During the Asheville area Chamber of Commerce 2012 legislative luncheon today, April 20, the chamber presented its top five priorities to a room of more than 100 people, including four state senators and seven state representatives. The state legislators offered their thoughts on these priorities and what they think may happen during the upcoming short session. The North Carolina General Assembly will reconvene on May 12 this year.
David Phillips, who serves as vice chair of public policy for the Chamber’s executive committee, outlined the five priorities. Created by the Chamber’s Governmental Task Force, the priorities are the culmination of a survey sent to the more than 2000 local businesses that are members of the Chamber.
The priorities are as follows:
1. Job creation
•Support programs and state legislation to help all businesses, irrespective of size, to create and maintain jobs, including tax incentive strategies, grants and an expand the small business preference for companies seeking contracts with the state
•Supports the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a sovereign nation that has determined what is in the best interest of its citizens, in their efforts to amend their Tribal Gaming Compact with the State of North Carolina to permit live dealers at their gaming tables. (Approved by Chamber Board October 10-21-11) Encourage leadership to move forward with a live gaming agreement and address the agreement during the Short Session.
2. Regulatory reform
•Protect and attract jobs through continued regulatory reform. The Chamber encourages the balance of environmental protection with job creation by streamlining and making the regulatory process more transparent.
3. Tax reform and fiscal issues
•Support tax reform efforts resulting in “across the board” tax rate reductions- broadening the tax base to help lower rates for businesses and individuals; eliminating special tax breaks, simplify compliance, and ensure no specific industry is targeted
•Examine the Unemployment Trust Fund. NC currently owes $2.6 billion to the federal government. The Chamber encourages the creation of a solution that addresses sustainability and solvency.
4. Education and the workforce
•Support early education; more flexibility for local school boards and community colleges to make decisions on innovative programs, lottery funds, and budget decisions; and restoring to the University of North Carolina System the management flexibility needed to manage budget reductions and to retain and recruit university employees.
After sharing the priorities, Phillips handed the podium over to the 11 state legislators. Each legislator was given 5 minutes to share their thoughts about the priorities and whatever else they chose to talk about. Despite two major hearings in Raleigh the day before the luncheon, there were only a handful of references to the Asheville water system or Mission Health’s Certificate of Public Advantage. Instead, the most common themes were education, taxes and jobs. “We are serious about reforming education in North Carolina. You don’t just throw money at it. We’ve been doing that and we’re not getting the success we want,” Sen. Tom Apodaca said, noting that he would like to see merit-based pay for teachers become part of the reform.
Rep. Susan Fisher, who is running unopposed in this election, said she also agreed that education has to be a top priority. “If state government starves our children of good public schools, or of really well-qualified and well-paid teachers, what will that do to our small, medium and large businesses? I don’t want to think about that,” she said.
With a few references here and there to New Belgium’s recent decision to come to Asheville, Sen. Martin Nesbitt encouraged stability in the western North Carolina delegation. “We’ve got to be careful when project ourselves to the world. And when we’re recruiting industry and people to this area, I think controversy over the water system and other matters are hurting us. I think we’ve got to quit that,” he said.
Regarding taxes, Rep. Patsy Keever said she agreed with the priority presented by the chamber of broadening the tax base, but brought it back to education at the end, saying, “Don’t forget about the early education. The first five years of a child’s life are the most important.”
Looking forward, Apodaca maintained that the needs of western North Carolina need to be heard. “What we’re really going to have to do— and its imperative that we do— as centers in the middle of the state grow in population, is we’re going to have to form a bond with eastern North Carolina and pull together to make sure the East and the West are heard and going forward to get what we deserve and need.”