As reported in our recent article (Fix the system: nonprofits urged to become policy advocates), the United Way of Asheville & Buncombe County hosted its 20th annual legislative briefing on Dec. 8 on the UNC Asheville campus.
The central message of the event, which was attended by almost 150 nonprofit leaders and volunteers, was that nonprofits can and should become public policy advocates in addition to providing direct services to the community.
Speakers Jenny Eblen of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina explained the rationale for nonprofit advocacy, while Greg Borom of Children First/Communities in Schools gave practical tips for implementing or expanding programs to incorporate policy advocacy into the work of local nonprofits.
Beyond the message of encouraging advocacy, the meeting also provided an overview of recent and upcoming state legislation that affects nonprofits. Annaliese Dolph, registered lobbyist for the United Way of North Carolina, outlined the status of issues within the United Way’s focus areas of health care, education and financial stability.
By the close of the last legislative session, three major healthcare policy outcomes had emerged: the state Children’s Health Insurance Program was reauthorized, legislation mandating health insurance coverage for the treatment of autism was passed and Medicaid reform was initiated.
Though there are “not a lot of specifics” about how the newly-structured Medicaid system will work, Dolph said North Carolina will move to a managed care model. Broadly speaking, managed care systems seek to save money and improve patient outcomes by delivering healthcare through a network of providers. House Bill 372 paves the way for the state to contract with multiple, privately-owned managed care companies. Those for-profit companies will provide Medicaid managed care plans that will compete with each other across the state.
North Carolina remains one of 20 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Though the federal government would have picked up the full tab for covering all adults earning up to 133 percent of the poverty level through 2016, and the majority of the cost thereafter, there are no current plans to expand eligibility for the program. Dolph urged nonprofits to pay attention as details emerge about how the state moves forward with presenting its design for the new system to federal regulators. At the same time, nonprofits should be watching to see how mergers of state-funded Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) and Local Management Entities (LMEs) will affect mental health care.
Dolph pointed to teacher salary increases, the retention of funding for teacher assistants and an expansion of the Read to Achieve program to second graders as outcomes of the previous legislative session, as well as issues to watch going forward. Rep. Brian Turner commented that some technical limitations on the way funds were allocated for teacher assistants resulted in cuts to the actual number of teacher assistants in the Buncombe County school district.
Other education-related policy issues that will be in play in the upcoming legislative session, according to Dolph, include: Opportunity scholarships (vouchers to help low-income students attend private schools), funding for drivers’ education, funding for charter schools and the status of low-performing schools.
Dolph presented statistics showing that, while North Carolina is starting to outpace the nation in job creation, median household income has stalled out in the state. At the same time, basic expenses continue to rise, with the cost of food up almost 20 percent over the past eight years.
Data from the NC 211 telephone call-in program indicate that costs associated with housing (especially utility bills) and food consistently top the list of needs experienced by North Carolina citizens in crisis.
In 2015, the state housing trust fund and workforce housing loan program were funded at same level as the previous year.
In some North Carolina counties, though not in Buncombe, new limitations in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have been put in place.
While some earlier childcare-subsidy reductions have been rolled back, nonprofits’ efforts to reinstate previous eligibility levels for childcare subsidies for school-aged children have not succeeded.
Dolph pointed to two positive changes at the federal level. The ABLE act (which stands for Achieving a Better Life Experience) lets families create 529 accounts to set aside funds for certain life expenses for disabled people without endangering that disabled individual’s eligibility for federal benefits. The legislation, sponsored by N. C. Senator Richard Burr, aims to help people stay in their own communities and experience a better quality of life.
Also, the federal earned income tax credit and child tax credit are expected to be extended for another two years in the federal budget. (Note: since the date of this briefing, the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit were extended.) The United Way’s preferred outcome would be to make these credits permanent.
According to Dolph, legislators considered several bills related to nonprofits’ tax status during the last session. The issues included the preservation of the charitable tax deduction, nonprofit sales tax refund and property tax exemption, but in the end, no significant changes were made.
Lawmakers also passed a revision to previous legislation that would have required nonprofits to count uncompensated board members as employees for the purpose of workers compensation calculations. The change was good news for small nonprofits with one or two paid employees, since organizations made up of three or more employees are required to carry workers compensation coverage.
State senator Tom Apodaca’s (R) recent announcement that he will not run for re-election makes it likely that the upcoming legislative session will be a brief one, Dolph said. Apodaca, who represents state senate district 48 with constituents in Henderson, Buncombe and Transylvania counties, controls the legislative calendar as Chair of the Rules Commission. Apodaca has said he wants the session, which begins in April, to finish by July, according to Dolph.