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It’s one of those rare times in Raleigh when “unorganized” is more term of art than description of reality.
This morning, the 2015 N.C. General Assembly begins work at 9 a.m. with a brief, mostly ceremonial session.
The House is expected to vote to make the speakership of Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, official. The return of Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, as Senate leader was never in question. Once those roles are formalized, both leaders will spend two weeks deciding on committee assignments and chairmanships. The legislature returns Jan. 27 to take up an agenda includes as it does in every odd-numbered year a fresh take on the biennial state budget.
Also in the mix this year are holdover debates from the last session — including disagreements between the House, Senate and governor’s office on how to move forward with tax reform, teacher pay and tenure, and a long-term fix for the state Medicaid system.
Epicenter of change
While the composition of this year’s legislative class is relatively the same, Buncombe County can certainly lay claim as the epicenter of the change that did occur.
The close elections of Democrats Rep. Brian Turner and Rep. John Ager accounted for half of the four House races in which incumbents were sent home.
For Turner, who defeated GOP incumbent Tim Moffitt, the election result was a call for cooperation. Moffitt had risen quickly through the legislative ranks in two terms, but lost favor at home after engaging in protracted, public battles with the city of Asheville.
Turner said he sees an opportunity to get past the political infighting and snipping seen in recent years and concentrate on the region as a whole.
“We need to get the city council and the county commission to work together for the success of the region,” he said, adding that he plans to work closely with his GOP neighbors Rep. Chuck McGrady, of Henderson County, and Yancey County Rep. Michelle Presnell. “We all need to be working for what’s good for the region.”
Turner said he plans to participate in the push for the I-26 connector and will lobby for a western Buncombe County exit on I-40 to help boost the economy of the area.
He said the fight over the water system was unfortunate and he’ll wait for the ruling by Court of Appeals for guidance. If it should come back before the legislature, Turner said he is willing to work with McGrady and others to find a solution that is “mutually beneficial.”
He’s hopeful that with some of the partisan rancor that has marked the past couple of years has faded. At least this year, he said, there won’t be a major Senate race overshadowing the session.
“It’s going to be a good session,” he said.
McGrady, who worked alongside Moffitt and former Rep. Nathan Ramsey on the water system and other issues, said some differences remain, but he expects the Western North Carolina legislative delegation to pull together on most issues.
“Mountain legislators work together on issues of mutual concern to the mountains,” McGrady said in an email to Carolina Public Press. “I worked with Rep. Joe Sam Queen before I came to the legislature, and I’ve known incoming Rep. John Ager for a long time. I expect we’ll work together on issues like promoting tourism and funding transportation infrastructure, although there will be differences on issues like the water system operated by the city of Asheville.”
McGrady said that aside from the water issue, he sees potential for resolution between the city and other jurisdictions on other contentious issues. He pointed to a deal worked out on the regional airport authority and a land agreement with Henderson County in the last session as examples.
“I’m hoping to resolve some of the issues, but other issues like the water system will likely just have to be resolved by the courts or by the legislature,” he said.
Rep. Susan Fisher, a Democrat from Buncombe County who was recently elected Deputy Leader of the Democratic Caucus, said she’d like to see the kind of cooperation mentioned by her WNC colleagues go statewide.
“I’m looking forward to finding areas where the minority and the majority can work together,” she said, citing the need to increase teacher pay as one area of consensus. “We really need to get teacher pay back to the national average if at all possible.”
Fisher said she thinks the water issue can be resolved, and she said she hopes for an atmosphere to work in that is less caustic than the last session in which Asheville appeared to be a regular target. She said the town has been a good steward of the water system, and legislators should have sought ways to strengthen the system.
“I think we need to look at this a different way,” she said. “It should not be about tearing down, it should be about building up.”
Fisher said while this is the first time since 1992 that the Buncombe delegation has been made up entirely of Democrats, the election wasn’t about more partisanship.
“We have to work together and across the aisle,” she said. “Some of the races were not decided by landslides. We have to work with a diverse group of constituents. That’s a mandate for all of us.”