Salad, pork with grits and apple pastry were all on the table at the Grove Park Inn during the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative luncheon. But the more important bill of fare for the Jan. 15 meeting was the chamber’s new legislative agenda, which lists the influential group’s priorities for action at the state government level.
The document, set by the chamber’s advocacy and policy committee, adds opioid and substance abuse prevention to the docket for the first time. Affordable housing and expanded transit options throughout the Asheville metro region also made the cut, while Medicaid restructuring and the Interstate 26 Connector Project were both removed from last year’s list.
Corey Atkins, the chamber’s vice president of public policy, called its membership the “silent majority” and drew a contrast with the “pettiness” of current partisan battles as he asked elected officials to consider the agenda. “We care so much more about policy and practicality and things that work for our overall community, way more than politics,” he said. “We just don’t care that much about politics, to be honest with you.”
Chamber advocacy and policy committee chair Terri King, the president and owner of local real estate firm Coldwell Banker King, said the agenda will serve as a platform for encouraging a “business-friendly environment in the Asheville and Western North Carolina area.” She highlighted reform to the state’s economic incentive tier system, expanded access to affordable child care and increased funding for innovative energy technology as some of the most important items on the list.
King also called out opioid abuse prevention as a topic of particular concern. As Atkins explained in an email to Xpress after the meeting, although the chamber continues to advocate for behavioral health services in general, the group felt “it was vital to highlight the increased issue in our community of opioid abuse specifically and seeking assistance at the state level for prevention and treatment programs.”
Regarding the shift in emphasis from the I-26 Connector to Asheville metro transit, Atkins said the chamber could focus on new priorities following last year’s vote by the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization to accelerate work on the long-delayed highway project. He called the connector “a win for our community” that will benefit “the majority of our residents and workforce.”
Atkins also noted that the chamber has long focused on addressing the region’s housing shortage at the local level through efforts such as the city of Asheville’s recent bond issue. But he suggested that increased commitments by the city and Buncombe County now make it possible to push for help from the state.
Politics du jour
If the agenda represented a spread of topics for state legislators, those at the luncheon appeared to be picky eaters. Several of WNC’s General Assembly members did mention education funding and improved rural broadband access, but the representatives mostly focused on issues outside of the chamber’s listed priorities.
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood, and Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, for example, led their lists of legislative goals with Medicaid expansion, which they said would return millions of dollars in federal taxes to districts throughout the region. “Medicaid expansion is really the smartest, most bipartisan, most rural North Carolina-friendly thing we can do,” Queen claimed.
The chamber had listed Medicaid “improvement” on its 2018 agenda, but Atkins said the language of that priority was “not worded clearly” and had been dropped from this year’s list. He explained that the group continues to seek more budget stability for health care providers.
“We want to push for a bipartisan solution that provides health coverage for our aging and needy population and helps our local health care providers solve the lack of reimbursement for services rendered,” Atkins told Xpress. “In addition, using the term ‘Medicaid expansion’ has become so partisan that fruitful conversations are often dropped before solutions that could address these needs even truly begin.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, also veered from the chamber agenda as he emphasized his lead sponsorship of redistricting reform legislation. “At a point in time when neither the Republicans or the Democrats are sure who’s going to be in charge — maybe that’s the time to actually make a move,” he said.
In addition, McGrady suggested he may explore abolishing the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. While he acknowledged that ABC stores generate a lot of revenue for local governments, he said the state does a poor job with the business of selling and distributing alcohol and should leave sales to the private market.
Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, said his main focus would be resisting the state government’s “propensity to overspend,” another goal not on the chamber’s agenda. But on one important point, the senator said he was in full agreement with his hosts.
“I, like you, don’t much care for politics,” Edwards said. “Unfortunately, it’s the gauntlet that I have to run through, that we all have to run through, in order to be able to represent business and economy and families in Raleigh.”