Having announced last year that this would be my last term in the legislature, my expectation was I’d complete my term on December 31st and begin enjoying retirement. That isn’t the way it played out. Instead, I find myself transitioning to the newly restructured North Carolina Board of Transportation. This restructure occurred following the passage of a transportation bill that reworked NCDOT’s budget in light of COVID-19 and a revenue shortfall resulting from overspending and hurricane-related expenditures. During the legislative session ending in late June, the NCDOT board’s mandate was expanded to provide oversight to the department’s budget, and include appointments to the board by the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Team of the Senate.
In years past, the Board of Transportation had a lot of influence in the department’s budget, with individual board members being able to direct how monies were spent in their respective districts. This changed during the Perdue Administration (2009-12) after several board members were implicated in scandals regarding projects which inured to their benefit. Governor Perdue and the legislature restricted the transportation board’s power at that time, and it largely lost responsibility for the budget. The most recent restructuring was meant to give the board back oversight on how monies are spent without giving individual board members responsibility for decisions on individual projects. Hopefully, the right balance has been struck. The DOT Secretary and the entire board was previously appointed by the Governor. In an effort to provide more oversight, the restructuring gives 6 of the 20 seats on the board to legislative leaders.
My appointment to the transportation board was a bit surprising, since I’d been an early critic of the Department’s spending—first, on a salary pilot program that gave the Department flexibility to make salary adjustments and, second, on its decision to expedite transportation funding at a time when its revenues were flat. Although my criticism of the Department wasn’t initially well received by the Department or by some of my legislative colleagues, two audits by NC State Auditor Beth Woods largely supported my critique, Department of Transportation Salary Adjustments and North Carolina Department of Transportation Financial Statement Audit.
During the most recent Short Session, I led the House-Senate effort to revise the NCDOT budget in light of the huge revenue shortfalls caused by the drop in gas tax revenues following the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, I led the effort to strike a deal between legislative leaders and Governor Cooper on the board restructuring. When the bill became law, I indicated to Speaker Moore that I would be interested in serving on the NCDOT board, if he wanted someone who would focus on transportation policy issues rather than simply being a political reward, as has been the case of some DOT board appointments made by governors in the past.
Before returning to North Carolina, I served on the same board in Georgia, and as a Henderson County Commissioner, I chaired the regional transportation board, the French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organization. Arguably, transportation has the largest impact on our environment — air, water, and land; its environmental impacts are my primary interest in board service.
I’m honored by the appointment to the Board of Transportation. My appointment is for a four-year term. While an at-large appointment, there should be no doubt I will continue to pay attention to projects in the mountains, particularly in Henderson County. It is important board members stay in close contact with local officials who likely have a clear understanding of the impact of transportation projects on their communities.
So my public policy work will not end at the end of the year. Rather, it will transition in about two weeks from the General Assembly to the Board of Transportation.
Two of the Senate Pro Tem’s appointments to the board were senators who resigned during the summer in anticipation of the appointments, but I chose not to do that. I am a budget chair, and as the legislature left Raleigh in late June it was anticipated that we’d be back in session soon to appropriate federal CARES Act funds and/or adopt a budget for FY 2020-21. As a failsafe, the legislature adjourned until September 2—a date viewed as about the latest date we could appropriate monies and reasonably expect them to be spent before the end of the year deadline required by the CARES Act. The Speaker wanted me to serve on the DOT board, but he also wanted me to complete the budget work. So I agreed to remain in the legislature until completion of the budget work.
This year, the budget process has been more frustrating than usual. Consistently since late spring, North Carolina was promised Congress would be providing further guidance as to how approximately $900 million in federal funds could be spent and states would likely receive additional appropriations. The failsafe date for the legislature to convene arrived without new guidance or additional federal monies.
As it turned out, my role in that two-day session was limited. First, the legislature’s options for spending the federal monies were greatly limited by Congress’ failure to expand the use to which the CARES Act monies could be spent. The problem with the state budget is plummeting revenues, but the federal monies largely cannot be used to fill revenue shortfalls. Second, long before COVID-19, I’d scored two highly sought after permits — one to paddle the Green River out of Dinosaur National Monument [the Gates of Ladore] and one to hike in “The Wave” in Paria Canyon in Utah. Never anticipating we could be in session in September during an election year, I had planned this hiatus and I was faced with the prospect of cancelling once-in-a-life experiences to be in Raleigh for another budget session.
In anticipation of the budget session, I worked with staff on budget options. Initially, budget discussions occurred on-line as most things have for the last six months. When the time came for my western sojourn to begin, I checked on flights to return to Raleigh. Ultimately, both my fellow budget chair colleagues and my leadership urged me not to fly back for the abbreviated legislative session since the budget bill was likely to pass with significant majorities and would be signed by the Governor. And that is what happened.
While Congress still hasn’t revised its guidelines for spending CARES Act monies and it also hasn’t appropriated additional monies to the states, North Carolina has apparently completed its budget work for this year. That means I’m now free to take the board seat prior to the early October NCDOT board meeting.
I am now in the midst of making a transition from the legislative branch to the executive branch. I’ve attended several local government council or commission meetings to say good-bye and express my appreciation to local officials for their work with me. In my new transportation board position, I expect to work closely with local government officials but my role will be different.
My legislative office is still working on a range of issues for constituents—many of them involving unemployment compensation issues relating to COVID-19. I’m still working on the proposed Ecusta Trail, and I am still trying to assist in funding projects related to my Henderson County district or western North Carolina. One role I’ve consistently played over the years is as an intermediary in disputes between local governments or involving local governments. Funding shortfalls due to COVID-19 have increased local government pressures and I am using what political and personal capital I have to try to resolve issues before leaving office.
If all goes as expected, I will resign my seat prior to the next NCDOT board meeting in early October. While it is not clear whether the legislature might be called back into session before the end of the year, my immediate successor will be named by the Henderson County Republican Party since I was elected as a Republican in 2018. The Governor will actually make the appointment, but has no discretion and must appoint the person nominated by the local party as long as that person is otherwise qualified — in other words, old enough, not a convicted felon or other otherwise barred from serving. Ultimately, the voters will elect a new representative in November.