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Lots of successes in this year's short session 

by Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Advocacy Communications Strategist

If the so-called short sessions of the North Carolina General Assembly can be characterized as two- to three-month avalanches of legislative activity, the 2014 session was surely one that rained down almost unprecedented action. At the session’s outset, the House and Senate quickly advanced omnibus legislation affecting local privilege license taxes. By the time legislative leaders gaveled the session to a close – well after the early adjournment dates predicted in the spring – lawmakers had approved a budget and a coal ash clean-up plan aimed at protecting drinking water supplies and clarifying an environmental rule affecting cities.

In between, legislators approved measures to improve the fiscal integrity of the Local Government Employees Retirement System, to restore local authority to enact environment-related ordinances and to alleviate a burdensome purchasing and contracting requirement. Meanwhile, proposals that could have harmed municipalities, including one restricting local tree ordinances and another capping property tax revenues, fell by the wayside.

Member Planning

 
 League members gather at Town Hall Day. Photo credit: NCLM Files
In short, the League enjoyed many lobbying successes in 2014. Of course, that success did not start with the convening of the legislative session in early May. It began with the process of member involvement that initially set legislative and regulatory goals in 2013 in advance of the legislative

long session that year, and then reassessed those goals earlier this year.

In the winter and spring, at times having to brave ice and snow storms, the League’s Legislative Action Committees (LACs) and Regulatory Action Committee (RAC) met to re-examine those earlier goals and to identify other issues facing municipalities that might be addressed through legislative action. The 170 members of those committees, representing 86 different municipalities, helped to lay the groundwork going into the session. The League Board of Directors approved the revised goals in the spring.

The League went into the session with 27 legislative goals and four regulatory goals. These goals served as guideposts for League staff as they lobbied legislators on behalf of cities and towns. They also served to help explain and define to legislators the League’s positions as critical pieces of legislation moved through the General Assembly. It was only through this grassroots process of involvement of municipal officials, both in formulating goals and then in pursuing them through contacts with legislators, that a successful legislative session was possible. 

By the time the legislative session officially began on May 14, it was already clear that legislators were poised to make changes to the local business privilege license tax. The League and its members had adopted privilege license reform as a goal. It had been a primary focus of a legislative study committee, and House members wasted little time approving legislation that would have capped the tax for each business at no more than $100.

Instead, a Senate proposal that continued the tax with limited changes in the 2014-15 fiscal year, but would repeal it for the 2015-16 fiscal year, ultimately became law. The League, though, secured commitments from legislative leaders and Governor Pat McCrory to work with cities to find a replacement source of revenue in the coming year.

League Successes

 
 Tim Gauss, Director of Development Services for the Town of Morrisville, and Morrisville Town Manager Martha Wheelock discuss plans to meet with legislators during Town Hall Day 2014. Photo credit: NCLM Governmental Affairs Team.

League successes also began early in the session. Legislation tackling the practice of pension spiking, addressing a League Advocacy Goal intended to strengthen the Local Government Employees Retirement System, gained the approval of lawmakers after months of work with the bill’s sponsors, the State Treasurer’s Office and the Association of County Commissioners. A de facto moratorium on local environmental ordinances, adopted a year earlier as part of a regulatory reform bill, was dropped after municipal officials from around the state and League staff made a persuasive case before and during the session about the unintended and negative consequences of the 2013 provision.Another League Advocacy Goal, a requirement that mopeds be registered so that cites could better track their operation, gained wide support as it moved through the House and Senate. The League’s opposition to a late-session, local option sales tax bill helped lead to its defeat, even as legislative leaders tied more popular legislation to the bill’s passage. The League opposed the bill because it failed to account for municipal involvement in economic development. 

Other legislative successes over the course of the session included:

  • The removal of a provision that would have imposed a property tax revenue cap on municipalities from hydraulic fracturing legislation.
  • A hydraulic fracturing bill that maintained some local decision-making in determining land-use compatibility for drilling facilities.
  • Passage of a modified version of legislation requiring primary 911 centers to have back-up capabilities, but without expensive, new facility requirements.
  • The halting of legislation that would have prohibited local tree ordinances statewide.
  • Passage of legislation expanding the ability of municipalities to use reclaimed water for public water supplies.
  • Modification or elimination of several harmful provisions, including ethics-related requirements for elected officials in large cities, from regulatory reform legislation.
  • Elimination of a burdensome E-Verify requirement on smaller local government purchases and contracts. 
  • Negotiated language that allowed cities to continue regulating fertilizer as it relates to staying in compliance with state and federal wastewater and stormwater permits.

A Notable Presence

Municipal officials are recognized at the General Assembly. Photo credit: Jessica Wells
All these successes occurred against a backdrop of consistent involvement by League members contacting and interacting with their legislators, as well as engaging members of the media, to keep municipalities’ priorities before the larger public. The League’s Town Hall Day, involving nearly 500 municipal officials, was one of the most successful ever. Governor McCrory -- during a panel discussion in which he, State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata and Assistant Commerce Secretary Patricia Mitchell discuss transportation and economic development issues -- told city officials, “I’m still a city councilman and mayor at heart.”

Earlier in the day, Representative Tim Moore and Senator Bob Rucho addressed members, with a lively question-and-answer session following. Executive Committee members – Goldsboro Mayor Al King, President; Burlington Mayor Ronnie Wall, First Vice President; and Elkin Mayor Lestine Hutchens – met with capital reporters and the entire event generated significant media coverage. The League would like to thank Governor McCrory, Secretary Tata, Assistant Secretary Mitchell, Senator Rucho, Representative Moore and all of the legislators who took time out of their busy schedules to meet with city and town officials.

The earlier LAC (Legislative Action Committee) Lobby Days also allowed legislators to hear from League members on issues important to towns and cities. Even before the session, LAC members got the chance to meet with key legislators during as a part of the goals development process.      

The Governmental Affairs team thanks you all. The significant successes of 2014 would not have been possible without your commitment and involvement. A year after it appeared that member involvement could not be greater, it was. Your many trips to Raleigh helping develop goals and pushing  municipal priorities before state policymakers made a huge difference in legislative outcomes. That involvement is also helping more legislators see the critical role that strong cities play in North Carolina’s economic success.