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League Bulletin

March 18, 2016

North Carolina voters have given a resounding “yes” to Connect NC, the $2 billion answer to public resource needs statewide. According to unofficial results that will be certified in the coming week, more than 65 percent of voters backed the public improvement bond, the first of its kind since 2000. The bond’s overwhelming passage fulfills a League goal to see municipalities afforded resources they need to accommodate growth and provide a standout quality of life. “This is a major win for cities and towns across the state,” said League Executive Director Paul Meyer. “It means investments in local infrastructure, parks, higher education and other resources that will improve North Carolina and its municipalities today and for the future.”

Connect NC means $309.5 million for improvements to local water and sewer systems, vital to support the state’s brisk population growth. In addition to public health interests, reliable water and sewer infrastructure is paramount for the recruitment of industry and jobs. Connect NC also means $1.3 billion for capital improvements and other boosts in the state’s higher education system, $75 million for state parks and $25 million for the North Carolina Zoo. These enhancements will help magnetize their surroundings for new residents and visitors, private spending and economic prosperity. The package also includes $70 million to modernize National Guard facilities and $180 million for agriculture, a huge sector of the state’s economy.

Local governments all over North Carolina, along with the League’s Executive Committee, passed resolutions supporting Connect NC. League leadership worked on this effort in partnership with House and Senate leaders as well as Gov. Pat McCrory. “The people of North Carolina sent a strong message to the nation that working together can make a difference,” said McCrory after Tuesday’s passage. “This was a bi-partisan effort with Republicans and Democrats from the mountains to the coast, both in the legislative and executive branches, coming together to accomplish something that will have a significant impact for the next generation.” After the 2000 bond package, North Carolina’s population grew by 2 million – roughly the amount of voters who cast ballots in this primary. The League would like to thank members and others who worked for the passage of the bond. Read earlier coverage about the effects of the bond package in this Southern City article. Read media coverage of the bond's passage here.

Nominees are set for November following primaries that offered few surprises but kept elections officials up late as a strong voter turnout brought in more than 2 million ballots. The 35 percent turnout rate edged that of the 2012 primaries, the last time ballots featured presidential hopefuls. While Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton commanded most of the attention and won their respective primaries here, plenty of state government races went before voters. Gov. Pat McCrory had no problems securing the Republican nomination for a second term, nor did Roy Cooper as the Democratic contender this fall. Past Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Linda Coleman will again face off for the post with Dan Forest, the Republican incumbent who was not challenged in the primaries, and Libertarian candidate J.J. Summerell. Key legislative leaders like Republican Reps. David Lewis of Dunn and Nelson Dollar of Cary defeated the first set of primary challengers they’d received since entering office more than a decade ago. And two current state senators, Democrat Josh Stein and Republican Buck Newton, will face off for attorney general after successful primaries.

In another widely watched race, Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican, pulled out a narrow victory – with less than a 2 percent vote difference – over fellow Republican Lane Burris. An even closer incumbent primary win saw Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville pass with a 0.38 percent edge. That makes it one of three legislative primaries that could undergo recounts. Law provides for recounts when the difference between votes is 1 percent or less of the total cast. Read media coverage of the recount possibilities here.

The General Assembly’s only incumbent losses this primary were Republican Rep. George Robinson of Lenoir, who will be replaced by fellow Lenoir resident Destin Hall (who doesn’t face a General Election challenger), and Democratic Rep. Ralph Johnson of Greensboro. Sadly, Johnson passed away Tuesday following complications from a stroke, the Greensboro News & Record reported. Hall’s race is among several General Assembly races that the primaries settled as no candidates from the opposing party filed. See all official results from the State Board of Elections here.

While presidential and state government bids had the spotlight in the 2016 primaries, several municipal races were settled Tuesday, including do-overs of problematic 2015 elections. Voters in Pembroke elected Greg Cummings as mayor in a re-do of the November election. The state had ordered a new election there after potential voting flaws arose. Cummings, who beat out three other contenders, is a former town council member and has served as Robeson County’s economic development director. The state ordered a similar re-do in a Lumberton City Council race, where incumbent Leon Maynor pulled through after a close contest with Laura Sampson. A re-do in a Benson town commissioner race – after an investigation found many voters last November cast ballots in the wrong district – saw Curtis Dean McLamb beat out incumbent John Bonner with 58 percent of the total. And in Trinity, a re-ordered election for a newly created at-large seat on the city council put Tommy Johnson out front with 40 percent of the vote. Johnson, a past city council member who held off two challengers, had filed a complaint after the November election alleging someone voted improperly, and a new election was ordered. At the time, the results showed a tie between Johnson and his challenger. Ahoskie held a new election after the State Board of Elections determined one of the candidates lived outside of the district. Voters in the new election picked Charles Reynolds for the seat. Read past media coverage of the re-ordered elections here.

March balloting for Winston-Salem City Council was more straightforward, with a scheduled primary election for nominees to the partisan body. Three city council primaries were at hand. For the city’s Northeast Ward, incumbent Democrat Vivian Burke beat out Keith King for the nomination and will pass the November ballot unchallenged. In the Northwest Ward, Republican Eric Henderson fended off primary challenger Jimmy Hodson. Henderson is expected to face Democratic incumbent Jeff MacIntosh in the General Election. In the city’s South Ward, Democrat Carolyn Highsmith narrowly beat fellow Dem John Larson, but the Election Day margin was so close – only four votes separated them – that Larson is entitled to a recount if the difference remains within 1 percent of the vote total after the canvass on Tuesday. The canvass could factor in new votes from provisional ballots and outstanding absentee-by-mail ballots. That seat currently is held by Democrat Molly Leight, who did not file for re-election. All election results are unofficial until canvassed. You can find all election results, including those in municipal races, at the State Board of Elections website here.

Connect NC wasn’t the only bond issue to win voters’ favor in the primaries. Fayetteville’s electorate said “yes” to its own bond initiative worth $35 million for parks and recreation improvements. Passing with 59 percent support, it will fund two senior centers, a tennis center, a sports field complex, two skate parks, a riverfront park, seven splash pads and improvements to seven existing parks, according to a list from the city. A primer on its website explains the improvements and additions are long overdue. Officials pointed to a study that identified more than $82 million in parks and recreation needs, adding that study is now a decade old. Elsewhere, towns considered changes to local alcohol ordinances. Voters in Rowland approved the sale of mixed drinks. Meanwhile, Kingstown voters turned down separate ballot measures to authorize beer and wine retail sales for on-premises consumption.

Legislators continued to wrestle this week with the direction they want to take in reforming the state's method of accounting for areas of economic distress. Two separate committees reached different conclusions about whether to move forward by leaving most policy decisions to the N.C. Department of Commerce, or pull back and take time to craft the policies themselves. These "either/or" decision points have occurred multiple times as legislators discussed this issue during the interim. Previous discussions were marked by a need to reconcile dueling staff positions and consider opposing ideas regarding how much to help distressed communities in urban versus rural areas.

Members of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee (PED) sided with moving forward and giving Commerce a large amount of decision-making authority for implementation, voting Monday to advance a proposal to a second interim legislative committee, the Joint Legislative Economic Development and Global Engagement Committee (EDGE) (Read details of this proposal in this article from last week's LINC'ed IN.) However, the EDGE Committee put the brakes on that proposal yesterday, with many committee members stating their unease with having only a short time to digest a large amount of information. The legislature initiated this discussion last session, stating a need to develop a tool that better accounts for areas of economic distress than the current three-tier system.

In particular, yesterday's EDGE Committee discussion revealed a fracture among committee members in terms of their preferred approach to development of an alternative tool. Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown of Jacksonville began by voicing his doubts that Commerce would wisely use the discretion given to it under the PED draft proposal. "This proposal would hurt rural North Carolina, and it can use some work," he said. In response, Sen. Rick Gunn of Burlington urged the committee to vote the PED proposal forward, saying he did not mind giving Commerce a large amount of control over how to spend economic development dollars, so long as the department's decisions resulted in more jobs in distressed areas.

Sen. Tom McInnis of Rockingham echoed those comments, pointing to a proposed economic development commission that would guide many of the numerous outstanding policy decisions. That commission, McInnis said, would include representatives from the state's neediest areas, thereby ensuring a voice for those communities in discussions with Commerce. Ultimately, the EDGE Committee decided to resume its discussion at its next meeting, scheduled for April 7. The committee is expected to consider yet another draft proposal at that meeting. Contact: Erin Wynia

A new filing period opened March 16 for candidates interested in Congress under new district maps the General Assembly approved in an extra session earlier this year. The slate also includes a seat on the state Supreme Court, for which a primary could be held if three or more candidates emerge. For Congress, 12 names were on file for seats in nine districts as of publication time Friday. There are 13 congressional districts in total. At the same time, two names were in the Supreme Court hat – incumbent Associate Justice Bob Edmunds and Raleigh attorney Sabra Faires.

A law passed in the 2015 legislative session sought to establish “retention elections” for Supreme Court – voters would decide whether to keep the incumbent rather than select among candidates – which Faires successfully challenged in court as unconstitutional. A three-judge panel in February sided with Faires. According to the Associated Press, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments over the retention elections case April 13, but state elections officials arranged for candidate filing concurrent with the congressional period in light of the lower court ruling. View complete information about the new filing period and an updated list of candidates here.

A federal appeals court heard arguments this week in a lawsuit brought by the states of North Carolina and Tennessee attempting to overturn a Federal Communications Commission ruling that allows for expansion of municipal broadband. The Associated Press reported that attorneys for the FCC argued that state laws like one passed in North Carolina in 2011 that limited municipal broadband interfered with the agency's responsibility to regulate competition. Attorneys for the states said the FCC ruling unlawfully intervened in state governance.

The FCC issued its ruling last year after the City of Wilson and the City of Chattanooga, Tenn., petitioned the federal agency to pre-empt the state law. Wilson's Greenlight community broadband has received national attention for high-speed service and is seen by city officials as a major attractor of business. Comments the League submitted to the FCC were cited in the agency’s ruling that overturned the North Carolina law and a similar one in Tennessee. More recently, the League filed an amicus brief in support of the FCC decision. Read the AP coverage of the court hearing here.

One former legislator and a current one died this week following brief illnesses. Former Sen. Earline Parmon of Winston-Salem died on Tuesday after a brief undisclosed illness; Rep. Ralph Johnson of Greensboro also died Tuesday after suffering a stroke days earlier. Parmon served in the Senate from 2012 to 2015 and had previously served five terms in the House. Johnson was elected to the House in 2014. The League sends its sincere condolences to the families of both Senator Parmon and Representative Johnson.