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The flight of a freshman legislator 

by Scott Mooneyham, NCLM Advocacy Communications Specialist


 Representative Stephen Ross speaks to North Carolina First Lady Ann McCrory during a reception at the Executive Mansion. Photo credit: Representative Stephen Ross.
Stephen Ross knows a little bit about risk, how to sometimes take a risk, how to manage it, and how to avoid it. The first-term state House member is a financial advisor.  He is also a former airplane pilot, the key word being “former.” “I grounded myself,” he says very matter-of-factly. “I flew for years. If you don’t have time to fly and stay sharp, it becomes dangerous.”

Over the past two years, Representative Ross has been adjusting to risk of another kind – learning how, as freshman legislator, to avoid being run over by a legislative process that he acknowledges can be confounding and frustrating, while making a mark by getting some ideas passed into law. He does have plenty of political experience to fall back on. Representative Ross spent 15 years on the Burlington City Council, two terms as the city’s Mayor. (He also served on the League’s Tax and Finance Legislative Action Committee during his final years on the Council.) He recently sat down to talk about the transition from municipal official to Legislator, his involvement with key pieces of legislation, and how he sees dividing lines between local and state government.

What led to your decision to initially run for public office?

In the early `90s, I had a cancer scare. When you go through that you start looking at your life, and things you’ve done or haven’t done. It put things in perspective and I realized that was a piece, that public service was something that I had left undone, so I came back as soon as I recovered and immediately filed for City Council.

The current mayor and the former mayor: Representative Ross stands with NCLM First Vice President and Burlington Mayor Ronnie Wall, as carmaker Tesla Motors announces its first supercharging station in the state. Photo credit: Representative Stephen Ross.
And the decision to run for the Legislature?

I can remember coming down, and working with some of the other mayors to get some gang legislation passed, which I thought would be a very simple thing. It turned out to be quite complicated, and the complexity of what we ran into was something that I felt like really didn’t need to be there. Ultimately, if I had an opportunity to try to fix some of that, streamline some of that, I decided I would take that opportunity. And the opportunity arose.

Is that difficulty affecting change here the biggest difference you see compared to serving in municipal government?

Local government, it is just the purest form of government, and that is something I miss, being closest to the people, making decisions locally, and being able to make a decision and looking forward to seeing that implemented pretty quickly. And then getting here to Raleigh, and finding that it doesn’t work that way. It’s like turning around a battleship. It just takes a long time.

Nonetheless, you sponsored a very important piece of legislation designed to curb pension-spiking in the state and local government retirement system (a League advocacy goal for 2014) and saw that bill pass. How did that come about?

It is a complicated issue, but we were able to finally come up with a formula that worked, or a formula, rather, that we could get agreement on with the League and (NC Association of) County Commissioners. Pension spiking is something that is not all that common. There are probably less than 200 cases a year. But it is an unfair practice to the rest of the system. It taxes everybody else that is a part of the system.

How do you see ongoing debate playing out at the Legislature regarding the lines of authority between state and local government?

 Representative Ross speaks to constituents back in the district. Photo credit: Representative Stephen Ross.
There were a number of issues that came up that, frankly, took power from local governments. I think that has created some dialogue about what’s really the right thing to do here. Some of us are pushing that dialogue forward. I think that the relationship between local government and state government, I do have hope that that is going to become better. We have been through a lot of things in five years, from the Great Recession, to a total changeover in the makeup of state government, and all of that change has put institutions at odds in ways that they probably once thought wasn’t possible.

It has forced some people to dig all the way down, and look at what are the rules and what does the (state) constitution say. I think going forward that examination is going to create a better atmosphere. I think the League has realized that there is a major change. I think at first the League didn’t do that. And I was part of the League at that point, but they said, “Oh no, this is not the way it has worked in the past.” Sometimes that is not the best answer. But just in the two years that I have been here, I have seen a real shift in the dialogue between the two, and I think it is good.