Two weeks ago, the House voted 68 to 33 to adjourn to a date certain — that date being ten days later. It has been a long time since the General Assembly had taken a break from its work in Raleigh, but everyone knew, even if they didn’t admit it, that the legislators and staff needed a break to recharge and catch up on work that didn’t necessarily need to be done in Raleigh.
The vote to adjourn, like a number of votes, was largely along party lines, with most Republicans voting to adjourn and most Democrats voting not to adjourn. Democrats, thinking they could score some political points, complained that we shouldn’t be taking a break when we hadn’t passed a budget. Strikingly, the arguments were mostly made by Democratic legislators who lived less than an hour from Raleigh and who sleep in their own beds every night.
The job of a legislator isn’t simply about what goes on in Raleigh. Some amount of the work that a legislator should be doing occurs back in the district when a legislator meets with constituents, discusses issues with local officials and attends a range of public forums and events. If one lives less than an hour away from the State Capitol, one can meet constituents during the week and easily meet with local officials or attend forums and events in the late afternoon and evenings. However, those legislators seem to forget that a good number of us have long drives to Raleigh and when we are home we do what they manage to do during the normal work week — and that doesn’t even take into account those legislators’ personal lives which may include kids at home or other jobs.
My schedule while home suggests that last week’s break was no vacation. My primary focus over the break was learning about health care, with a particular emphasis on Medicaid reform. I met with the CEOs of two hospitals and a representative of another. I met with executive directors of many of the human services agencies serving Henderson County with the focus being on how we provide medical care and how mental health issues are addressed. To get a broader understanding, I even met with folks familiar with health care issues in adjoining counties.
And I learned a lot.
From Chris Comeaux at Four Seasons, I learned about end-of-life care, and how things could change if the legislature repeals the Certificate of Need process. From Jennifer Henderson at Blue Ridge Community Health, I learned about how we provide health care to many who can’t pay for health care or who may be only covered by Medicaid. Kristen Martin at Thrive gave me an update on how mental health services were provided in the county.
But the break wasn’t just about meetings related to health care and Medicaid, it was also about economic development. Whenever I’m home, I try to get with County Manager Steve Wyatt and Andrew Tate, who heads up the county’s economic development efforts. They keep me abreast of what is happening in the county, and sometimes I can help Tate with his work as I did this time, meeting with executives of the new German medical device manufacturer who is locating in Mills River.
Their company will be hiring lots of new workers, including some that will be displaced when another company leaves the Asheville area. The State and Blue Ridge Community College are going to play a role in training workers for some high paying jobs, and my involvement signaled clearly that Senator Apodaca and I stood ready to help make sure that the State provided the job training that we’d promised when recruiting the company to come to our area.
But economic development isn’t just about recruiting new industry, it is also about keeping in touch with companies that are already operating in the area. Continental, Sierra Nevada and other businesses in and around the airport have had some issues related to road closures, so I spent time with Airport Director Lew Bleiweis and also looked at a section of unpaved road that would provide an alternative route into several industrial sites in case of road blockages so I could communicate knowledgably with NC DOT officials.
If I’d been on vacation, I guess I’d have read some science-fiction or novel, but the only book that I read was The Economics of Medicaid: Assessing the Costs and Consequences. The book explained everything one would want to know about Medicaid, from federal-state financing to potential reforms. Aside from catching up on the accumulated newspapers, much time was spent on the 508-page budget passed by the Senate. None of this was exactly what one reads on a vacation, right?!
Another part of a legislator’s job is communicating with his or her constituents, and one way to do that is by making oneself available to the press. I met with the editorial staff of the Asheville Citizen-Times and with the Hendersonville Times-News reporter who primarily covers legislative issues. With the Senate having just passed a somewhat controversial regulatory reform bill, House Bill 765 [Regulatory Reform Act of 2015], I was getting lots of emails about the bill, and the quickest way to communicate my views was to be interviewed by a reporter who wrote an article on the bill.
While I didn’t meet with Bill Moss at the Hendersonville Lightning, I had a long conversation with him when I wasn’t pressed for time and could actually have a leisurely discussion about legislation. As chance would have it, WLOS was covering the recent death of a child at a summer camp in a zip line accident, and a bill that had passed the Senate to study the issue. As a former summer camp director, I was uniquely qualified to speak to that subject and gave an interview.
Did I enjoy being home? Definitely.
I enjoyed getting out to an Asheville Tourists game with my Rotary Club friends, and I enjoyed getting to having a meal at Sierra Nevada and finally getting to see the new outside venue. I enjoyed getting back to the Underground Baking Company and running into Vaughn Fitzpatrick who developed the Ferncliff Industrial Park in Mills River. I enjoyed running into former Representative Carolyn Justus and talking about the museum and chatting with Caroline Gunther, the owner of Wag! A Unique Pet Boutique, about animal welfare legislation while on Main Street after the television interview.
While home, I talked with mayors, city managers, and county commissioners and when I headed back to Raleigh on Sunday I felt like I’d accomplished a lot and had my mental batteries recharged by sleeping in my own bed, spending some time with family and friends, and talking with many of my constituents about a wide range of issues, largely free of any thought of the political games played in Raleigh.
Over the break, I think I’ve figured out where I stand on the Senate’s tax reform package, particularly as it affects hospitals. I also think I’ve figured out where I stand on the Senate budget proposal on CON and COPA that mirror Senator Apodaca’s bill on the same subject, SB702 [Repeal CON and COPA Laws], and on the question raised by many of my constituents about Medicaid expansion. I know that I better understand the issues involved in Medicaid reform, but I’ve still got work to do before I know how the various Medicaid reform proposals play out for my Henderson County constituents.
More on these issues in the coming weeks as the House and the Senate try to reconcile the major differences between their respective budgets — budgets that include hugely different Medicaid reform proposals.