Northeastern North Carolina’s delegation at the N.C. General Assembly met with leaders of four counties to discuss priorities for this legislative session at a forum on January 18 hosted by the Currituck Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Twiddy and Company.
The forum came one week before work began in earnest in the 2023-24 legislative session in Raleigh.
Leaders from Camden, Currituck, Dare, Pasquotank said they want to see more help on essential housing, upgrades to roads here first before interior counties to create I-87, a restructuring of the state’s economic development tiers, more funds for beach nourishment and changes to state law that would require large-acreage subdivisions to provide infrastructure upgrades, among a host of other issues.
Lawmakers participating in the forum moderated by Currituck Chamber Executive Director Josh Bass included Senators Bobby Hanig (R-Currituck) and Norman Sanderson (R-Pamlico), and Representatives Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort) and Bill Ward (R-Pasquotank). Rep. Ed Goodwin (R-Chowan) was unable to attend.
“All of our businesses work across the entire region, as do most of our representatives, even though I know they have district lines, they really work to support the good of the region in the legislature,” said Bass. “And most of our counties work really for the good of the region, as well. So we appreciate that.”
“Even when I was commissioner, it was important to me that we understood things on a regional level versus being in our own little silos,” Hanig added.
Each member of the General Assembly presented an opening statement, followed by an open discussion between the legislators and each of the four counties’ representatives on the topics important to their local governments.
From Camden County were Manager Erin Burke and Board of Commissioners Chair Tiffany White, Dare County Manager Bobby Outten and board chair Bob Woodard, and Pasquotank’s manager Sparty Hammett and commissioners chair Charles Jordan.
Currituck manager Ike Mcree and chair Bob White were unable to attend due to scheduling conflict, with Commissioner Owen Etheridge standing in as the county’s representative for the forum.
The lawmakers noted that efforts were underway to restart the Coastal Caucus, to give areas east of I-95 a more unified voice in Raleigh.
“There’s 22 members in eastern North Carolina. There’s more than that for Charlotte-Mecklenburg,” Kidwell said. “They don’t know what’s going on in eastern North Carolina, the people in Raleigh and Wake. They don’t care what’s going on in eastern North Carolina.
Major points from the forum’s participants
Sen. Bobby Hanig:
“The rainy day fund will be at $4.5 billion. And it’s there for a reason,” Hanig said. “It’s there because of great decisions that people made long before I got to the General Assembly. And continuing with responsible spending, we’ll make sure that we’re ready for the times that we have a downturn in the economy.”
Hanig noted changes to the state’s personal and corporate income taxes made over the last two sessions, including reduction of personal and corporate tax rates and elimination of tax on military pensions. He pointed out over 60 percent of the state’s budget goes to education and the pay increases for teachers included in the most recent budget along with investments in school safety.
“We put $8 million into farm preservation, which obviously in rural North Carolina, it’s our number one industry,” Hanig said.
“I only have one of those counties returning to me I have nine new counties. That means nine new boards of commissioners, countless towns, countless sheriffs, you name it boards of education, spending a lot of time out there ahead of session to get prepared,” Hanig said.
Hanig also said his priorities include protecting the coastal economy, fisheries, getting more funding to keep Oregon and Hatteras inlets accessible, finding ways for the state to help more with beach nourishment and increasing firearm safety initiatives.
Sen. Norman Sanderson:
“I think we do a good job, especially for the last 10 to 12 years of setting priorities. Sticking to being careful with your money, because the only money we have is your money.”
“We put in place a structure in North Carolina that became very, very attractive across this whole country for business,” Sanderson said, noting the changes in personal and corporate income tax rates.
“I think that this upcoming session is going to be the most important session that I’ve been in,” Sanderson said.
“We’ve got a lot of stuff coming at us that we just need to use common sense,” Sanderson said. “And there’s still some common sense in Raleigh and we use maybe use common sense to pass good legislation. Take into account what you guys want to see.”
Rep. Keith Kidwell
Kidwell, making his first public appearance since being appointed a co-chair of the power House Finance Committee, said it is believed he is the first certified public accountant to serve in that role in state history.
“I have literally personally prepared thousands of tax returns. So I know what they do to your life. I know how taxes can destroy business and personal lives,” Kidwell said.
“(The Department of Revenue) have totally made a disaster of the sales tax laws. And I am going to look at those laws and see what we can do about simplifying them,” Kidwell said.
“How are we supposed to abide by a law the Department of Revenue couldn’t even interpret? Because they made it that complex,” Kidwell said.
He was also adamant about rolling back more powers from the governor in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, beyond what passed last year that requires the state’s chief executive to seek approval from the Council of State and General Assembly to institute emergency orders that cover two-thirds of North Carolina’s counties for more than 30 days.
“This state, this country, are not supposed to be run by executive order. We are not supposed to be run by regulatory agencies,” Kidwell said.
He also plans to introduce a bill that would subject state agencies to more legislative oversight before they institute certain regulations.
“Let’s bring that to a joint committee of the General Assembly, review that regulation, see if it fits within the bounds of legislation,” Kidwell said. “This will stop the overreach of regulatory agencies where they write new laws.”
“I intend to reinvigorate that authority, and to bring the rights of the people back to the people to make sure that you’re not being abused by any level of government or regulatory agency,” Kidwell said.
Kidwell also said he’d like to see a restructuring of the state’s Senate districts, with one senator representing just two counties. An amendment to the state Constitution, approved by two-thirds of both chambers and then submitted for approval to the voters, would be required.
Rep. Bill Ward
Ward was elected to his first term in the General Assembly in November, and said he’s had a sharp learning curve getting prepared for the long session.
He noted that during the campaign, the main issues his future constituents brought up were infrastructure and development, parental rights, school choice and further tax cuts.
A former Pasquotank County sheriff’s deputy, Ward also related his experiences with law enforcement having to handle transport of those who need mental health assistance from local hospitals to facilities across the state, and finding a way for the state to assist the counties who bear the responsibility and costs associated with those transports.
“We are in the cusp of a great situation for business expansion here in northeastern North Carolina, and that’s Interstate 87,” Ward said.
“The Department of Transportation right now has their plans to start at Raleigh and move eastward,” Ward said. We need to try anything we can to influence them to rethink that and start out here and work inland.”
“And in the past anything east of 95 was pretty much neglected or forgotten. But we’re seeing a change,” Ward said.
Ward also agreed with Kidwell on finding more ways to limit the Governor’s executive powers.
Dare County Manager Bobby Outten, Board of Commissioners Chair Bob Woodard
Woodard thanked the General Assembly members for their work in allocating $35 million in the state budget to fund an essential/workforce housing project in Dare County, but he added that “the NIMBYs are killing us” in trying to make it a reality.
“We’re trying to do essential housing for these folks that qualify,” Woodard said. “This argument about (it negatively impacting) property values blows my mind. Prove it. Show me where you’ve lost value in your home. They can’t!”
That was the argument used by property owners, many from out of town, who lobbied Nags Head leaders to change its zoning regulations for a site near Jockey’s Ridge that was being looked at for a housing complex.
“We have got to do it, or there will not be the Outer Banks that were that are known to be in the future,” Woodard said. “If we cannot put in housing for those who serve you in the restaurant, but you don’t want to live next door to…but you don’t mind having them serve you and feed you your food, do you? That’s the part that that’s very, very irritating, very, very frustrating.
“We’re gonna win it one way or another…our board is committed to make it happen,” Woodard said.
While complimenting some of the work done on teacher salaries by the legislature, Woodard noted that it’s still not enough to allow teachers to be able to afford to live in places like the Outer Banks.
“Maybe they can do something on the level of a cost of living increase or something along along those which which will certainly help our teachers and I ask you to look at that,” Woodard said.
Woodard also asked for more state help to pay for beach nourishment, especially with the situation along Rodanthe where the local tax base will likely not be enough to cover the total cost and NCDOT will no longer be involved with the opening of the Jug Handle Bridge.
Both Woodard and Outten also talked about the threats to the uninhabited areas of N.C. 12 in the Canal Zone south of Oregon Inlet to the Pea Island Visitor Center and at the Sandy Bay/Isabel Inlet area between Frisco and Hatteras.
“This is no criticism (of NCDOT, but) they don’t have a master plan for Highway 12,” Woodard said. “We’ve got to have some focus by the state and NCDOT. Somehow, someway, they need to find more funds.”
Outten said about one-third of Dare County’s $1.8 billion in visitor spending is on Hatteras, and that will be lost without reliable access along N.C. 12.
Woodard also commented on the issues for residents getting services at the NCDMV Driver License office in Nags Head, which Kidwell responded is an issue affecting the entire region, and he wants to see action immediately.
“When we get back to Raleigh, one of the first phone calls I will make is to the legislative liaison for DMV, and we’re going to solve that problem, I assure you, that would go a long way towards solving your problem is if we could actually do them online,” Kidwell said.
Camden County Manager Erin Burke, Board of Commissioners Chair Tiffany White
They both said changing the priority for the creation of I-87 to come from the east, rather than the west, was key to Camdens’ future.
“Chesapeake is the process of doing a massive rezoning to expand industrial development on their side of the state line on U.S. 17,” Burke said. “And we’re feeling that development pressure on our side of the line, both on the residential sector and the commercial sector.”
Burke noted they are in the process of looking at creating their own emergency medical service, breaking away from joint coverage with Pasquotank County, and would like to see some state help with bringing that to a reality.
Pasquotank County Manager Sparty Hammett, Board of Commissioners Chair Charles Jordan
Jordan said regional cooperation among the local governments is key to the future of northeastern N.C. and the Outer Banks.
“It’s good to be with all the counties, because all of us in the area…need to work together,” Jordan said. “So we appreciate being here.”
Hammett asked lawmakers to help address at the state level the growing number of subdivisions that have lot sizes of 10 acres or more, but developers are not required to construct better infrastructure.
“Our primary concern is there’s no requirements to build or maintain roads and so frequently these developments (have problems where) essential services at times just can’t access and get to the houses,” Hammett said. “Easements are also commonly (turn into) property owner disputes.”
“In addition to the access issues, there’s no requirement for drainage improvements, fire hydrants, other services that are required to ensure health and safety,” Hammett said.
Hanig responded that he has had several conversations with the N.C. Homebuilders Association, while also looking at how to address county-level authority on the 10 acre-plus lot size regulations, and they are working on how to craft legislation to address it.
“Consider passing legislation to remove the sheriff’s office from the role of transporting patients under involuntary mental health commitment and provide more state funding,” Hammett said, echoing Rep. Ward’s earlier comments. “We sometimes have to do transports across the state, with a total of 318 involuntary commitment transports in 2022.”
“So in addition to just the operational impact being transported by law enforcement can be traumatic for someone that’s already experiencing a mental health crisis,” Hammett said.
Ward added department personnel suffer from having to make transports that can take 12 to 16 hours round trip, then turn around and work another 12 hour shift the next day.
Hammett also asked the group of lawmakers to consider passing legislation to require insurance companies to continue to pay for preexisting health care calls for prisoners detained in county jails, noting insurance companies refused to pay for cost of health care expenses for inmates.
He also asked the legislators to work to pass a bill that had cleared one chamber previously to restore assistance to counties with the cleanup of scrap cars.
Currituck Commissioner Owen Etheridge
Etheridge asked for lawmakers help in having the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge taken out of competition for funding in the local NCDOT division funding system under the State Transportation Improvement Plan rules.
Like Dare County’s leaders, Etheridge asked for more state assistance for beach nourishment, and said engineers are preparing to do their final work on a study of erosion along Corolla and Carova with a report due in the coming weeks.
He asked lawmakers to reexamine how the state’s economic tier system is set-up, noting that while Currituck is a rural county it is ranked as Tier 3 which limits its ability to draw on a number of resources.
Editor’s note: HB 13 was introduced in the state House last week, co-sponsored by Kidwell, that calls for a legislative study commission to examine revamping, finding substitutes, or even eliminating the use of the tier system to determine eligibility for economic development grants.
Asked how the General Assembly can further assist the region’s visitor economy, Hanig said: “Stay out of the way!” That drew enthusiastic agreement from the other three lawmakers.
Asked about the current law that requires public school systems to set their calendars between the Monday nearest August 25 and the second Friday in June, Hanig and Kidwell said that local schools systems need to have control on what’s best for their individual needs.
“For our (Senate) district, it’s maintaining the local authority,” Hanig said.
“Local boards, local counties, and school districts should run their schools as they see fit,” Kidwell said. “That’s the bottom line, I think we need to get the state out of running the school systems.”
“A lot of the complaints that I get…is that we are not in line with our community colleges, we’re not in line with our universities, everybody needs to be on the same calendar so that that does coincide, that we can continue to give our children the education that they deserve,” Sanderson said.
“There has to be some parameters,” Sanderson said. “But I think they’re far too narrow, at this point. Even 10 days will make a huge difference in some of these districts.”
In December, a legislative commission in December said they would rather give local boards more control on the calendar, rather than force systems to start on Tuesday after Labor Day as has been proposed by some members.
In closing, all four legislators called on the local governments and around two dozen local business leaders in attendance to actively take part and stay in tune with what happens in Raleigh.
“Build relationships with the members, stay engaged,” Hanig said. “We need to know what your needs are,” Ward said.
“Don’t leave us alone, we’ll make a mess,” Kidwell said.
Bobby Outten (and every other person in this article) saying “the NIMBYs are killing us” is also true for himself. No one wants essential housing in any money making area. Some do-gooders will say they do not mind until it is likely happen and then they will be opposed. It is an unfortunate reality that the popularity of the Outer Banks has ruined its small charm appeal and all the benefits of being such (great restaurants, limited chain (stores and restaurants), affordable housing that fits into neighborhoods, and the coolness of being a beach town for everyone. In case any forgets Dare County is owned by people willing to pay absurd money for housing or to rent a vacation home. Luckily I’m shielded from the nonsense, but plenty of people are not.