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Local lawmakers talk priorities for 2020-21 legislative session

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The pandemic, health care, budget and redistricting will be among the top priorities this legislative session, but local lawmakers also plan to file bills related to debt settlement, prescription medicines and incentives for plastic recycling when state lawmakers return to Raleigh later this month.

Lawmakers formally convened the 2021-2022 legislative session on Wednesday, but bills won’t be officially filed with clerks for formal introduction until Jan. 27. In addition to the official swearing-in of state legislators on Wednesday, Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, said the first few days of the session provide a time for new lawmakers to become oriented with the legislative process and committee proceedings.

“At first, it’s slow. It has to get going,” said Sen. Carl Ford, a Republican who represents Rowan and Stanly counties in the state’s 33rd Senate district. “And then before you know it, that train is rolling down the track.”

As the pandemic rages on, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be a priority. All lawmakers cite broadband expansion as another priority to be discussed during the session.

Redistricting 

While committee chairs have the discretion to host meetings virtually rather than in-person, discussions regarding redistricting are expected to be streamed online for transparency, Warren said. House members haven’t received the final data from the 2020 Census, but they will be tasked with redrawing districts this year. Preliminary data suggests that a 14th congressional district could be added in the state.

Redistricting that will occur this year is required in conjunction with the new Census data, but North Carolina is no stranger to legal battles related to redistricting. Most recently, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s determination that two of the state’s districts were racially gerrymandered. Thus, in 2019, the state adopted a new congressional district map. Also in 2019, in response to a separate court order, the state adopted new state legislative district maps.

Warren served as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting in 2019. One of his bills, the NC FAIR State & Congressional Districts Act, currently sits in the House Committee on Redistricting. That bill calls for the establishment of an independent redistricting commission that consists of 16 registered voters, including 11 voting members and five nonvoting alternative members. Members would be selected by the Senate majority and minority leaders, the House majority and minority leaders, along with four members selected by the other eight voting members of the commission.

Warren said he doesn’t anticipate that bill or any others to establish an independent commission will come to fruition this year. And with the addition of new representatives elected in 2020, they wouldn’t be aware of last year’s discussions anyway, he added.

For the 2021-22 legislative session, Warren will chair the State Personnel Committee, co-chair the Joint Legislative Committee on Local Government and serve as vice chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. He’s an advisory member on the Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee, and serves as a member on the Revenue Laws Study Committee, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on the North Carolina State Lottery and the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting.

Budget and Medicaid expansion

The 2021-22 legislative session also marks the start of a new budget for the state. North Carolina appropriates operating and capital funds on a biennial, or two-year cycle. During this year’s session, lawmakers will consider the governor’s recommended budget and implement any other changes they deem fit before passing a two-year budget in the summer.

This year, because of the uncertain revenue forecast, state officials are separating the budget preparation process into two parts to provide a base budget and a change budget. Once the revenue picture becomes clearer, the Office of State Budget and Management will work with agencies to determine the best path forward for determining change budget requests.

Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican who represents Rowan and Davie counties in the 77th House district, will continue serving as senior chair of the House Finance Committee. That committee evaluates the amount of revenue coming in, how stable the state’s operations are and how much can be allocated to various agencies.

Howard said tax revenue received amidst the pandemic will be a “mixed bag” because some tax revenue types increased while others decreased. For example, internet sales tax revenue is up, she said, while fuel tax revenue is down because people aren’t traveling as much.

She added that this is not the year to include “massive raises,” especially if “we don’t know where our money is right now.”

“We need to stay the course right now if we can,” Howard said.

Howard will also co-chair both the Revenue Laws Study Committee and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. She will serve as a member of the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations and the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee.

Medicaid expansion was a point of contention during the most recent attempt to pass a statewide budget as Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, insisted lawmakers include it and the Republican-led General Assembly declined to do so in the form he requested.

Warren said the pandemic has pushed the issue of access to health care to the forefront, but he doesn’t see expanding Medicaid being “any more viable now than it has been in the past.”

“The state couldn’t afford it in the best financial scenario and it can’t support it now,” Warren said.

He instead prefers refining the N.C. Healthcare Bill, which would provide health coverage to North Carolinians using the N.C. Health Care for Working Families Program. That bill also establishes the North Carolina Rural Access to Healthcare Grant Program.

Rep. Wayne Sasser, a Republican who represents parts of Rowan, Stanly and Cabarrus counties in House District 67, said he hopes 2021 is the first time in four years that a full budget is passed, adding that it’s unfortunate when a lawmaker works hard to include pieces important for their constituents in a budget that’s ultimately not finalized.

“I don’t think there’s any winners when you have those types of impasses,” he said.

Similarly, Howard said discussions and negotiations between the Democratic governor and Republicans “don’t need to sit at a stalemate.” Instead, Howard said, the two sides need to “work through what we can.”

Ford said there’s room to talk about more tax reform because businesses need help now more than ever. His desire is to see additional business tax cuts along with the personal income tax. Charging a franchise tax is a “slap in the face of every business,” he added.

“Cutting taxes helps and works,” Ford said.

Another priority this session will be the discussion of a viable revenue stream for the state Department of Transportation. Historically, the department has relied on the revenue from fuel sales to operate, but it’s a less feasible option now that people are now using less fuel, Ford said. The increased popularity of electric cars also is a factor.

Ford says the focus of Medicaid should be ensuring North Carolinians with disabilities are prioritized. Sasser, the legislature’s lone pharmacist, said an economic assessment isn’t the best basis for enrolling in the program and that priority should be among those in bad health.

Sasser added that lawmakers should be willing to have a broad conversation about what they can do to ensure money for health care coverage is going to the right places rather than “throwing more money at a broken system” with Medicaid.

For this legislative session, Sasser will serve as chairman of both the Appropriations, Health and Human Services committee and the Health Committee. He will serve as a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services.

Lawmakers’ bills

Howard said early conversations related to unemployment insurance will assess if the state is currently “on track” with spending the available funds. During the last session, she served as co-chair for both the House Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance.

Howard plans to reattempt a debt settlement bill that that passed the House and Senate during the short session in June but was ultimately rejected for a vote on the Senate floor. That bill proposed changes to a current law that states it’s a criminal offense for debt adjusting and debt settlement.

Debt adjusting is taking money and promising to pay it to someone else’s creditor. Debt settlement is going between the debtor and creditor to negotiate on behalf of the debtor. Both are misdemeanors under current law. Howard’s proposed bill aimed to make it clear that the attorney general has the authority to stop such activity, and it helps the debtor who might want to sue.

Warren said he plans to revisit the N.C. Managing Environmental Waste Act of 2019 — House Bill 823 in the 2019-20 session — which passed the House with only one “no” vote but stalled in the Senate. That bill is intended to lower the state’s reliance on single-use plastics by incentivizing counties and municipalities to provide plastic recycling services.

Warren said that effort is even more important now as the pandemic has made a dent in many counties’ and municipalities’ revenue and budgets, which results in the temptation to reduce recycling efforts.

Warren also plans to file a bill that would repeal or modify the mandatory age limit requirement for judges, which is currently set at 72.

In terms of election-related laws, Warren anticipates a bill that would prepare the state for voting in the future to avoid “feeling our way through it” like the 2020 general election.

Ford said he “doesn’t like to let the cat out of the bag” regarding what he plans to file. He said a handful of bills he’s working on aren’t “earth-shattering,” but do help his constituents. However, during his campaign, Ford said one area of focus would be another attempt at modifying the governor’s use of emergency powers, saying Cooper’s pandemic-related restrictions have been an abuse of power.

Ford supported Senate Bill 105 in the 2019-20 session, which would have required the governor to receive approval from the Council of State before closing businesses further or exercising other emergency powers. That bill was ultimately vetoed. Ford has previously said he’d rather see the governor have powers for four weeks and then require full approval from the Council of State for further actions. After 60 days, the General Assembly should reconvene and allow lawmakers to be involved in the decision-making process, he said.

In addition to Ford’s new role as the Republican joint caucus leader, he will co-chair the State and Local Government Committee and the Appropriations on General Government Committee. He will also serve as a member of the base budget committee, transportation committee, pensions committee and redistricting committee.

Sasser plans to file a bill related to prior authorization procedures for prescription medications. Typically, a doctor sends an order for medication to a pharmacy, but often insurance companies return the order, requesting that the physician justify their use of the particular medication. That can lead to patients not receiving their medicines by the time they reach the pharmacy. Some states, Sasser said, allow the doctor’s order of medicine to go straight to insurance companies so that physicians can prescribe a medication that insurance covers or issue a prior authorization before the patient arrives to the pharmacy.

Perhaps Sasser’s biggest priority, however, will be redrafting House Bill 534, which aimed to protect independent pharmacies from losing money due to the little negotiation power they have over pharmacy benefit managers — the controversial middlemen that manage prescription drug benefits for health insurers, Medicare Part D drug plans and large employers. A U.S. Supreme Court unanimous ruling from December now allows states to more aggressively regulate and protect against abusive payment practices from pharmacy benefit managers.

H.B. 534 died before making it through the House, but it would’ve applied to only 30% of insurance claims in the state due to the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 that prevents state pharmacy laws from overriding federal law, Sasser said. But with the recent Supreme Court ruling, a modified bill could help up to 80% of the state’s claims, with the only exception being Medicare Part D drug plans.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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