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Appropriating Time: Rep. Linda Johnson Leads the Life of Busy Budget Chair 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

It was the third day of the 2016 legislative session, and Rep. Linda Johnson’s calendar was jam-packed. Not just for normal legislative business, either. Johnson, a long-serving Republican from Kannapolis, is a House Appropriations Committee chair, making her Raleigh office an especially popular stop for various groups seeking aid in the state spending plan that lawmakers were in Raleigh to tweak. Adding to the clamor, the state had just reported a budget surplus.

But Johnson’s bright smile proved she was anything but frazzled. To her, it was simply a sign of good news.

"It’s nice to have years with more funds, more revenue," she said. "It means you’re going to be able to think of more solutions."

She quipped that any time state revenues exceed projections, "the 120 people in the House can spend it for you real fast. And so you get to the taxpayers’ aspect of it. How am I going to take that taxpayer’s dollar and make it produce the most for the state?"

Johnson, now in her eighth House term, connects her prior careers in problem-solving with her focus on collaboration – whether with legislators, local officials or residents – to find the greatest payoff with the resources at hand. In an interview in her legislative office, she discussed a previous career connecting inventors with manufacturers and users. "We would take (an invention) and make it marketable," she said. "And I think that type of process or that type of business 

helped me when I got here, because I had to change as needs changed, which is what you have to do here."

So what led you to from the business world to political office?

I had children, so I automatically participated in PTA, things like that. But we had needs. Needs began to come up in our community. For instance, I remember one time we didn’t have enough ball teams. I just went out and found some people to give some money, and bought a ball field. And got a franchise. So we fixed that problem. So I thought, "Why don’t I try this on the school board?" So when I got there (as elected in 1992), I managed to raise money and get the first "cyber center" in the nation (giving students access to computers and the Internet) without spending any taxpayers’ dollars… And I decided I’d come here and try to solve problems, see if I couldn’t help…. I think besides my ability to find solutions, I just really do love people, and I think that’s very important.

Tell us about your district in Cabarrus County and what makes it unique.
I have two school districts – I chair the Education Committee, also – and one has socioeconomics that are really low. The other does not – it’s low, but not to that extent. And I have a city that has a very big tourism industry,  on the west side. And then on the east side, I have rural. I have the rural and suburban. So, it’s totally different, so you have to know about everything. I’ve got small towns, I’ve got big towns and I’ve got an interstate running through. I’ve got transportation problems some counties don’t have. I have to make sure tourism is funded correctly, because that supports a lot of our local people and our local government. It is the most unusual district…. That’s been a blessing, too, because you know the needs that your county has. If you only had the rural side, you wouldn’t know the needs of your suburban side. 

With those dynamics, what is your constituent work like when you’re back in the district? If there were two of me, I’d just be thrilled to death. You’re a better legislator if you meet with your people and you talk with your people. Right now I chair Appropriations, for the budget, as a chief budget writer. That is lots and lots of time. And then I chair the Education Oversight (Committee), and a lot of time goes into that…. And then I have to make sure that I get to the fire department, the city, each school, each new innovation project, and go to the meetings, find out the problems of the city and the county and see if I can help them solve problems. I will tell you that not ever will you put in less than 40 hours a week. And during session, it’s 70 hours a week.

Knowing how urban and rural needs differ, what do you see as the biggest challenge right now in that regard?
When you have 280 people coming a day, you’re going to have problems. The growth is always a problem, especially for cities, because (property owners) don’t pay taxes until after you’ve been there a year. So it’s been a challenge for the cities, and counties also. But you have growth in every area … and it’s a great problem to have, a growth problem. But it is a problem. And you have to make sure that it is a positive for everyone. You have to make it work in your rural areas, you have to make it work in your cities. You have to make a plan to make it a positive thing in North Carolina. I think the governor is doing that. He’s hearing from all the businesses and the communities…. I believe we’re all headed in the right direction to be able to make growth a positive for everybody in this state.

As a Kannapolis resident, do you have a constructive relationship with city officials there?

Oh, yes. If someone knows you, they don’t mind you having their cell phone number. There’s a relationship there. And if it’s 11 o’clock at night and I need an answer for 8 o’clock in the morning, I have somebody (from the City of Kannapolis) to call.

Looking back on your 16 years in the legislature, what are you most proud of?

I get as much joy out of an individual’s problem that I’m able to solve as I do a big bill. There’s real rewards. My greatest, it was a five-year project, and that was getting the N.C. Research Campus up and running in my area (in Kannapolis). And we’ve had some very successful medical research done there. Even though I only had the small part of starting the Research Campus, seeing what has come out of it has been beautiful…. I especially get rewarded with children. Yesterday there were two little boys with a minister and his wife who had come to visit me. And the little boys were just thrilled with coming to Raleigh. It was just the joy of my day. Everybody else had a problem, but these two little kids, I’m thinking, I help make your education better. I make your life better. That to me is what it’s all about.