Rep. Pless looks back on 2021

It’s been a challenging year in Haywood County government circles, especially on the state level.

Medical cannabis advancing through General Assembly

Now that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has decided to move forward with a medical cannabis initiative, the rest of North Carolina looks to the General Assembly to see if it will follow suit. 

Funding the fight

With a net pickup of four seats in the House or six in the Senate, North Carolina Democrats could break the Republican Party’s veto-proof legislative lock on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper this November. 

NC ‘Sanctuary Cities’ threatened with loss of school, road funding

north carolinaIn late October 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory signed the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act,” requiring state and local governments to verify the immigration status of potential employees and to prohibit interference in the relationship of local law enforcement with federal agents investigating immigration violations. 

State budget agreement reached

north carolinaThe North Carolina General Assembly reached the finish line a bit earlier than expected in their race to present GOP Gov. Pat McCrory with a budget before the long Independence Day holiday weekend.

The Raleigh roundup: Budget battle brewing

north carolinaThe North Carolina General Assembly continues to haggle over specific provisions in the proposed 2016-17 state budget as they race to present a compromise spending plan to GOP Gov. Pat McCrory before the long Independence Day holiday weekend.

General Assembly resumes; Local legislators to tackle key issues

fr sessionNorth Carolina Legislators are back in session in Raleigh this week with a full agenda, including unfinished items from last year’s short session. The local delegation is ready to tackle the budget, Medicaid, education, fracking and other local issues affecting Western North Carolina.

Legislature leading us down to new depths

op fr“Thank you sir, may I have another.”

The line by Kevin Bacon from the now-classic film “Animal House” kept popping into my head as I went down the list of what this year’s GOP-led General Assembly is doing to North Carolina. In the movie, Bacon is being hazed as part of a fraternity initiation, and every time he is hit with a paddle he asks for another painful blow. Here in the Tar Heel state, you think legislative leaders are done pushing the state toward the likes of Mississippi or South Carolina, and then something else almost ridiculous hits the news that they have passed or seriously considered passing.

Annexation and fracking and voter ID, oh my! A look at the General Assembly’s short session

While arguments over the state budget are likely to dominate everything in Raleigh as the General Assembly convenes for the next six weeks, there are certain bills and aspects of the budget making their way through the chambers that are of special interest to this region.

Annexation, automobile inspections and certain local bills will be considered during this short session. But the budget is definitely the gorilla in the room, the three lawmakers — Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva; and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — from this region unanimously agreed.

“That’s the major point of why you even have the short session,” Rapp said of the budget.

Aspects of the state’s financial plan as written by GOP House budget writers will be unveiled for the first time this week, Rapp said, which will undoubtedly set the stage for fierce debate between the two parties.

Education is likely to emerge as the hot-button issue in regards to the budget. Schools are losing federal stimulus money and are looking at steep budget cuts if things stay as they are. Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed increasing the education budget by $785 million using new sales tax revenue. But while Republicans have indicated they want to find more money for schools, that might be difficult in these fiscally austere times and with their promises of adhering to a fiscally austere budget path and stout opposition to a sales tax hike.

“This has major implications in education,” Rapp said. “There’s the possibility of losing more teachers and school employees — this is the frontline battle that will grab headlines (this) week.”

In regards to various bills that are moving through the General Assembly, Davis said the one on annexation is capturing a lot of attention.

“This is particularly aimed at some municipalities that have involuntarily annexed people in outlying areas. In some cases the people haven’t received services for 12 years,” Davis said.

The State senate last week approved two bills that were written in response to a judge who disallowed annexation rules passed in 2011, Rapp said.

One bill would kill certain annexations that have already taken place and the other gives people the ability to stop a municipality from annexing their land into the town limits against their will.

“That one says that if you want to annex an area you have to have a referendum and a plurality of people must say they want to have this happen,” Davis said.

One GOP-backed proposal that Davis supported did not make the cut. Under the proposal, new-car owners wouldn’t have to get safety inspections until the cars were more than three years old.

Davis said he favored the idea because the safety inspection of new cars seems unnecessary. The proposal went down in flames, however, under a barrage of phone calls and lobbying by garage owners who make money off the inspections.

Fracking, a method of extracting natural gas hydraulically, is another hot-button issue identified by area lawmakers. There are several bills that will be introduced promoting fracking that are expected to pass. If they do, North Carolina would form an oil and gas board to oversee the procedure. Conservationists oppose fracking as posing an unnecessary risk to the environment.

Davis also pointed to voter identification as another bill to keep an eye on. This is a holdover from the 2011 session. The bill would require that voters show photo identification at the polls before they could vote. Democrats have fought the bill as a voter-rights violation.

On a more local level, several bills are being introduced that are of special interest to this region.

In yet another step in a tangled tale, Haire is introducing a bill that would allow Jackson County to delay the implementation of legislation passed last year seeking an additional 3 tax on overnight lodging.

The county inadvertently triggered a mandate governing county tourism entities when it sought the room tax increase, requiring it to form a single tourism development authority. Jackson County has had two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of debate. In the meantime, the county learned recently that its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

Haire said that his bill would give Jackson County until Jan. 1 to make that change, giving county leaders the opportunity to best decide what structure the single countywide tourism agency should take.

Davis, for his part, is overseeing legislation that would finalize an agreement between Graham and Swain counties over Fontana Dam money.

Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam and hydropower generators. The dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators. This bill nails down the dividing line as an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam that surveyors discovered.

Rapp is introducing a bill that would restore funding to the N.C. Center for the Advancement for Teaching. The center would receive $3 million in recurring funds beginning July 1 from the Department of Public Instruction under the bill.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million last year.

The 25-year institution is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development. In Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated because of the budget cut.

The short session is expected to conclude July 4.

“The rumor down here was if you wanted to make plans for the Fourth of July you could do so,” Haire said.

Report will provide benchmark on health of WNC’s natural resources

A sweeping status report on natural resources in the mountains is being developed by a regional task force, serving as a tool for decision makers to understand the ecological context of issues they face.

The Mountain Resources Commission plans to issue the WNC Sustainability and Vitality Index by the end of the year.

“It is going to be a report card for Western North Carolina,” Jay Leutze, a board member on the Mountain Resources Commission. “This sustainability and vitality index is giving us that snapshot now of how we are doing.”

Leutze said the index will provide a benchmark that the health of the region’s natural resources can be measured against in the future. It is a massive undertaking, funded with a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of the data already exists, whether it is endangered species surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service or imparied waterways by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The breadth of ecological data on the region is enormous.

“We live in on one of the most progressive places in the world for understanding its natural resources,” Leutze said.

But it doesn’t reside in one place. The Sustainability Index will change that.

“It is going to be a major, big organic living document,” Leutze said. “We want to be a resource people can access across the mountains where people can get standard data sets.”

The Mountain Resources Commission was formed in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly and got to work in 2010. The 17-member commission was tasked with studying environmental issues facing Western North Carolina, particularly those brought about by growth and development.

The bill creating the Mountain Resources Commission narrowly made it through the General Assembly that year.

“It was the last bill that passed in that session of the General Assembly,” Leutze said.

It was well into the night on the last day of the lawmakers’ session when it slid through.

“They are bound by law not to go past midnight unless they climb up on a ladder and literally stop the clock. That bill passed with the clock physically stopped, and it was a miracle it got through. Mountain legislators are the key to it passing,” Leutze said.

Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville, was integral in the formation of the Mountain Resources Commission, helping to give birth to the idea and providing the heft to get it passed, Leutze said.

“There were a lot of fears raised over who these people were going to be and are they going to come into our communities and tell use how to be,” Leutze said.

That’s not the case, however.

“We are not regulatory,” Leutze said. The commission may recommend policies and other solutions to safeguard natural resources, but would have to convince state lawmakers or county commissioners to take them up on it.

Leutze spoke about the Mountain Resources Commission during the annual conference of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area held at Lake Junaluska Conference Center this week, bringing together players in the tourism industry from across WNC.

“A very important part of our mountain culture is agricultural and natural heritage,” Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, said by way of introduction. “It is vital we sustain that so we can continue to reap the benefits of being able to live and work in Western North Carolina.”

Leutze showed a series of maps depicting development over the past four decades. What was a thumb-print sized patch over Asheville in 1970 had spread like a ink blot over the map by the last slide.

“It is a challenge to us to handle well what is coming our way,” said Leutze, who is also on the board for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a land conservation trust.

Those from this area on the commission include Tom Massie of Sylva and Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Regional Commission.

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