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Rep. Ray Russell’s Raleigh Report: Newsletter Highlighting Info from NC General Assembly

January 15, 2020
A (Brief) Return to Raleigh
Legislators returned to Raleigh on Tuesday, Jan. 14, for a continuation of the 2019 session. Two pieces of legislation were voted on in the House:
  • Senate Bill 560, Scholarships for Children of Wartime Veterans. This bill passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Gov. Roy Cooper took action in December to address a shortfall in funding for this important program. This bill provides the long-term solution with recurring funding.
  • Senate Bill 622, Reduce Threshold/Medical Expense Deductions. This bill aligns NC tax law with Federal law, lowering the threshold for people who have huge medical expenses and benefit from itemizing these expenses in their tax returns. The bill passed the House unanimously but was not taken up by the Senate. 
A Job Not Finished
And with that, the session ended. The adjournment motion sends state legislators home until April 28. I voted “No” on the adjournment motion because our job is far from finished.
We should have been working on compromise solutions for teacher, faculty, and staff pay, funding for universities and community colleges, funding for school and infrastructure construction, and making healthcare more available and affordable.
Instead Legislative leadership held a press conference, refused to work with Gov. Cooper on a compromise, and proverbially “took their ball and went home.”
A fundamental, constitutional responsibility of the state legislature is to pass a budget. Without a new budget, state agencies will operate under “recurring” money allocated in 2017-18 (except for a handful of minibudget bills that addressed a few needs). Our state is growing and our agencies have increased demands. If departments are funded at levels from two years ago, they are not adequately meeting the needs of our citizens. Most importantly, public school teachers, school staff, community college teachers and staff, and university faculty and staff do not have raises. Adjournment without finishing our job was an unconscionable, heartless decision.
To make matters worse, these legislative leaders indicated that they have no intention of compromising on a budget in 2020. I cannot believe this legislative dysfunction is what the people of North Carolina want. Leadership refuses to accept the outcome of the 2018 vote when they lost the supermajority. North Carolina citizens sent a strong message that they want a government whose elected officials work out differences for the good of the state.
Kansas Passes Medicaid Expansion
While North Carolina legislative leaders refused to allow a vote on Medicaid expansion this session, Kansas has become the 37th state to approve the measure. The Kansas agreement is all the more remarkable because it came about from compromise between the GOP-led legislature and the Democratic governor.
This begs the question: Why can’t we here in North Carolina accomplish the same thing? A bipartisan compromise was on the NC House calendar for three months but never allowed to come to the floor for a vote. It passed in committee by a vote of 20-6. Bridging the coverage gap would benefit over 500,000 of our most vulnerable residents, create 43,000 jobs, inject $4 billion into the state’s economy, lower health insurance costs, and give a much-needed financial boost to struggling rural hospitals.
Here’s a link to an editorial on the issue by Erica Palmer Smith, director of Care4Carolina, a coalition of agencies working together to find a solution to the health insurance coverage gap in North Carolina: Closing the healthcare coverage gap News & Record.
Report of the State of Public Schools
In December 2019, a court-appointed independent consultant released a detailed 400-page report on public education in North Carolina. This report comes 25 years after the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that every child in the state has a constitutional right to a “sound basic education” (the Leandro Decision). The report is essentially a description of how North Carolina lives up to the constitutional standard and what we can do to fix shortcomings.
The report from WestEd, a nonprofit research group, says that the state was making steady progress in public education until 2013; however, the state went backwards in educational outcomes between 2013 and 2018. They concluded that North Carolina needs to increase school funding by $8 billion over the next eight years in order to meet the needs of students.
The report calls for new investments in public school education, including:
  • Providing a qualified, well-prepared, and diverse teaching staff in every school.
  • Providing all at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood programs to ensure they begin kindergarten ready to learn.
  • Directing additional resources, opportunities, and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students.
  • Building an effective regional and statewide system of support for the improvement of low-performing and high-poverty schools in the state.
  • Convening an expert panel to assist the court in monitoring state policies, plans, and progress over time.
The report noted how as of fiscal year 2017 North Carolina’s per pupil spending was the sixth lowest in the nation, ranking 45th among the 50 states, and has declined by about 6 percent since 2009-10. In 2010 the state ranked 26th in the nation for per pupil spending, according to a report from the NC General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division.
All claims by current legislative leaders that they have addressed these problems are smoke-and-mirrors. The bills and budget they put forward in 2019 do not fix fundamental problems resulting in the decline in student performance, challenges for the teaching profession, and school facilities. Who has been hurt the most? Our children, particularly low-income communities in North Carolina. We must take heed to the findings of the report—our future is at stake.
Judge Halts Implementation of NC Photo ID Law
Voters approved an amendment to the North Carolina constitution in 2018 to require in-person voters to show a photo identification. Immediately after the 2018 election, but before newly-elected legislators could take office, the General Assembly approved a hastily passed the law to implement the new photo ID requirement overriding Governor Cooper’s objections.
Last week, a federal judge issued an injunction halting implementation of the photo ID law. She stated that the new law may be racially discriminatory. The State of North Carolina will appeal the judge’s ruling after the March 2020 primary election. So, as it stands now, IDs will not be required at polling places in March.
Agreement Reached to Remove NC Coal Ash
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has secured an agreement on the excavation of nearly 80 million tons of coal ash at six facilities in North Carolina. Under a settlement agreement with community and environmental groups and Duke Energy, Duke Energy will move forward with excavation plans at the Allen, Belews Creek, Cliffside, Marshall, Mayo, and Roxboro sites, moving coal ash into on-site lined landfills.
The excavation is the largest coal ash clean up in the nation’s history and will result in more excavation than in four neighboring states combined. 
The agreement also requires Duke to enter into a court-supervised consent order with DEQ and the community groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
For more information and to read the agreement and closure plans: https://deq.nc.gov/coalashexcavation
In 2019 I cosponsored House Bill 567 which would have required Duke Energy and its shareholders to bear the cost of the cleanup, but House leadership would not let it be heard in committee so it never made it to the floor for a vote. As a consequence, ratepayers are footing the bill.
One-Stop Early Voting in Watauga and Ashe
One-Stop Early Voting Schedule for Watauga
All sites are open the following dates and times:
  • Thursday, Feb 13 & Friday, Feb 14: 8 am-7:30 pm
  • Monday, Feb 17–Friday, Feb 21: 8 am-7:30 pm
  • Monday, Feb 24–Friday, Feb 28: 8 am-7:30 pm
  • Saturday, Feb 29: 8 am-3 pm
Locations (You can vote at any One-Stop site in Watauga County)
  1. Watauga County Administration Building, 814 West King Street, Boone
  2. ASU Plemmons Student Union, Blue Ridge Ballroom, 263 Locust Street, Boone
  3. Blowing Rock Town Hall, 1036 Main Street
  4. Blowing Rock Deep Gap Fire Department, 6583 Old 421 South, Deep Gap
  5. Meat Camp Fire Department, 4797 NC Hwy 194 North
  6. Meat Camp Western Watauga Community Center, 1081 Old US 421
  7. Sugar Grove High Country Vacation Homes, 520 Church Road, Foscoe 
Sample Ballots can be found on the Watauga County Board of Elections website:
If you have any questions, please contact Matthew Snyder at the Watauga County Board of Elections.
842 West King Street, Suite 6 – PO Box 528 – Boone NC 28607
Fax: 828-265-8068 
One-Stop Early Voting Schedule for Ashe
Location: Ashe County Courthouse
Board of Elections Office
150 Government Circle, Ste 2100
Jefferson, NC 28640
  • Thursday, Feb 13 & Friday, Feb 14: 8 am–7:30 pm
  • Saturday, Feb 15: 8 am – 3 pm
  • Monday, Feb 17–Friday, Feb 21: 8 am–7:30 pm
  • Saturday, Feb 22: 8 am – 3 pm
  • Monday, Feb 24–Friday, Feb 28: 8 am-7:30 pm
  • Saturday, Feb 29: 8 am–3 pm
For more information, contact the Ashe County Board of Elections:
Fax: 336.846.5574
Rep. Russell On the Go!
I attended the following events and meetings over the last two months. I want to thank all who welcomed me and helped me learn more about the needs and issues of our district.
·        Held two town hall meetings in the district: Watauga Town Hall Meeting in Boone and Ashe Town Hall in West Jefferson. I gave a legislative update and fielded questions from the audience.
·        Spoke at a reception for West Jefferson Mayor Dale Baldwin who is retiring after decades of service to the town.
·        Participated in three Christmas parades: Blowing Rock, Boone, and West Jefferson.
·        Attended Appalachian State University’s Leadership Breakfast.
·        Attended Watauga High flapjack breakfast benefiting the Watauga County Education Foundation.
·        Attended Blue Ridge Energies Holiday Dinner.
·        Attended Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce Christmas party.
·        Met with Blowing Rock Town Manager Shane Fox.
·        Attended a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the BeanStalk Community Theatre in Boone. The audience-participation musical was fun, energetic, and highly entertaining. In fact, BeanStalk cast and crew have been invited to participate in the Southeastern Theatre Conference competition later this year.
·        Spoke at Blowing Rock and Boone Noon Rotary Clubs on separate occasions.
·        Met with officials from Ashe County to discuss laws pertaining to publication of public notices.
·        Met with Jeff Fissel, Executive Director of the Ashe County Arts Council.
·        Attended Century Club Dinner, a fundraiser for the Ashe County Arts Council.
·        Attended Development and Sustainability in Appalachia event hosted by the New River Conservancy.
·        Attended the River Keeper dinner in Boone.
·        Attended the Peter Pedroni Memorial Charity Event Dinner to raise funds for LIFE Village, a nonprofit seeking to establish a residential facility in Boone for adults with autism.
·        Enjoyed a pancake breakfast with the Odd Fellows Lodge in Ashe County.