State should leave well enough alone at the local level
The North Carolina Senate has become emboldened in its partisanship over the last couple of years, and there appears to be no end in sight. Under the leadership of Sen. Phil Berger, the president pro tem, and his troops — including our own Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — it has ventured so far to the right and is making moves that are so politically heavy-handed that even Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the GOP-controlled state House often call foul.
One of the latest salvos in this ongoing attempt to shore up Republican power at the local level was introduced in the Senate but ended up passing both chambers of the legislature. The law will re-draw the districts of the Greensboro City Council, do away with at-large council seats and limit the mayor’s power to only voting in case of a tie.
Gov. Pat McCrory, who has become somewhat of a voice of reason for the state’s more thoughtful Republicans, criticized the measure and the political maneuvering.
“I think it’s a bad bill and a shameful process,” McCrory said of House Bill 263, which the General Assembly passed last Thursday.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Trudy Wade, a Greensboro legislator whom many accuse of trying to redraw the city council lines to favor Republicans. Worse, some say the bill is aimed at limiting minority representation in the state’s third-largest city.
“It’s racism, and it’s partisanship,” sitting Greensboro Councilwoman Sharon Hightower told the Greensboro News and Record.
The new districts pack Greensboro’s four black council members into two districts and will likely lead to six white council members. Yvonne Johnson, a long-serving council member and the first black mayor of Greensboro, also criticized the move.
“When you look at a map where all four black City Council members are drawn into districts where they have to face each other, it’s not a coincidence,” Johnson told the Greensboro newspaper. “It smells of racism to me.”
This is not the first time this General Assembly has reached down into city or county politics and made overt efforts to help Republicans. It has already passed a bill that will change how Wake County Commissioners are elected. The legislature did away with the requirement that commissioners live in a certain district but are elected by everyone in the county. Instead, the legislators decided Wake voters would be better off by only having commissioners have to win the votes of those in the district that they represent (except for two at-large districts, one for the city of Raleigh and one for Wake County’s more rural areas).
“If you look at the bill, you can tell there is partisan motivation,” Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, told the Raleigh News and Observer.
Seats on both the Greensboro City Council and the Wake County commissioners were overwhelmingly held by Democrats. Both entities — the Greensboro City Council and the Wake County Commissioners — tried to get legislators to allow referendums so voters could decide whether the proposed changes should become law. Those calls were ignored and instead the state GOP majority shoved its partisan ways down the throat of local leaders.
What happened to the GOP ideology that supported less government intrusion and more local control? Power, that’s what happened, the corrupting influence of power.
A little-publicized provision in the Senate proposed budget (yes, the same state Senate) could potentially hurt towns like Waynesville that rely on a municipal service district tax for infrastructure improvements and marketing.
The proposal — inserted by the same Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Greensboro, who led efforts to gerrymander her city council’s districts — would allow 15 percent of the voters in the MSDs to petition for a referendum on the special tax. If voters rejected the tax, it would be abolished.
The way MSDs are set up now, the city council has the authority to establish the tax and set its rate. Many of the property owners in these districts would not be able to vote in the sort of referendum proposed by Sen. Wade because these are mostly commercial districts. Most of the building’s owners live in other parts of town or perhaps not even in the city.
There is a method already in place for voters to discuss and try to change whatever is going on in a particular MSD — by petitioning city council. If they are not happy with those results, then they can wage a campaign against those who support the taxing districts.
Anyone who has followed the history of Waynesville knows how crucial the MSD revenue has been to its long-term success. Without it, the downtown would simply not be the draw and the economic engine that it is today.
Again, this is a bill that is more about pandering to the anti-tax crowd that will shout down any kind of tax but still drives on our roads, uses our schools, relies on our police and is glad the fire trucks show up when they call 911.
Unfortunately, Senate leaders kept this provision in the proposed budget bill. I’m hoping more reasonable minds will prevail once the two chambers meet to reconcile their different budget proposals, but it’s not something I’ll count on, not with this Senate and its loose-cannon leadership.