06/04/07 — Commissioners wait for action in the Assembly

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Commissioners wait for action in the Assembly

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 4, 2007 1:46 PM

With the state House and Senate beginning work on a compromise budget and the bill crossover deadline come and gone, the legislature is at what many people consider to be its halfway point of the session, but so far, Wayne County officials are a little disappointed in what they have seen.

To them, the lack of Medicaid relief, the discussion of increased fees and regulations at the landfill, the lack of concern about the nitrogen runoff fee, the meddling in issues such as cell phone tower placement and the lack of movement on a local option sales tax, are signs that their voices are being lost on the way up to Raleigh.

And while they won't go as far as to say Wayne County's legislators -- Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir and Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson -- aren't listening, the commissioners do wish there was more that could be done to help move their agenda along.

"All of the legislators, I think they're doing a poor job," Commissioner Andy Anderson said. "They're willing to put unfunded mandates on our backs, but not to give us the means to support ourselves.

"What we tell them, they say they agree with us and support us, but when it comes down to a vote, I'm not always convinced. I don't think they're doing a hard enough job fighting. They've fallen short."

The biggest failures this year, the commissioners agreed, have been the lack of movement so far on Medicaid relief and the seeming indifference to their plea for a local option sales tax.

"I think they're letting us down," Commissioner Jack Best said.

Part of the problem, Commissioner Efton Sager added, is the lack of power in Wayne County's delegation. But, he continued, "Those that are in a powerful enough position to do something, they are not really listening."

The commissioners did acknowledge, though, that they aren't aware of all the obstacles that might be facing the legislators -- especially since most represent multiple counties.

But for their part, the legislators said they do feel they are doing a good job representing Wayne County.

"I'm grateful to the people who elected me, and I try to be responsive to them. To me, the needs of Wayne County are first and foremost," Pate said.

They also noted that there's a lot of time left in the session.

One issue that is not likely to be addressed, though, is the local option sales tax.

Bell, who had introduced legislation to allow Wayne County to enact a one-cent sales tax if approved by a vote of the people, said that request is likely dead in the water.

"We're just not going to have that this year," he said. "I think there was a little discrepancy between what the commissioners wanted and what I thought I could get through.

"They wanted it so they could decide themselves. Personally I believe the only way to get it passed is to have the voters decide. I know that's the way I prefer it."

It's also the way that Braxton and Pate have said they would prefer such a tax increase be approved.

In the meantime, Bell said he does expect a bill to allow school boards the right to levy their own property taxes will come up for debate this session, but he doesn't know how far it will go.

The good news, though, the legislators all agreed, is that there does seem to be momentum toward doing something about Medicaid.

The House's version of the budget included a cap and a small bit of relief, but in the Senate's budget was a promise to permanently end the practice of putting 15 percent of the cost on the backs of the counties.

"That's the next big thing. It's something that needs to be resolved and I don't plan to leave until it is resolved," Kerr said.

"It's all about Medicaid and trying to solve that problem," Smith added. "I think the pressure we've been under is finally starting to have an effect. A lot of legislation just takes some time."

Once it's done, though, Pate said that he believes much of the counties' problems will be solved.

"I think the primary emphasis will be on Medicaid relief, and I think that will probably happen, but not the local option sales tax or the land transfer tax," he said. "We just don't need those taxes imposed."

But Smith also said that the state needs to reduce its spending to take over Medicaid without penalizing the counties in some other manner -- which is a concern of County Manager Lee Smith.

"The problem is the state budget is out of control," he said. "They need to do what we've done and look for more efficiency in their departments. I've heard them talk about it, but I'm not seeing it created. I'm just seeing more unfunded mandates."

And that, he explained, trickles down to where counties like Wayne are forced into corners like in the current budget situation, where a five-cent tax increase has been proposed.

"I think our legislators are very responsive and carry our concerns to Raleigh," he said. "But sometimes we don't think our message is being heard in Raleigh.

"Our state legislators and others are going to have to stand up and take a strong stance. I would urge people to get on the phone, call their legislators and demand change, because if the legislature doesn't do it, it's only going to get worse."