It was billed as a wrap-up of a busy year for Western North Carolina’s state legislative delegation. But much of the Dec. 10 gathering hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce wound up being devoted to the future of the General Assembly — a future that, following a Dec. 8 order by the N.C. Supreme Court, faces many unknowns.
Due to lawsuits challenging new district maps drawn by the Republican-majority legislature, the state Supreme Court suspended candidate filing for all races and rescheduled primary elections from March to Tuesday, May 17.
WNC’s lawmakers were asked to predict if the maps would stand following the court’s review, currently slated for early January.
For Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards, who represents the eastern third of Buncombe County along with Henderson and Transylvania counties, the answer was clear. “As one of the architects, I fully expect that these maps will be upheld,” he said.
The senator claimed that redistricting had been conducted in full compliance with previous court orders and had not taken partisan or racial data into account. Two previous sets of maps developed by state Republicans over the past decade were declared unconstitutional by federal and state courts due to racial and partisan gerrymandering.
Democratic Sen. Julie Mayfield, representing the remainder of Buncombe, strongly disagreed. She pointed to projections showing that, despite North Carolina’s nearly even division of 2020 presidential votes between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, the new maps would likely lead to at least 10 of 14 U.S. House seats going to Republicans and large Republican majorities in the state legislature.
“These maps are on the edge of probability,” Mayfield said. “To say there was no intentionality is hard to believe.”
Further complicating matters in Buncombe County is a unique state requirement that districts for the county Board of Commissioners match those of the N.C. House. Corey Atkins, the Asheville chamber’s vice president of public policy, noted that incumbent commissioners from different districts may be forced to compete for the same seat if the new maps remain in place.
That requirement was pushed forward in 2011 by Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, who at the time represented Buncombe County. Now representing Henderson County, Moffitt said the move “made sense at the time” but admitted that he hadn’t anticipated the amount of legal wrangling over state districts that has since occurred. He said he would now consider passing new legislation to draw county commission districts separately from state district lines.
Despite the future focus, legislators did get an opportunity to share their proudest achievements from the recently concluded General Assembly session. For Buncombe Democrat John Ager, that was shepherding through a $30 million state grant for cybersecurity programs at Montreat College.
The money had proved controversial in a previous budget cycle after Ager’s Democratic colleagues objected to funding the school, which requires all employees to sign a “Community Life Covenant” reflecting conservative Christian values. (See “A wider web,” Xpress, Dec. 4, 2019, avl.mx/b0b.) But this time around, he said, he’d succeeded at “keeping it enough on the down-low so my caucus didn’t notice it until the very end.”
Fellow Buncombe County Democrat Brian Turner flagged his biggest win as pushing through an increase to the legal age of marriage in the state, a move he said would help combat human trafficking. North Carolina had allowed anyone over 14 to be wed; the new legislation raises the minimum age to 16 and requires anyone marrying a minor to be no more than four years older.
The third of Buncombe’s House members, Democrat Susan Fisher, chose instead to reflect on accomplishments from early in her more than 18-year tenure. Among her biggest wins, she mentioned shifting the state’s approach to sex education away from an abstinence-only model and allowing brewers to produce high-gravity products.
All three representatives have announced that they will not be running for reelection in 2022. Ager and Turner plan to finish out their terms, while Fisher will retire in January, with her replacement to be appointed by Buncombe County’s Democratic Party leadership.
Meanwhile, Edwards touted tax cuts that were included in the current state budget. North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate will start phasing out in 2025 and be eliminated completely by 2029, and personal income tax rates are being reduced as well. Residents will also be able to exclude more income from taxation due to bigger standard deductions and child tax reductions.
And Mayfield trumpeted her role in passing House Bill 951, an overhaul of the state’s energy regulations. She said the legislation held Duke Energy, North Carolina’s largest utility, to aggressive carbon reduction goals in an effort to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.