bills for individual systems passed.
Ford said there’s hope the matter could be discussed in future sessions.
Similarly, Warren expressed confidence one of his bills which briefly became a statewide hot topic could re-emerge during the 2016 session. Warren’s bill would provide government-issued identification for undocumented immigrants in the state.
Warren said the bill wouldn’t attempt to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants in the state. Instead, it would allow immigrants to “get right with the law.”
His bill is eligible for the short session.
A bill sponsored by McInnis also briefly became a statewide hot topic during early months of the session. The bill would establish minimums for the number of classes taught by UNC system professors. The idea got put into a study bill after some criticized McInnis for establishing minimums they felt were too high.
Before it was relegated to a study bill, however, an amendment was added to lower the minimum requirement for institutions with a research focus.
McInnis said the bill would likely re-emerge after 2016. McInnis said he wants to give the UNC Board of Governors time to examine the issue.
Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.