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State lawmakers provide update during Chamber of Commerce Power in Partnership

SALISBURY — State legislators representing Rowan County spoke about their current projects and future plans during the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce’s virtual Power in Partnership legislative session on Thursday morning.

Before Sen. Carl Ford, R-33; Rep. Harry Warren, R-76; and Rep. Wayne Sasser, R-67, discussed what they’re working on in Raleigh, Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds highlighted the projects that are on the Chamber’s priority list, including a push for a new exit off of I-85 in East Spencer and support for expansion at the Mid-Carolina Regional Airport.

As chair of the health committee and the only pharmacist serving in the N.C. General Assembly, Sasser said that much of his recent focus has been on improving vaccine distribution.

“There’s been some inequities in getting the vaccine out to rural areas and rural counties,” said Sasser, who is in his second term and is Rowan County’s newest state legislator. “We’ve complained about some of the issues where they’ve had mega-sites and they’ve taken vaccines from our counties.”

Warren, who is serving his sixth term in the house, said that he has sponsored or co-sponsored 37 of the 118 bills that have been filed in the house of representatives. Two of those bills, House Bill 45 and 74, have been business-advocacy priorities for the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. House Bill 45 would provide additional funding for the N.C. Transportation Museum and House Bill 74 would help fund the ApSeed program that supports early childhood education.

In his second term in the senate, Ford is serving as the chairman of the appropriations general government and information technology committee and the state and local government. He is currently the senate Republican joint caucus leader.

The three legislators also fielded questions about a variety of topics, including broadband expansion, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and a new bill that would change the way public notices are posted.

Burgeoning broadband expansion

When asked about the plan for expanding broadband internet connection to more rural areas in Rowan County, all three legislators spoke about its importance.

“Broadband is not only essential in rural areas for education purposes, but if we don’t get that technology out there, the economic development of our rural areas and the gap between the metropolitan areas, which are experiencing most of our population growth, that gap will get larger and larger and the rural communities will be left further and further behind,” Warren said.

Ford said that expanding broadband is a “long, drawn out process,” but that the state is attempting to speed it up with more funding this year. 

An example of that increased funding, Sasser said, was that the North Carolina General Assembly earmarked $39 million in the recently-passed $2.2 billion COVID-19 relief bill to expand broadband in 18 counties. Although Rowan County didn’t receive any of that funding, Sasser said it would still help his constituents in the long run.

“I told my people in Stanly and I’ll tell the people in Rowan County the same thing,” Sasser said. “As long as somebody else gets broadband, that puts you closer to getting it next.”

Rowan County has used CARES Act funding to catalyze OpenBroadband’s current expansion into rural parts of the county.

The General Assembly, Sasser said, is currently examining ways to encourage major internet providers to reactivate currently unused “dark fibers” that could bring internet connection to rural areas where they are already installed.

“They haven’t had to (turn the dark fibers on), so we’re going to have to pass some legislation,” Sasser said.

The need for broadband expansion, Sasser said, may have even surpassed the demand for the construction of new roads in the state. 

Keeping track of transportation

Asked about whether the General Assembly will set money aside for transportation, Ford took a moment to review the current state of the NCDOT.

“The obstacle has been the past year to two years has been the DOT itself and its poor management,” said Ford, who is on the transportation committee. “That’s why there’s a new secretary there and hopefully things will get better. I mean, they just wasted $700 million and they can’t tell us on what yet.”

Ford said that legislators have had to designate at least $30 million in the COVID-19 relief bill to give NCDOT enough funding to clean the existing highways. The NCDOT’s current focus, Ford said, should be on road resurfacing and maintenance, not construction.

As a result of less people driving during the COVID-10 pandemic, Ford said that the revenue generated from the fuel tax took a “nosedive” in 2020. However, he said that revenue is slowly coming back in.

Despite the “mismanagement” of the NCDOT in the last two years, Ford said that he is optimistic that the agency will get back on track under Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette.

Potential change in public notices

Questioned about House Bill 35, Warren explained his reasoning for introducing the bill that would give Rowan and 13 other counties the ability to publish public notices on their websites rather than in newspapers.

“The reason the bill was introduced is to help alleviate some of the costs that towns and counties are facing because of the impacts of the prolonged shutdown of the economy affecting their revenue streams as well,” Warren said.

At the Rowan County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, Finance Director Jim Howden reported that the county’s cumulative revenue totaled $100.6 million in January, which was a roughly $2 million increase from the year before.

Warren pointed to the fact that some newspapers have reduced the number of days that an edition is printed as another reason why he is championing the bill.

“Tracking 215 newspapers across North Carolina, we found that 115 of them are weeklies,” Warren said. “These notices are going online anyway and it makes more sense to have government notices on a government website to begin with.”

House Bill 35 passed through the judiciary report committee on Tuesday, Warren said, at which time an amendment was added that would require county board of elections to post its notices on county websites and in local newspapers.

Ford mentioned that public notices have been posted on the Cabarrus County website for the past 10 years.

After asking Stanly County commissioners their thoughts on the bill, Sasser said that he will likely not vote in favor of it when given the chance.

“I did poll my county commissioners in Stanly County and they were 5-2 against the bill,” Sasser said. “… I think it’s a good bill, but I may be forced to be a no on the bill when it comes on the floor but that doesn’t mean I don’t support it.”

Rep. Julia Howard R-77 was unable to speak during the event due to technical difficulties.

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