RALEIGH – In a biennial budget year like 2019 there are a lot of moving parts, special interests, and tricky consensus building on Jones Street that all gets wrapped up into a multi-billion dollar budget that allocates our tax dollars toward legislative priorities. That consensus building factor became even more important this year with the Republicans’ loss of the super-majority, and no one knows that issue quite as well as Republican House Majority Leader Rep. John Belll (R-Wayne).
Bell is tasked with leading the caucus to band together to pursue an agreed upon agenda. That task is hardly simple as the conservative inclinations of some Republicans are noticeably absent, while others stay truer to the principles of limited government that everyone seems to sell on the campaign trail.
We sat down with Bell, who is relatively conservative personally, to talk about the priorities of this long budget session and the balancing act of being majority leader. In addition we talked about efforts to advance legislation related to pro-life issues, the Second Amendment, and illegal immigration.
First in Freedom Daily (FFD): So does the agenda get set each session? Is it a top down thing, or how much do the grassroots issues drive the agenda?
Rep. John Bell (JB): The way we set our agenda for this session is the way we’ve set it since I’ve been majority leader – it’s not my agenda, it’s not the Speaker’s agenda, it’s not one or two members’ agenda, it’s actually the full caucus agenda.
So we want all 65 members of our caucus included on the agenda creating and the process. We did a survey to figure out what the members are interested in, and then we took all the information and feedback and came up with really six broad priorities we want to focus on in 2019.
FFD: Let’s lay them out, what are those six priorities?
JB: The first one was always going to be education because it represents over 57 percent of our state budget. Within education, school safety is one of the largest issues that we want to continue to address here in North Carolina. We want to continue the strides we’ve made over the last six years with teacher pay and continue to grow our education budget. With that we want to actually put more money into the classroom instead of into the bureaucracy. Finally,we want to address some of the school construction issues we have, especially in rural North Carolina.
(Bell acknowledges the challenges associated with some areas growing, and others receding as far as student populations.)
FFD: On those school construction issues, there are competing proposals for school construction funds. We’ve got bond issuance proposals pushed by the Republican Speaker and Democrats like Gov. Cooper, versus pay-as-you-go proposals in the Senate bill. What’s the caucus view on those different approaches?
JB: Do we expand what we’ve done last year with the additional lottery dollars for tier 1 and tier 2 counties and focus on that; do you do a bond proposal; do you do the pay-as-you-go system which is what the senate put forth; we’re having those conversations and I think you may see two or three different versions thrown out there for us to vote on and see where the appetite is.
FFD: So education is the biggest issue, because of it’s place in the budget. What else?
JB: Next will be economic development. Agriculture is of course our largest economic impact. We want to promote but also preserve our agricultural heritage. We fought some battles last year dealing with some out of state trial attorneys that came in and tried to really destroy our agriculture industry.
Another focus for economic development issues will deal with infrastructure and transportation. We’ll be looking at how we can really close our rural/urban divide to have uniform economic prosperity across the state, Some of our rural areas are really suffering right now. We’ve done some great things for the economy, but some of our rural areas have been left far behind and they don’t have the population or the infrastructure there to compete, so we want to see what we can do to help them compete.
We have to work with our local authorities and municipalities to try to address some of their concerns. Of course, on their end we’re going to rely on them to be responsible with their tax revenues and dollars that they generate and responsible in their own budgeting.
The biggest area of need for the rural areas is broadband connectivity, because nowadays if you can’t get online you are that much further behind.
(We asked about taxes, but the majority leader cautioned he doesn’t know how much tax reform will be in the budget when all is said and done. He is, however, confident there will be more tweaks to recent reforms versus full scale reductions.)
FFD: With economic development and education the first two of six priorities, what about workforce development to tie those together?
JB: We want to continue focus on workforce development, whether it’s efforts to be more veteran-friendly. We like to pride ourselves on being the most military friendly state. We’re looking at removing barriers that are preventing our servicemen and women from going directly from their service and into the civilian workforce. A good example of that is some things we’ve done like licensure transfer.
Apprenticeships work, and they’re needed, especially when you’re looking at the trades. Right now the construction industry is booming […] so we want to help connect the classroom to the those industries that need quality, skilled workers.
FFD: You’ve got the next item here being healthcare. A lot of talk about Medicaid expansion by Democrats, and even some Republicans, what’s the House caucus approach to that issue and healthcare more generally?
JB: I don’t think you’ll see an expansion of Medicaid as far as what the governor proposed. I definitely can’t support what he wants to do, when you look at the shortfalls in the budget, when you look at all the unanswered questions about fiscal viability. […] What doesn’t get talked about when people are talking Medicaid expansion is that each year those rolls actually expand just by the sheer growth of our state population.
We’re trying to keep up with that in a responsible manner. There are areas we look at to help there without being irresponsible with out budget, where last year vision coverage was an area Medicaid dollars helped with.
On the blanket expansion side, we hear people say, ‘Well the federal government is going to pay for it.’ The federal government has never 100 percent paid for anything like that, and they forget that those federal funds are our money.
If we just go with what the Democrats what to go on, you open that door to adding an additional 600,000 people to rolls that are already expanding due to population increases anyway, and then at some point in the federal government is not going to fund that 90 percent. They’re going to drop it down and that’s going to be on the private sector to fund, it will cut into our state budget.
Some of the states that have done Medicaid expansion the way the governor is proposing have actually fell on some really hard times with their state budget. We don’t want to go back to those days. We’re not going back to the times where they had to raise taxes or make drastic cuts because of budget chaos. We’ve worked hard to get our budget on a sustainable path and we don’t want to jeopardize that.
FFD: What about some of these Republican proposals to creating another government program for subsidized coverage, and using hospital assessments to fund subsidized Medicaid gap coverage, like the Carolina Cares bill Rep. Greg Murphy has discussed?
JB: You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you eliminate access to care in eastern or western North Carolina [by threatening rural hospital viability].
What I do think you’ll is looking at how we open the door for access to healthcare, especially in rural areas of the state where some populations have to travel a considerable ways to even access quality care. […] I would like to see a review of some of Certificate of Need laws to see if we can’t open doors there that can that access to healthcare. Me personally, if we can look at some areas to address. I think the biggest one we need to look at is access. We have people in Hyde County and Pamlico County [int he east) and you go to the western part of the state in Swain County, they’re driving 45 minutes, an hour and a half for just basic family physicians.
It also needs to be in a responsible manner so we don’t put some of our hospitals in jeopardy of closing. I think we can strike a balance there and work with our local hospitals, our hospital association, and with our diverse providers so we can really do some great things to open up access to healthcare.
I know the senate introduced a bill looking at association healthcare plans. We’ve not had that discussion yet in the House caucus but it’s something I’m interested in it because if we can help open some doors for people to address healthcare needs and not have people hamstrung with such extreme costs, that’s just going to pay off for the private sector and small-businesses especially.
FFD: Great; those reforms, the ones that get government out of the way instead of creating more subsidized programs are the encouraging proposals. What else?
JB: We’re going to have to do something with absentee ballot reforms here in North Carolina. I hope we’re able to get some reform done to increase integrity and confidence there.
FFD: And redistricting? There have been some non-partisan redistricting proposals put out there getting a lot of attention.
JB: There have been a number of non-partisan redistricting bills filed, and I understand what they want to accomplish. It’s amazing to me that there was never a push for non-partisan redistricting until Republicans took the majority, a majority won on maps that Democrats drew by the way.
I personally believe that ‘to the victor go the spoils.’ That’s the way it’s always been and that’s what’s been upheld by the Supreme Court. Elections do have consequences, just like what we’re dealing with right now. Voters chose to not return [Republican] super-majorities to both chambers, and that’s okay because voters chose to do that. They also chose overwhelmingly to again elect a Republican majority to the state. We have a balance of power achieved by elections, by the people, where we have a Republican lieutenant governor that actually received more votes than the governor, and a Republican legislative majority.
I trust the people, and in my opinion the people are always right.
FFD: So that’s the official caucus agenda, in broad strokes. What about some of these issues conservatives really care about, especially with what’s going on lately around the country with extreme abortion bills, attacks on the Second Amendment, and this proliferation of Sanctuary Sheriffs amid a critical illegal immigration trend?
JB: You’ve seen an increased intensity, say with what New York did, as far as the late-term abortions. We’ve seen a number of bills already filed in the house that address pro-life issues here in the state and I feel pretty confident that you will see some more bills introduced on pro-life issues to further protect the unborn.
On the gun rights, just about every long session we put something forth to preserve our Second Amendment rights, and I think you’ll see something there as well.
And then on the immigration issue I think we’re going to see some other bills that try to address sanctuary cities. It’s been very interesting with the election of some new sheriffs here in North Carolina that actually ran on doing away with cooperation and supporting sanctuary areas, and others that ran on the exact opposite. I’m pretty sure you’re going to see a bill on that issue this year.
We’re a country that abides by the rule of law, not a country where you can choose and pick what you’re going to enforce and what you’re not going to enforce. We’re a country of laws and I really hope that these sheriffs actually enforce the law as written.
FFD: Now you mentioned the diversity of your caucus – some members and leaders obviously more conservative, less conservative – are these bills on the conservative side actually going to get heard instead of just dying in committee? Will there be votes on some of these critical issues without watering them down?
JB: On the caucus side what we’ve done is created working groups within the caucus to address a lot of these issues. We’ll look at the best way to approach pro-life issues, for instance, as a state. You’ll have other issues we have working groups for, like regulatory reform; long term disaster recovery; criminal justice reform; pensions and retirement; broadband issues; farm bill; jobs bill; addressing gaming concerns on wildlife; issues with the ABC system, school safety; and issues like pro-life, and Second Amendment.
We’re looking at packaging these issues that need to be addressed in a way that we can get, hopefully bipartisan support, but definitely 65 Republican votes.
That being said, the voters of this state, though a contentious election, still elected Republican majorities to the House and Senate. There was no referendum for us to deviate from our conservative views and stances and we’re going to continue to push our fiscally responsible agenda and our conservative agenda, which has made our state one of the best in the country in terms of economic growth, tax climate, population growth, and so on.
All that’s happening because of the conservative policies and principles that we began putting in place when we took majorities in 2010. We don’t need to deviate from that and the voters don’t want us to, but we do need to be smart in filing legislation and address the proactive issues and continue putting our state on the forefront.
It’s my hope that Governor Cooper and Democrats will join with us to do what’s best for North Carolina.