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July 27--Legislators, lobbyists and legislative staffers moved in and out of state Sen. Bill Rabon's office one recent Tuesday morning, vying for the attention of the powerful co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
He usually starts his day before 7:30 a.m. and rarely has time for lunch. His legislative assistant says his schedule is so packed and fluid she has to print out a new one at least a half-dozen times a day.
On the heels of a closed-session meeting with Gov. Pat McCrory, Rabon is asked how budget negotiations are going.
"We're a lot closer than the media gives us credit for," he quips, then notes he's about to meet with another powerful lawmaker about the multibillion-dollar budget.
In a political world where power and prestige matter, Rabon has both.
And as such, he lends an extra dose of clout to the relatively inexperienced delegation that represents the Cape Fear region, though he won't tell you that himself.
"I think it would be flattering for me to say so," said Rabon, R-Brunswick. First elected in 2010, he came in as part of a Republican sweep of the North Carolina House and Senate that helped catapult him into leadership despite being new to the arena.
Power struggle on Jones Street
There's no tried-and-true formula for what brings somebody power inside the Beltline.
But whether it's seniority, party affiliation, or simply being in the right place at the right time, clout -- no matter how you acquire it -- matters in Raleigh.
Legislators from various parts of the state battle for their areas against the oft-times competing interests of their colleagues.
The delegation that represents the Cape Fear region is relatively short on experience compared with past delegations this area has sent to Raleigh.
Gone are the long-serving faces that include Democratic Sen. R.C. Soles and Republican Rep. Danny McComas. Both were considered powerhouse negotiators. Before retiring, Soles served four terms in the House, then 17 in the Senate, providing much of the area's clout. In his last session, Soles chaired the Senate Finance Committee and was vice chairman of the gate-keeping Rules Committee and judiciary committee. Soles was replaced by Rabon.
McComas, who served 18 years in the House starting in 1994, was such an influential voice even as a member of the minority party in Raleigh that he is credited with juicing the state's film incentives, which are responsible for the area's thriving movie industry. He also helped secure state funds for the expansion of the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, the deepening of the Cape Fear River shipping channel, and numerous local transportation and beach nourishment projects.
Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat who spent 17 years in the Senate, retiring in 2010, also kept the needs of the region's rural areas on the front burner.
But maybe seniority in this legislature doesn't mean what it once did.
Republican Carolyn Justice represented Pender County in the House for 10 years before retiring in 2012.
For most of her time, she was in the minority party.
"In that situation it did help that Danny (McComas) and I had been there that long and had those relationships with the leadership on the other side of the aisle," Justice said.
But in 2010 the rules changed when the Republicans won control of the General Assembly. That ideological shift was cemented in 2012 when the GOP won even bigger majorities in both chambers.
"When the players changed, everything changed about how things functioned," Justice said, noting those recent elections brought in a lot of new faces to Raleigh. "Those old rules didn't carry as much weight."
Now, Justice said, she feels it's as important what you know as how long you've been in Raleigh in getting a power seat at the table.
"When the structure changes, everything changes," she said.
Delegation seen as effective
Despite its inexperience, the current fresh-faced delegation (which includes three freshmen) has been viewed as relatively effective in keeping local priorities in the debate. Of course, banging a loud drum doesn't always equal results.
Overall, it's been a win-some, lose-some sort of session for the local delegation.
"We haven't been there long enough to move up in the ranks in terms of leadership position or the experience of years of working on and speaking on bills," said Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, one of those freshmen. "We're still, in my opinion, a work in progress."
For example, one of the top priorities of the Wilmington region -- renewal of film incentives past the Jan. 1, 2015, sunset date in such a way that the industry sticks around -- is languishing in the uncertainty of the budget process. This, despite the vocal efforts by Davis and Rep. Susi Hamilton, D-New Hanover, as well as Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick.
"Obviously, the most important thing for us in Southeastern North Carolina is jobs," said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, "and if the film industry is a big part of those jobs and if somehow the state can find a way to keep the industry alive and viable and healthy, they've done a tremendous job. If they go away to Georgia, it's going to be a big blow and I think we have fallen short."
But overall, he said, they seem to support local interests.
"It's a sorry frog that doesn't croak for its own pond," Saffo said.
Justice agreed that, for the most part, the local delegation has been speaking with one voice on issues -- which makes getting them passed in Raleigh much easier.
"That's a real positive for Southeastern North Carolina," she said, noting that wasn't always the case when she was in the General Assembly.
A numbers game
But a willingness to advocate doesn't always lead to results, and Hamilton, the area's lone Democrat, says it's a numbers game and "we're outnumbered."
To illustrate her point, she notes that coastal homeowners' insurance premiums have continued to rise rapidly without meaningful legislative relief.
"I think that's a direct result of us not having enough representation in Raleigh to have a big enough stick," Hamilton said.
But that could change in a few years. States must redraw House and Senate district lines following every U.S. Census data release. Hamilton and others say the area could pick up representation, particularly in fast-growing Brunswick County.
"After the next round of Census data, we may find ourselves in a better situation," she said.
"We're an important part of the state," he said. "We're recognized as that we have beaches, we have military, we have farming, we have a port, we have class 1 rail. We are, I think, a rising star in the state, and I believe in the next decade the area I represent will continue to grow and probably outgrow the rest of the state other than the six urban areas."
To be sure, the local delegation has already registered some wins during the session on items big and small.
"We're still working on a lot of things," said Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, who also carries some clout as leader of the GOP House freshman class.
"We're working on the big issues of making sure we're able to fund our education by making sure our teachers get a raise and not cutting our teacher assistants. All of us, all of the delegation, inputs into that."
Catlin, a geologist and engineer by trade, also made a name for himself last session when he successfully railed against the possibility of shipping wastewater byproduct from hydraulic fracturing to the coast for the purposes of disposal.
Catlin also worked for a new well-water education law and played a part in crafting legislation to clean up Duke Energy's coal-ash ponds, including the Sutton plant near Wilmington. Catlin said he's also worked extensively with Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, a fellow engineer, on regulatory reform issues.
Brunswick County's Iler has also played an important role in terms of lending clout to the Cape Fear region as co-chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
"Several of our members have stepped into pretty important roles," he said. "Transportation has done a lot of good for the state, and my position allows us to be sure we're taken care of as well as we can be in the Cape Fear area."
Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover, who is not seeking re-election, also has a leadership position as chairman of a Senate judiciary committee.
In that role, he has fought to decriminalize certain petty crimes and pushed through his signature legislation of cracking down on pimps who traffic women and minors, a growing problem in the Wilmington region.
Davis, despite being a freshman, has been a primary sponsor of 26 bills in the past two years.
"I would say our biggest setback as far as influence is our youth and inexperience," he said, "but to our credit, I think we have come a long way in a short amount of time."
Staff writer Gareth McGrath contributed to this report.
It's been a win-some, lose-some sort of session for the Cape Fear delegation. This scorecard looks at how the local delegation did in terms of supporting major priorities of local officials, as well as their own priorities in Raleigh. The session is still ongoing, so big-ticket items of interest to Wilmington including renewal of film incentives and historic preservation tax credits are still up in the air, in addition to other measures that have yet to get a hearing in both houses.
Coal ash: A measure to mandate cleanup of the state's coal-ash ponds in the wake of the Dan River spill is the subject of negotiations between House and Senate conferees. However, the legislation is expected to include the Sutton plant near Wilmington in its priority cleanup mandate.
Tree removal: A measure opposed by Wilmington officials that would have stripped cities and counties of the ability to regulate the "removal, replacement and preservation of trees on private property within its jurisdiction" did not gain traction this session.
Flytrap thefts: A bill that would increase to a felony penalty the illegal taking of Venus' flytraps appears to be making its way through both chambers. The bill would also provide some coastal municipalities flexibility in the use of room-occupancy tax funds for the purpose of funding beach nourishment.
Gun control: A measure supported by Wilmington that would stiffen penalties for concealed carry scofflaws appears to still have support. City officials requested the change in order to help crack down on a gang problem that is, in part, attributed to an influx in heroin trafficking.
Fracking wastewater: In June, Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill into law lifting the state's moratorium on issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing. While there's plenty of debate on both sides of this issue, one thing is certain -- wastewater will not be shipped to the coast for disposal as discussed as a possibility last year. Rep. Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, sounded the alarm on that and public sentiment helped bury the idea. It is forbidden by the new law.
Privilege license taxes: Whether one sees this as a "win" or "lose" is in the eye of the beholder, however. Wilmington and other cities will no longer be able to levy privilege license taxes on businesses beginning July 1, 2015. The new tax law could poke a $1.7 million hole in the city's recently penned budget, said Tony McEwen, the city's director of legislative affairs. Wilmington opposed the change.
Lottery funds for school construction: Reps. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, and Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, signed on as co-sponsors of a bill to restore lottery funds for school construction in their fast-growing districts at the request of county officials. But that bill was assigned to a House Appropriations Committee and so far has not received a hearing.
Film incentives: The biggest priority of local officials, renewal of the state's film incentives past their Jan. 1 sunset date, remains locked in budget negotiations between House and Senate conferees. The House and Senate have both proposed "grant" programs, an idea the film community is not big on. The governor has floated his own rewrite plan. It's unlikely incentives will continue in their current form, however.
Historic preservation: Tax credits for historic preservation also expire Jan. 1. Wilmington, which has taken advantage of the program to revamp its downtown as well as other areas, is a major backer of extending the program.
-- Molly Parker
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