The North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh. File photo by Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

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WNC legislators push back on some state budget proposals

After the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting over Asheville’s lawsuit challenging a legislature-mandated water and sewer merger spilled into the open, a bill that was one negotiating chip in the debate is scheduled for a committee hearing this week.

The Senate Committee on State and Local Government is scheduled to hear legislation setting up a Buncombe County culture and recreation authority today (Tuesday).

Rep. Nathan Ramsey

The legislation, sponsored by Asheville-area Republicans Reps. Nathan Ramsey and Tim Moffitt, would allow the the county and its municipalities to jointly management facilities through the new authority.

Asheville officials have said they’re being pressured to drop their lawsuit over the water and sewer merger, with legislators using the prospect of new legislation to require district elections and holding up the recreation authority bill, which the city supports, as leverage.

In emails among Asheville officials and Ramsey, Moffitt and Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Hendersonville, published early this month in the Mountain Xpress, legislators appear to back up those claims.

Rep. Tim Moffitt

In one June 3 email to Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, Moffitt quickly followed up an inquiry about the lawsuit with a reminder that the district election bill, which he drafted in March but did not introduce, would have a quick impact on the city’s elections.

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In the email, Moffitt wrote: “As we are approaching the end of the long session, is it the intent of the City to continue with the legal action against the State and MSD? Representative Ramsey has been attempting to seek resolution and it seems to no avail. I would like to know by COB tomorrow if a resolution is possible and if not, I need to know that as well. In regards to district elections and moving City elections to general election cycles – it would require all seats subject to this yearsʼ [sic] election to be extended for an additional year. What are your thoughts since it would apply to you?”

Rep. Chuck McGrady

Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, who supports the recreation authority legislation, said she’s not sure what will happen to that bill as a result of the pressure.

Although there has been some concern Asheville might be stripped out of the recreation authority bill, Manheimer said there’s been no word from the legislative delegation on whether there will be any changes proposed at the committee hearing.

The council, she said, is preparing two budgets, one that allows it to move a handful of facilities and their associated costs under the new authority and one that doesn’t.

“The city hasn’t been told of any amendments,” she said. “There’s been no communication either way.”

Two other Buncombe County-related bills sponsored by Ramsey and Moffitt are also on the Commerce and Local Government Committee’s agenda today.

House Bill 334 would allow the county to use sales tax funds reserved for capital projects to expand its digital learning programs and House Bill 354 would expand the number of commissioners allowed to serve on the board of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College from one to two.

WNC legislators seek state budget influence

The House passed its version of the state budget Thursday, a $20.6 billion spending plan that is close to proposals from the Senate and governor in dollars, but contains significant differences in spending strategies and policies.

Legislators from the state’s western region pushed back against a senate plan to eliminate funding for the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and a new $50 million school voucher program.

Rep. Chris Whitmire

Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Rosman, argued against the voucher program, which would give $4,200 to low income parents toward private school tuition. He offered an amendment to the budget to remove the Opportunity Scholarship program from the budget saying it would have a disproportionate impact on smaller, rural counties that don’t have as many private school choices and are struggling to maintain results with tight budgets.

The voucher program is supported by House Speaker Thom Tillis, who briefly turned over his gavel and took to the floor to argue against Whitmire’s move. The amendment failed 51-63.

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Rep. Roger West

Also during budget debate Rep. Roger West, R-Brasstown, advocated for continued funding for the Rural Center, an economic development nonprofit the Senate wants to do away with.

The center’s funding is one of the key points of conflict between the House and Senate budgets. The Senate’s side in the argument may have gotten a boost over the weekend as the center’s policies, practices and political connections were the subject of a lengthy series by The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

The Senate was scheduled to take up the budget Monday night and was expected to reject the House version setting up a conference committee.

A final deal must be worked out and signed by the governor by July 1, otherwise both chambers would have to agree on a continuing resolution to fund state government until an agreement on the two-year spending plan is reached.

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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