At this year’s Legislative Luncheon, more than 220 people showed up at the Omni Grove Park Inn to engage with Western North Carolina legislators and hear a political analysis from Jonathan Kappler.
The seven legislators in attendance included: Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood, Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, Rep. Josh Dobson, R-McDowell, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, and Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe.
North Carolina’s political landscape
Kappler, who represents the NC Free Enterprise Foundation, shared the effects of the 2018 election cycle on NC’s political landscape. “[The 2018 election] created many cliffs and sinkholes across the state. Rural areas are getting redder—urban areas are getting bluer,” Kappler said. “North Carolina is a state in transition and the political battlefield is in the suburban communities.” Kappler also recommended that to be effective in advocacy, we must build coalitions across issues.
But as these legislators prepare to reconvene for the long session, which will run from January 30th to late June, Kappler said there will be one key difference. The republicans will no longer have a supermajority in the NC House or Senate, which reinstills Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto power, and therefore creates a bit more balance in power between the two parties. In the NC House, there are 65 republicans and 55 democrats, while in the NC Senate there are now 29 republicans and 21 democrats.
Among the top issues to watch in 2019, Kappler listed budget battles, education funding, the medicaid option, preparing the workforce, and transportation struggles. “NC politics are as dynamic as they’ve ever been. I’ll leave it at that,” he concluded.
Medical marijuana, Medicaid, and education funding
The legislators dove into all those issues and more, as each had an opportunity to give a short speech and respond to audience questions. The Asheville Chamber’s Advocacy and Policy Committee chair Terry King of Coldwell Banker King also presented the Chamber’s 2019 legislative agenda, which Sen. Van Duyn said is “a brilliant blueprint for the future of Western North Carolina.”
One of the newest topics of discussion was the legalization of medical marijuana. Rep. Turner, who is a founding member of the Cannabis Caucus, is hoping to see some momentum this year to relax state laws.
“The more we joke, the less it’s taken seriously. Medical marijuana presents a real opportunity for North Carolina, especially with agriculture’s role in our economy, so long as it’s properly regulated,” Turner said.
Rep. Dobson took a slightly more conservative approach, saying it is probably too early to expect a big shift in state law this year. But he also didn’t disagree with Turner’s advocacy. “We’re in that middle stage now. We’re talking about it. Over time, it’ll pass.”
Sen. Van Duyn, Rep. Ager, and Rep. Queen all emphasized the importance of the Medicaid expansion. “Expanding Medicaid is the most rural-friendly thing we can do,” said Queen. Van Duyn added that expanding Medicaid would close the coverage gap for about 500,000 people. “That would really help,” she said.
Education funding was also a hot topic. Rep. Queen said that he wants to recommit North Carolina to being a leader in education. “It’s how we build up North Carolina,” said Ager. “We need extra emphasis on Pre-k and Higher Education.”
Developing the workforce with AB-Tech, redistricting process
Sen. Edwards, who will serve as a co-chair for the Commerce and Insurance committee, as well as the Appropriations on Agriculture, Natural, and Economic Resources, cautioned against getting carried away with overspending. “It’s what drove North Carolina to bankruptcy in 2010. We need to make smart investments,” he said. But he also views workforce development as crucial. “We need to roll up our sleeves and work with our community colleges. They’re the epicenter of our growing workforce,” Edwards said.
Rep. Turner agreed, and spoke to the importance of providing AB-Tech the bond funding it was supposed to receive from Buncombe County several years ago. Supporting community colleges is critical in our efforts of building up our workforce and helping members of our community earn high-quality jobs, Turner said. “I look forward to the County working on that,” he said.
When the session reconvenes, Rep. McGrady also said he will back the reform of the redistricting process. With the outcome of the 2020 election up in the air, he suggested it may be a good time to hand off the task to a nonpartisan committee.
Read more about the 2019 Legislative Luncheon in the Asheville Citizen-Times or MountainXpress.