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Taking the Field: Be ever vigilant, the short session comes 

By Paul Meyer, NCLM Executive Director

A few weeks back, a newspaper article indicated that legislative leaders did not want the legislative short session, whose start is now just around the corner, to be filled with controversial issues. In fact, the word was that they didn’t want to deal with anything that might distract from the core mission of the even-numbered year session – budget adjustments, consideration of raises for state employees and teachers, and remaining  transportation issues that might to be addressed.

After the longest legislative session in more than a decade in 2015, there is good reason to believe that the legislative leadership sincerely wishes to keep the legislative meeting days to a minimum in 2016. But for an advocacy organization like the League of Municipalities, with League member cities and towns touched by so much of what the legislature does, it is important to put that talk into context.

In an election year, legislative leaders typically express a desire to get in and out of Raleigh quickly. Their job is keeping their legislative majorities, and long days spent in Raleigh dealing with controversy can mean more campaign fodder for election opponents. But with all the incentive in the world to avoid a lengthy session in election years, they still happen.

There are a lot of reasons for that. What is seen as an it-can-wait, noncritical issue by one state lawmaker is a must-do, must-have priority for another. Even legislators in the same party have very different constituencies with different needs. And no matter the issue, a legislator who came close to gaining passage of
his or her priority bill in a legislative long session is going to want another shot in the short session.

What does all of that mean for cities and towns? It means that we have to be as ready as ever when the legislature reconvenes on April 25. I am very confident and optimistic that we are. That optimism stems from seeing 80-plus members of our policy committees in Raleigh back in February, and how focused they all were on the critical priorities of towns and cities, and of making our Municipal Advocacy Goals as sharp and to the point as ever. That meeting, by the way, was the first ever in which the three Legislative Advocacy Committees and the Regulatory Advocacy Committee met first collectively before breaking out into separate sessions.

These policy committees and their work are the spear point of our advocacy efforts. Each one of them, lending their credibility in their communities to the priorities of cities and towns, makes our message stronger in the Legislative Building. That is as important in 2016 as it was in 2015, 2014 or 2013 because we simply do not know what kind of policy challenges lie ahead in the weeks and months to come.

What we do know is that there always has been and always will be tension between the role and duties of state and local government, and from that tension will arise proposals that are adverse to the needs and priorities of cities and towns. At the conclusion of the February policy committee meetings, I read from a 1916 letter from the Carolina Municipal Association, the predecessor to the League. The letter refers to a view by some that towns and cities are “mere assets for the State and county to feed upon.” Criticizing state and county control of business privilege licenses, it begins: “At the last meeting of the Carolina Municipal Association held in Charlotte last May, one of the most important matters discussed was the necessity for more recognition by our State and County authorities, to the needs of our towns and cities, from a revenue standpoint.”

Not everything has changed in North Carolina over the last century.