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Western legislators weigh in on upcoming General Assembly session

Left to right: Rep. Lindsey Prather, Rep. Caleb Rudrow, and Rep. Eric Ager. Left to right: Rep. Lindsey Prather, Rep. Caleb Rudrow, and Rep. Eric Ager.

North Carolina’s General Assembly convened last Wednesday, beginning a new session with new dynamics that will come into play as members seek to resolve a host of long-lingering issues.

“It’s going to be a good session with a lot of good bipartisan work across the aisle. We had that last time,” said Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Franklin). “I know you hear about political differences that make the headlines but overall, compared to other states, we don’t do it perfectly but I think we do it better than other states do.”

Corbin cited the strong financial position of the state, as well as the recent CNBC ranking of North Carolina as the top state in which to do business, but the government’s current setup leaves plenty of room for those political differences to emerge. 

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s second term will come to an end next year. Until then he’ll still wield veto power over the Republican-dominated General Assembly. Republicans, buoyed by the results of the 2022 General Election, are only one seat short of having the numbers to override Cooper’s vetoes. While there exists a veto-proof majority in the Senate, it would still take at least one Democrat in the House to cross party lines to squash action from Cooper. 

On the first day of the session, Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) announced he’d do away with the customary advance notice for veto override votes, meaning if just one Democrat is caught unawares, they won’t be there to uphold Cooper’s veto. 

And more good fortune came to Republicans on the state’s Supreme Court, which because of the 2022 General Election will now operate with a 5-to-2 Republican majority. 

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During the campaign, Republicans had accused the Democrat majority of playing politics on the court, and a Sept. 9, 2022 press release from the NCGOP says that the party “will continue to work tirelessly to safeguard our courts from partisan judicial activism.”

However, on Jan. 4, NCGOP Chair Michael Whatley foreshadowed future partisan judicial activism by lauding a politically conservative Supreme Court, making party-line decisions in favor of Republicans highly likely. 

With the General Assembly and Supreme Court in solid conservative control, North Carolina Republicans look to be nearly unstoppable in the coming session. 

Now, they’ll consider how to serve all the people of this politically divided state by settling several key issues — with or without the help of Democrats. 

Abortion 

Last June, the conservative-led United States Supreme Court struck down the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling that guaranteed the right to an abortion under certain circumstances. The Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson didn’t outlaw the procedure, but did kick it back to the states to decide for themselves. 

North Carolina legislators didn’t rush into anything rash, so the pre-existing 20-week ban remains in place, making the state an abortion destination in the Southeastern U.S. 

This past December, House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Temp Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) told the Associated Press that they’d consider restrictions

Last fall, Haywood’s Republican Rep. Mark Pless told The Smoky Mountain News he believes a “heartbeat” bill will be introduced this session. He’s hoping for a bi-partisan effort to enact restrictions. 

“Personally, I think once the baby is formed, and it actually has a heartbeat, I think it’s a baby,” said Pless, a former EMT. “I’ve heard people say that it’s not, but through my years in EMS, I had some babies that were stillborn, born at two and three months, and you knew they were a baby.”

Corbin is also looking for bipartisanship on the issue, and as the newly appointed co-chair of the Senate’s healthcare committee will likely have an outsized impact on the final product. 

“Passing a bill that only narrowly passes and doesn’t have widespread support, it’s probably going to be vetoed by the governor and is probably not going to have the votes for an override,” he said. “I won’t say it’s a waste of time — you can certainly pass bill to make a point or to stake out your position — but I think if we’re serious about changing the current abortion law, we need to come to some kind of consensus among members.”

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Left to right: Rep. Mike Clampitt, Rep. Karl Gillespie, and Rep. Mark Pless.

Corbin’s fellow Macon County Republican legislator, Karl Gillespie, says he favors a heartbeat bill with exceptions for rape and incest. Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain) is the son of a single mother, and has voiced support for the pro-life position in the past. He said he hopes any abortion bill benefits the infant. 

Democrats, meanwhile, have staked out predictable positions on reproductive rights. 

“I know that our governor will veto any further abortion restrictions moving forward,” said Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe). “Of course, we’re one seat away from Republicans being able to override that, so it’s going to be especially crucial, particularly on this issue, that Democrats stick together.”

Prather represents southwestern Buncombe County and is beginning her first term in the General Assembly. Buncombe Democrat Caleb Rudow, who was appointed last February to finish the term of Susan Fisher, won his first election in November and represents northwestern Buncombe. 

“I hope we codify Roe,” Rudow said. “I hope we have protections for people and allow people to do what they want with their bodies and not infringe on people’s personal rights.”

Eric Ager (D-Buncombe) represents the eastern part of the county. 

“I think it would be a mistake on the part of the Republican Party to try to change the way that we do healthcare here in North Carolina,” Ager said. 

Ager, Rudow and Prather all said they wouldn’t support any bill shortening North Carolina’s 20-week abortion limit. 

Medicaid expansion 

It’s been an issue for years in North Carolina, even resulting in a three-year state budget standoff when Cooper refused to back down and Republicans couldn’t override his veto, but Medicaid expansion inched closer to passage near the end of 2022 and may finally be resolved during the current session. 

“Like Barbara Mandrell singing ‘I was country when country wasn’t cool,’ I was for Medicaid expansion when Medicaid expansion wasn’t cool,” Corbin said. 

And he was, becoming one of very few Republicans who supported the idea several years back. Now, he’s looking squarely at the House to seal the deal. 

“We passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support,” Corbin said. “It went through Republicans, Democrats, everybody kind of locked arms and went across the finish line with that one in the Senate. At this point, I do feel like it’s in the House’s lap.”

Pless wants to see the state’s doctor shortage addressed first, saying that it won’t do any good to expand care when providers can’t meet demand. He also remains focused on his pet project, bringing a drug treatment center to the west. 

Clampitt wants to be certain that federal funding for the expansion population doesn’t disappear, leaving the state on the hook. Gillespie is eager for committee recommendations. 

“When you look at my district, and you look at the numbers, there’s no doubt that Medicaid expansion would help some folks in my district that are currently not covered,” he said. 

Democrats Ager, Prather and Rudow support expansion, with Prather saying that the devil will be in the details; Rudow is encouraged by the favorable Republican shift towards expansion. 

“I think it’s one of the more inspiring stories I think about politics,” he said. “It’s a good example of what it means for us to have real conversations and people talk to their constituents and how that can eventually change people’s thoughts on an issue.”

Medical cannabis 

The third in a trio of health care-related issues, medical cannabis was actually passed by a margin of 36 to 7 in the Senate last year, with Corbin among those giving their assent. But the bill got derailed in the House and will likely come up again. 

A poll commissioned by WRAL-TV last April suggests that only 18% of North Carolina adults oppose the legalization of medical cannabis, with 10% unsure. 

Despite the broad support in the Senate, House votes will likely come down to the specifics of the bill, including who’s licensed to produce it, how many licenses will be granted, where it can be sold and which conditions could qualify someone for a prescription. 

Every WNC legislator that spoke to The Smoky Mountain News about the issue supports the idea in principle, but all want to ensure it won’t be abused, or become a backdoor to the legalization of recreational marijuana. 

“We trusted doctors with opioids,” Pless said, “and look how that turned out.”

While Ager supports the idea in principle, he said he’d reserve judgement until the specifics appear. 

Prather supports the idea but said the previous Senate bill was “horrible,” echoing opposition from Sen. Julie Mayfield (D-Buncombe) last year. 

“It doesn’t cover nearly enough conditions, particularly some major conditions that that other states cover, like lupus and chronic pain,” Prather said. “It’s also limited in who is able to participate in that economy. There’s a pretty high cost for entry, so I think that it definitely skews towards the larger companies.”

Mayfield said at the time that as written, the bill wouldn’t allow for any North Carolina company, even those with experience in the hemp industry, to participate. 

“I think we talk a big game about small businesses and small farmers and how important they are,” Rudow said. “We really need to stand by them, and give them access to this.”

Teacher pay 

Teacher shortages are caused in part by low pay, something the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission attempted to remedy when it submitted a plan that was approved in December by State Board of Education. 

That plan rewards teachers for student performance, shifting somewhat away from seniority-based compensation, and must be approved by the General Assembly for the changes to take place. 

The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest advocacy group for public school teachers, is ardently opposed to the plan. 

“I think they have the wrong position, but I think they have the wrong position most of the time,” Corbin said. “I do not appreciate them as an organization. I think they’re no more than a political action committee and they do not do very much to help the colleges or teachers.”

Corbin said he’s pushed for incremental pay increases both for new teachers and for experienced teachers and supports the current shift towards performance-based pay, calling it a “real world” scenario. 

Clampitt agrees, as does Pless, albeit with concern over low pay for all state employees. 

Gillespie holds a more nuanced position on the shift, saying he’s in favor of it, with one big caveat. 

“You can’t issue the same test across the state to every classroom, if you’re going to base a teacher’s pay on performance,” he said. 

Rather than performance on a test, Gillespie wants to see progress made over the school year. Teachers who help weaker students advance, he said, will reduce the number of students who get promoted each year while not performing well. 

Prather is a former Buncombe County high school teacher and a North Carolina teaching fellow, just like her twin sister, who still teaches in Wake County. 

“There are so many problems with performance-based pay that I don’t know if the drive to Raleigh gives us enough time to talk about them all,” Prather said. 

Instead, Prather wants pay increases across the board, including cost-of-living increases and masters pay. She’s also calling for greater investment in teacher training and education programs in colleges and universities and is concerned about the increasing role of counties being left on the hook to compete against each other — and other states — with the supplemental pay system in place. 

Ager opposes the performance plan. Rudow would support performance pay but only as an addition above and beyond a more robust compensation strategy that actually pays teachers what they’re worth. 

“It feels a little bit disingenuous to me to make teachers do more work or focus on performance, when they’ve been outperforming expectations for the past few years and working under incredibly difficult situations through the pandemic and figuring out remote learning,” he said.  

Online Gambling 

In 2018, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the door for the expansion of sports betting. Since then, more than two dozen states, including North Carolina, have begun offering some sort of in-person sports betting, as with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Western North Carolina casinos. 

Nearly two dozen states have also adopted mobile sports betting, including North Carolina’s neighbors, Tennessee and Virginia. North Carolina came close last year, but Berger thinks this could be the year for some form of online sports betting to pass. 

The issue, however, doesn’t exactly come down on partisan lines. 

Corbin said there’s a significant component of the GOP caucus that’s just plain against it, but it’s possible that the benefits could outweigh the risks. 

“Is that a potential? I think the answer is yes. Is it already happening now? I think the answer is yes. So, I guess I’m willing to look at it,’ he said. “It’s kind of like the old argument back in the 1930s when the government outlawed alcohol. Alcohol ruins people’s lives but basically it went underground and people still drank. They just did it illegally and the government wouldn’t get any revenue off of it.”

Gillespie said he hasn’t heard of any changes from previous efforts that would make him oppose the bill. Clampitt admits to having mixed feelings and that his number one priority is that it doesn’t affect tribal gaming revenues for the Eastern Band. 

“We look forward to having that conversation to see where they stand to be to make sure that we don’t intrude or cause any negative impact to the tribal income,” he said. 

There are, however, no mixed feelings for Pless. He thinks the benefits don’t outweigh the risks, and that the bill won’t even make it to the floor. He’s a solid “no.”

Joining Pless in that sentiment is Democrat Rudow, who was frustrated with the amount of time devoted to the bill last year, when the state faced larger issues. He thinks the amount of revenue the state may gain from legalization is overstated, and that gambling has a bigger impact on lower-income communities. 

Ager also said he was generally opposed to the idea, citing the possibility of people making “bad decisions” in regard to the state’s fanatical college sports scene. 

Prather remains undecided. 

“I think there are really good arguments on both sides,” she said. “Of course, we’re looking at revenue for the state, but is it as much as some people are saying we’ll get and where is that revenue going? I think that we have to be cautious when we look at what’s gone on with the education lottery and not as much money going to the schools as people had believed when we instituted that.” 

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