A last-ditch political maneuver by N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, revived the merger. Davis tacked an amendment onto an unrelated bill moving through the General Assembly.
By lassoing another bill headed for passage, the Lake Junaluska merger would presumably tag along for the ride. The plan met a hitch, however, and it is unclear whether it will come off as hoped.
But chances are certainly better than they were a week ago — when the bill appeared all but dead as the General Assembly headed into its final throes before dismissing for the year.
Davis had successfully ushered the Lake Junaluska merger through the Senate last year. But it failed to gain traction in the House. It was shunted off into a House committee, where it languished.
The bill needed a champion in the House to move it forward. The bill had a wingman in N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, but as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature, Queen couldn’t pilot it.
At least not in light of opposition from N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville. Presnell represents part of Haywood County — but not that part that includes Lake Junaluska. Lake Junaluska falls in Queen’s geographic territory. Nonetheless, Presnell stymied the merger from sailing through in the House as it had in the Senate.
Queen called it “absolutely ridiculous.” Legislators have an unspoken code to support each other’s so-called local bills — routine bills dealing with a chiefly local issue that simply need a legislative rubber stamp.
“You don’t monkey with another legislator’s district. There should be no objection from other members,” Queen said.
Davis was disappointed the issue had been the subject of so much political wrangling.
“This was a local bill and she interjected herself into it. That is a no-no in the legislature,” Davis said of Presnell’s opposition.
Davis said finding another bill to serve as a vehicle for the Lake Junaluska merger was the only option left. While not rare, the tactic isn’t exactly common either. And it runs the risk of miffing the legislator whose bill got saddled with an unrelated amendment, potentially gumming up the works for their own bill.
“Is there a chance they would be miffed? Possibly. But that doesn’t address the fact it has been sitting in committee for a year without being heard,” Davis said.
Queen said the bill was destined to “die on the vine” if not for Davis’ creative move to advance the bill.
“When he told me about it I said ‘Good legislating.’ He said ‘I hate games but that’s where we are at,’” Queen recalled.
Specifically, Davis attached the Lake Junaluska merger to an obscure, hyper-local bill from Pender County deannexing a tract from the town limits of Watha.
It had previously passed the House, prior to the amendment being tacked on.
Whenever the Senate and House pass differing versions of a bill, they have to be reconciled. The new version of the Watha bill, now saddled with the Lake Junaluska amendment, was shipped back to the House for concurrence.
That could have gone one of two ways.
“It could go straight to the floor to be voted on. Or it can be sent to a committee to check it over,” Queen said.
Rather than slide straight to the finish line, it was sent for a pit stop in committee — essentially sending it back to the same starting gate where the original Lake Junaluska merger bill has been sitting for the past year.
But it’s still better off than before, according to Buddy Young, public works director for Lake Junaluska Assembly.
“We certainly raised awareness,” Young said of the flurry of attention the merger as gotten. “It was demonstrated once again that Senator Jim Davis is working this as hard as he can.”
Still, the strategy isn’t a shoe-in. Theoretically, the legislator that introduced the Watha bill — namely N.C. Rep. Chris Millis, a freshman Republican — would want his own bill to pass badly enough that he would become the newest fan and best ally of the Lake Junaluska merger, whose fate was now intertwined with Watha.
But instead, Millis jumped ship on his original bill. Not wanting to see his bill slowed by the Lake Junaluska amendment, he sought out another bill to hitch the Watha language to. He tacked an amendment of his own onto yet another unrelated bill being passed by the House, allowing it to advance independently from the original bill that now bears the Lake Junaluska merger.
The Lake Junaluska merger is once again left on its own.
But there is hope it could now finally get an airing in the House committee. According to third parties, Presnell has said she will drop her opposition.
“Rep. Presnell has told me personally she has lifted her objections to it and is not going to fight it any longer and if we want to move it, to go ahead and do it. We can move forward without her objection,” Queen said.
Davis said he couldn’t predict the chances it has in the House committee.
But, “the chances of me giving it my all are 100 percent,” Davis said.
The large majority of homeowners and registered voters at Lake Junaluska — two-thirds according to both a petition and mail-in survey — have voiced support for merging with the town of Waynesville.
“If you are willing to listen to the facts, there is $10 million in infrastructure needs at Lake Junaluska and the community doesn’t have the resources to address those. Waynesville is being a great citizen and willing to address those needs,” Davis said.
Lake Junaluska is a residential community of roughly 775 homes ringing the sprawling campus of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center with century-old roots as a Methodist enclave.
Merger bill timeline
• March 13: Sen. Jim Davis introduces a bill in the N.C. Senate to merge Lake Junaluska with Waynesville.
• April 3: Bill passes Senate local government committee.
• April 10: Bill passes Senate finance committee.
• April 13: Bill passes full Senate unanimously.
• April 15: Bill referred to the N.C. House.
• May 22: Bill assigned to the House finance committee.
• May-July: Bill sits in House finance committee. Lake Junaluska and Waynesville representatives make trips to Raleigh to advocate for the bill to no avail.
• March-May: Still no movement in the House finance committee on the bill.
• June 23: Looking for a vehicle to carry the Lake Junaluska merger forward, Sen. Davis tacks an amendment onto a random local bill from Pender County.
• June 26: The bill bearing the Lake amendment passes the Senate.
• June 26: The new version of the Pender County bill, now saddled with the Lake Junaluska amendment, goes back to the House for concurrence.
• June 26: The amended bill is sent to House finance committee once again.