Asheville’s business community seems to like its coffee with a side of politics. Dozens of business professionals joined elected officials over breakfast April 21 for the twice-yearly Legislative Update hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The event featured a panel discussion involving District 49 state Sen. Julie Mayfield, District 115 Rep. Lindsey Prather and District 114 Rep. Eric Ager on upcoming bills that may impact the state and local economy.
The Democrats voiced frustration at the recent shift of power in the legislature after District 112 Rep. Tricia Cotham, who was elected as a Democrat in 2022, flipped parties last month. The switch gives Republicans the supermajority needed to override vetoes from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
With that change, all three lawmakers said that the state is likely to see a wave of controversial bills make their way through the legislature this year. Those include House Bill 673, which would restrict whether “adult live entertainment,” including drag shows, could occur in the presence of minors. Another bill would ban abortion after roughly 12 weeks, with exceptions in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormality or when the life of the woman is in danger. State law currently bans nearly all abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
While specifics of the abortion legislation have not been put forth, Mayfield noted that the impending battles over the controversial bills will be bad for business. Last year, North Carolina was named the No. 1 state for business by CNBC.
That’s in contrast to 2016. Prather recalled the impact one controversial bill, 2016’s House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill,” had on the business community. The bill required people to use the public restroom that corresponded to the sex as listed on their birth certificates. According to a 2017 report from The Associated Press, North Carolina’s economy lost over $525 million in investments and jobs during the first year that the bill was in effect due to backlash. The bathroom ban was repealed in 2017.
“It’s the business community that really has the biggest leverage here to protect our state,” said Prather. “Help us stay out of the culture wars. We don’t need another HB2.”
Xpress rounded up four takeaways from the event.
Higher-ed hot buttons
Prather said there are a number of bills making their way through both the House and Senate that would have major consequences for North Carolina’s higher education system.
“We are seeing a huge pile of legislation that falls under the umbrella of what I would consider an act of legislative overreach in our school systems, as well as micromanaging,” Prather said, a former high school teacher in the Buncombe County school system. “From pre-K all the way up to our universities and community colleges, we are seeing a shift of public money to private institutions and religious schools.”
Senate Bill 692 would give state lawmakers more power by taking away appointments currently held by Gov. Cooper and education leaders. State law currently mandates that the governor appoint 10 people to the 22-person state community college board, which then selects a president to oversee decisions. The proposed legislation would hand both of those decisions to lawmakers instead.
“Republicans are consolidating power everywhere they can,” Prather said. “Removing governor appointees to boards and commissions, in my view, is completely unconstitutional.”
Another bill, House Bill 715, would eliminate faculty tenure at community colleges and state universities, said Rep. Prather. The proposed legislation also would restrict state money going toward student organizations at community colleges and universities.
Prather says that while the bill didn’t initially receive traction, Republican leaders have begun showing support for the initiative. If enacted into law, the change would apply to faculty hired in July 2024 and later.
“Eliminating faculty tenure would have a massive impact on who you’re able to recruit to work with these colleges and universities,” she said. “So, we’re very, very concerned about that.”
Public safety solutions
State Sen. Mayfield, who previously served five years on the Asheville City Council, told attendees that she and Asheville Police Chief David Zack have been discussing how her office could help APD as it continues to struggle with a staffing crisis. That led the lawmaker to look into a Wilmington-based program that allows trained civilians to respond to minor vehicle crashes instead of requiring sworn officers to be on the scene.
“Currently under North Carolina law, uniformed officers are required to respond to every vehicle crash. That takes up about 30% of their time,” Mayfield explained. “This program would allow nonsworn officers to get trained to respond to vehicle crashes in the same way that police do. They would show up, write the report and also would have the authority to write citations.”
The Wilmington program has been in place since 2008. A 2022 report from the Wilmington Star News said that the city had 8,000 traffic crashes in 2021, and nonsworn officers responded to more than a third of them.
If approved, Senate Bill 77 would make Asheville the second municipality in the state to implement such a program. Mayfield said the initiative would allow the Asheville Police Department to respond to other needs within the community.
While there has been support overall, she says, there has been pushback regarding nonsworn officers writing citations. Still, Mayfield said she is hopeful that the initiative will advance and set the stage for a statewide bill.
Workforce behind the workforce
A series of bills aimed at increasing accessibility to child care and early childhood education appear to have bipartisan support. Those priorities, said the lawmakers, are crucial to keep North Carolina’s economy humming.
“I’ve heard the child care workforce referred to as the workforce behind the workforce,” Prather said. “Parents can’t work unless they have child care for their kids.”
Among those is House Bill 343, which would enact a statewide child care subsidy floor with automatic increases based on a family’s financial need that reflects the current costs of living.
The proposed legislation would cost taxpayers at least $206 million in the first year, with $24 million paid by the state and the rest to be covered by federal funds.
“We hear a lot about how North Carolina is the greatest state for business in the country, and I think that’s really true now,” said Rep. Ager. “But it’s built on the backs of what we did 20-30 years ago in the education system and training the workforce. And we have to continue to make that investment.”
Housing and short-term rentals
Short-term rentals have been a point of debate in Asheville for over a decade, eventually prompting the city to step in to appease both operators and neighbors. But a new bill sponsored by Republican state Sen.Tim Moffitt would limit how cities regulate short-term rentals.
Asheville’s 2015 ordinance allows homestays in which residents can rent up to two rooms while living in the same house but restricts entire home rentals of less than 30 days within almost all of Asheville city limits with fines of $500 per night for violations. Property owners who wish to establish whole-house short-term rentals must receive conditional zoning approval from Asheville City Council.
If approved, Senate Bill 667 would eliminate those regulations, potentially opening whole neighborhoods up to inventors and reducing the amount of long-term housing stock.
“I think we [in Asheville] have struck almost exactly the right balance. But even our regulations don’t make sense for some other communities. … This can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Mayfield said.
She noted that Moffitt, who serves District 48 southeast of Asheville, has received pushback from some of his constituents as well as other municipalities and “is open to changes” to the bill.