The final round of a debate on North Carolina’s new budget came down to a familiar scene: two long-serving legislators from Western North Carolina trading jabs.
In the waning days of a General Assembly session in which senators Tom Apodaca and Martin Nesbitt didn’t agree on much, a testy exchange between the two set the tone for a debate that promises to play out through the next election. In it, Nesbitt, a Buncombe County Democrat, asserted that the budget makes deep cuts to education to pay for tax cuts, while Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican, demanded repeatedly that Nesbitt point to the line in the budget that proves that charge.
The changes written into the new budget and the flurry of controversial bills on elections, abortion restrictions and voting rights that moved through the legislature in recent days are mostly done deals.
But as assessments of how the changes translate at the local level develop, it’s clear already that some of the controversy will follow legislators home.
With the General Assembly adjourned until next May, the weekly “Moral Monday” protests departed from Raleigh, making its first stop in downtown Asheville yesterday at an event that drew thousands of people to Pack Square Park.
Chris Cooper, chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, said in an interview last week that here, as in the rest of the state, constituents have been paying attention to larger statewide issues and aren’t yet as focused on potential effects at home.
The turnout and messaging at the Asheville rally sounded a mixed note, with some speakers and protesters focused on statewide concerns and others focused closer to home.
As predicted at the start of the session, retirements by some legislators and the consolidation of the GOP majority meant more clout for the region. Apodaca, chair of the powerful senate rules committee, continues to consolidate his place in the leadership, Cooper noted, and the session also saw the rise of other WNC legislators serving as committee chairs, including Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, chair of the Senate’s state and local government committee, and Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, who chairs the House’s local government committee and leads that chamber’s regulatory reform effort.
Despite these gains in legislative sway, Cooper said, there remains a general distrust of what’s happening in the General Assembly.
“The region does have some power,” he said. “At the same time, there continues to be a sense that Raleigh is a long way away.”
Education a key concern
Cooper said that, based on recent field interviews conducted by WCU, the perception in the rural west is that the general direction of the state won’t change much, and concerns remain that state government remains tilted toward the interests of North Carolina’s urban regions, at the expense of rural communities.
The biggest worry, he said, is the long-term impact of changes to education. While debate continues on the local impacts of the newly passed education funding and policy changes, rural residents might see the results quicker than most.
“Education is a big rural issue,” Cooper said, adding that in many counties schools are a major employer. If someone lives in Charlotte or some other populous region, they might not be neighbors with a school employee, he said. “But if you live in rural America, you know a teacher.”
Other changes in education may take longer to sink in. Expanding charter schools and grants for private school education are provisions that are harder for rural residents to take advantage of, especially in areas where transportation is difficult, Cooper said. “We don’t have a lot of school choice options in the mountains,” he said.
Asheville’s water war winds on
The 2013 session will be remembered for enormous changes, but for Western North Carolina, one major legislative shift remains unresolved: A court challenge is holding up a state law, introduced by Moffitt, that would remove Asheville’s water system from the city’s jurisdiction and place it in the hands of a new regional authority.
Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city’s water system lawsuit is far from a decision point.
The next hearing on the case has been delayed until October, and it’s likely that early motions won’t be decided until the end of the year. If the case does go to trail, it could take more than a year to resolve, she predicted.
The water merger was just one of the bills pushed by a coalition of House members led by Moffitt and fellow Republican Buncombe-area Rep. Nathan Ramsey, as well being as the most prominent indicator of the dysfunctional relationship between Asheville and GOP members of its legislative delegation.
Midway through the session, Asheville was stripped of its extraterritorial zoning authority over property that borders the town and lost the right to use up to 5 percent of its water revenues for capital projects.
As the session wound down, Moffitt did not introduce legislation to change the city’s election rules, as several city leaders said he’d threatened to do if they did not back down from the lawsuit. Legislators also dropped a plan to de-annex the Asheville Regional Airport after the city moved to turn over the WNC Agricultural Center, which is adjacent to the airport property, to the state.
But legislators did make good on a promise to remove the city from a bill creating a Buncombe County parks and recreation authority. In the final version of the bill, Asheville was written out of the membership of the new authority.
Cooper said that WNC legislators’ bouts with Asheville have fed into some of the regional mistrust of Raleigh.
“That was a little surprising,” he said. “One reason the GOP was successful [in recent elections] was that they advocated more power to local governments. What we saw [this session] was a Republican majority that seemed to fight with local governments.”