It's 7:30 a.m. on a Friday, and in the blue light of the mostly shuttered Biltmore Square Mall food court, folks attending the Council of Independent Business Owners breakfast are just finishing their biscuits and gravy.
State Rep. Nathan Ramsey says he’s happy to be back in the mountains. “A little cooler up here,” he says. “Closer to heaven; farther from hell, which is Raleigh.”
The freshman Republican's been busy down there. He ticks off a list of issues, explaining his positions and what he hopes to accomplish: lower gas taxes, force a merger of Asheville's water system with the Metropolitan Sewerage District, find better ways to fund infrastructure, support workforce education.
Then Rep. Tim Moffitt takes the stage, joking that Ramsey's laundry list is the reason he doesn't like to hand off the mic to freshman legislators. Asked by CIBO to stick around after the program is over, Moffitt declines with a brusque “I've got a real job to get to.” Ramsey, however, stays to chat with the audience, which includes many Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members along with other constituents.
In an April 3 phone interview from Raleigh, Ramsey muses, “It seems like just yesterday it was January, when we came down here to get sworn in. I felt fairly comfortable that I wouldn't be overwhelmed coming down here, but the breadth of topics you discuss and consider is incredible.”
And newcomer or not, the affable Republican has already sparked plenty of controversy with his legislative proposals.
Out of the frying pan
Since January, the Buncombe County native has spent plenty of time in “hell.” It’s quite a shift for the genial dairy farmer and attorney, whose stint as chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners ended in 2008, when colleague David Gantt derailed the moderate Republican’s re-election bid.
During that campaign, Ramsey tried to appeal to Democrats who supported Barack Obama for president. And as Republicans, both locally and nationally, moved to the right, Ramsey mostly kept a low profile.
But in 2012, after redistricting put Reps. Patsy Keever and Susan Fisher in the same district and Keever chose to run for Congress rather than oppose her fellow Democrat, Ramsey won Keever's former seat (which now covers eastern Buncombe County) by a sizable margin.
In county government, Ramsey says he liked being a generalist, doing “a little bit of everything.” But veteran legislators in Raleigh, he tells Xpress, “remind you that you need to focus and specialize, because if you don't, it's going to be very hard to get bills through.”
Accordingly, Ramsey has homed in on education, particularly workforce development.
“It's hard to start from scratch and, in one session, do a really complex bill,” he notes. “But I really want to find ways to help people in one of the most stressful times in their lives: when they're getting back into the workforce. We're not the kind of state anymore where you have one job for 30 years. People are going to have five or six jobs. We need to help them get retraining. Even with the high unemployment, there's many jobs employers say they can't find workers for. With the money we have, we need to do that.”
Ramsey is also working with the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition to try to find an additional $3 billion to $4 billion for infrastructure needs, stop transfers from the Highway Trust Fund, and replace the gas tax (which he wants lowered to match South Carolina's) with other revenue streams, such as an increased registration fee for vehicles.
“As people continue to downsize their vehicles, the gas-tax revenues are going to continue to decline,” he predicts. “Perhaps we could gauge the registration increase based on miles per gallon. We're a growing state, and we've got to keep up with our infrastructure or we're going to be left behind.”
Even in a deeply divided Legislature, Ramsey touts his ability to work across the aisle, something he says he learned “serving with four Democrats on the Board of Commissioners.” In particular, he continues, Rep. Larry Hall, a Democratic leader, “has always been really nice to me.”
Ramsey also points to his cooperation with Fisher on things like redistricting reform, changing the rules for appointments to A-B Tech's governing board and getting more representation for the region on the UNC system's board of governors. In addition, he sees potential for cooperation on improving local emergency services.
As for the boundary between state and local government, Ramsey says he prefers it when local bills are uncontroversial. “In a perfect world, local folks could get their own agreements,” he notes. But accomplishing that, he continues, can be “challenging. I've sat in those seats.”
Into the fire
But Ramsey's polite demeanor and self-deprecating humor stand in sharp contrast to the controversy sparked by the bills he's proposed. Although much of the flak from progressives and city officials has focused on Moffitt, Ramsey has co-sponsored and vocally supported much of the same legislation, which critics say damages municipalities and tramples on local governments’ authority.
“Reasonable people can differ,” Ramsey told his audience at the CIBO breakfast, but the debates about his proposals have often turned acrimonious. For example, Asheville officials and residents alike say the proposed water legislation, when combined with other GOP-backed measures, will create a budget hole that could force the city to pull the plug on everything from Saturday bus service to funding for the WNC Nature Center.
And though Ramsey has repeatedly said he wants to find ways to address Asheville’s legitimate concern about lost revenue, so far, he’s shied away from indicating how that might be done.
Local officials, meanwhile, say Ramsey's calm manner and insistence that he doesn't “want to run everything out of Raleigh” belie what they see as the devastating consequences of his actions. Given the state legislation’s likely impact on the city’s budget, Council member Marc Hunt has compared Ramsey's assertions to “negotiating with a gun to our head.” Other officials have called those bills “vindictive,” and Council member Gordon Smith said he'd like Raleigh to "take the boot off our neck.”
Ramsey maintains that the forced water merger would simply correct what he perceives as a historical misstep: Asheville's bitter 2005 divorce from the Regional Water Authority. Conceding that the move is “controversial,” the legislator, who chaired the county Board of Commissioners during that period, says: “If it could have been solved locally, it would have been. There's a point where you can't kick the can down the road anymore.”
Joining the circus
North Carolina’s diversity makes crafting legislation a greater challenge at the state level, says Ramsey. “What works in one area may not work in another. You've got very poor, rural areas; very large urban areas; areas in between. There's a vast amount of differences. What works in Wake may not work in McDowell or Henderson.”
He also misses “sleeping in your own bed,” though he says he's finding common ground with lawmakers who share his interests or his farm background.
Still, Ramsey concludes, “You come down and serve with 169 other people. It's like a circus.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or firstname.lastname@example.org.