The N.C. General Assembly has stirred up some high-profile controversies during the first few weeks of its 2013-2014 long session. Swift decisions were made to reject the expansion of Medicaid in the state (SB 4/HB 16) and cut unemployment benefits (SB 6/HB 4). And a move to remove duly tenured members on several powerful state boards and commissions (SB 10) and replace them with Republican leadership choices passed the House but hit a snag in the Senate.
There was also the even higher-profile attempt to clarify the state’s indecent exposure law (HB 34) – a move prompted primarily by topless rallies in Asheville. That proposal gained national notoriety and was featured on Esquire magazine’s politics blog. It has now been pulled for further study.
Since all four of these bills had only Republican sponsors, partisan became a mantle.
Meanwhile, with much less fanfare, several important bipartisan bills also found their way forward in the opening weeks. One is an ambitious attempt to establish a Public Infrastructure Oversight Commission to examine issues statewide and make policy recommendations. Others address such social topics as internet access and the transition to digital learning in the schools; arts education as a graduation requirement; increasing child abuse penalties; licensing certified professional midwives; and decriminalizing the practice of midwifery by licensed professional midwives.
Several Western North Carolina legislators were instrumental as primary sponsors or co-sponsors of one or more of these bipartisan efforts (see below). But perhaps the most significant of the bills, in terms of general impact across the state, is the quietly introduced infrastructure bill (HB 159). It promises “comprehensive and coordinated local, regional, and state planning and investment in public infrastructure,” which is no small feat.
That House bill and its companion in the Senate (SB 102) are just making their first forays into committee study. The current versions propose a 24-member commission that would review needs and recommend policies in such areas as transportation, water and sewer, public school construction and broadband services. The overall goal, according to the bill’s language, is to serve as “an equalizer between the rural and urban areas of the state by facilitating access.”
“HB159 is a bipartisan bill that is sponsored by members across the ideological spectrum, five Democrats and six Republicans,” commented Rep. Nathan Ramsey, Buncombe County’s freshman legislator and a co-sponsor of the bill. Fellow Buncombe Republican Tim Moffitt is one of the bill’s primary sponsors. It was introduced, however, by veteran Democrat Deborah Ross of Wake County.
“This is the second time I have introduced the bill,” said Ross. Her original inspiration sprang from an Emerging Issues Forum on infrastructure and the state’s needs. “The idea is to assess our needs and develop a plan to address and pay for them. A good example of a solution would be to reinstitute full funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.”
“Since the governor wants to make infrastructure a priority, I thought this bill would help,” Ross said, adding that her own background includes four years in municipal finance and advocacy for better infrastructure.
Ross first introduced the bill in 2012 with only Democrats signed on in the House, although there was bipartisan support in the Senate. This time there is bipartisan support in both houses.
Commenting on the need for such a bill, Ramsey mentioned a projection given in committee this week that by 2034, the state’s population will increase “by the size of the current population of South Carolina.” Meeting infrastructure needs for such an increase, he said, needs effective preparation and a “comprehensive policy” for undertaking and investing in projects.
Developing infrastructure in Western North Carolina is generally more costly than in other parts of the state, said the former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. This bill “takes a broad look at all infrastructure needs … [and] recognizes the importance to both rural and urban parts of the state,” he said.
Henderson County Rep. Chuck McGrady, also a Republican, agreed with Ramsey. “I think the public, in Western North Carolina and throughout the state, will benefit by having a serious process to prioritize infrastructure needs,” he said, giving as an example the push to fund a Western Crime Lab. “That is an infrastructure need [that] somehow got lost in the process.”
Henderson County has used a similar planning method, said McGrady, a former commissioner there. “We put all of our county facility needs (libraries, school construction, parks and other infrastructure proposals) on the table and then [proceeded] to prioritize them. That is what I would hope we can do statewide.”
McGrady said he signed on as a co-sponsor because he thought the bill’s purposes and findings were good ideas. But what was particularly intriguing, he admitted, was that “the bill was garnering the support of a bipartisan group of legislators.”
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor
WNC legislative sponsors for the other bipartisan efforts listed above.
HB 44/SB 121 (digital learning): House co-sponsors Susan Fisher, Democrat (Buncombe), Tim Moffitt, Republican (Buncombe). Senate primary sponsor Ralph Hise, Republican (Spruce Pine); co-sponsor Jim Davis, Republican (Franklin)
HB 45/SB 120 (internet access): House co-sponsors Fisher, McGrady. Senate primary sponsor Hise; co-sponsors Davis and Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville.
HB 127/SB 68 (arts education): House co-sponsor Ramsey.
HB 75/SB 70 (Kilah’s Law): House co-sponsors Fisher, Moffitt; Senate co-sponsors Apodaca, Hise.
HB 154/SB 106 (Licensing midwives): House co-sponsor Fisher.
HB 155/SB 107 (decriminalize midwifery): House co-sponsor Fisher.