America is about to get a new president who’s promising big changes in how government is run, and there’s already a shakeup underway in Washington, DC.
But the laws, regulations, policies and procedures that come out of Washington can have a dramatic effect on local governments across the country and, as inauguration day approaches, Guilford County officials are trying to figure out what those changes at the federal level might mean for this county.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said this week that he believes the dramatic change in philosophy at the federal level will affect Guilford County government.
“I think it’s going to impact a whole lot of things,” Branson said of a Trump presidency, which will start around noon on Friday, Jan. 20.
Branson, who’s been a major critic of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, said that, just as Obamacare hurts individuals and businesses by pushing up premiums each year, it is also a burden on Guilford County government, which has 2,300 employees subject to the same upward cost pressures.
Trump promised on the campaign trail to make Obamacare one of his main targets for elimination after he takes office, and Branson said a Republican healthcare alternative could lower health insurance costs for the county and those employees.
Branson said a Trump presidency will likely be felt at the county level in many other ways as well.
“I think it could when it comes to the salary adjustments,” Branson said.
New regulations on overtime pay that were supposed to go into effect on Thursday, Dec. 1 were going to cost Guilford County more in employee pay – just as those new rules would have done for many businesses.
Earlier this year, the Guilford County commissioners were disgruntled about being forced to bear those additional costs at a time when they were striving to keep the cost of government down, but their hands were tied until a federal judge in Texas issued a preliminary injunction on the order.
At a Wednesday, Nov. 30 work session of the Board of Commissioners, due to that ruling, the board voted to put some of those anticipated changes on hold. Branson said that his best guess is that between court action and the new administration, that regulation is going to get the axe.
Branson also said that Trump’s election will no doubt have other ramifications for Guilford County government.
“The school system is another piece of the puzzle,” Branson said, adding that at this point all indications are that the Trump administration will allow more control overall at the local level.
Branson said that’s a very good thing – and it’s something, he said, that could end up saving the county a lot of money.
That’s a key concern for the Republican county commissioners who are already starting to think about what the 2017-2018 county budget will look like when it’s adopted next June. Each year, nearly half of Guilford County’s budget spending goes toward funding education and paying off school bond debt and Branson said any help from above in keeping those costs down would be a very welcome thing.
Branson said it was easy to make promises on the campaign trail and he added that, with the Republicans soon in control of the presidency as well as the US Senate and US House, elected officials had better get to work and move fast.
“Talk is cheap,” Branson said. “If the Republicans don’t make headway in 18 to 24 months they will have a lot to explain.”
Midterm elections are in 2018 and Branson said conservatives across the country want to see the Republicans in Washington take action.
He added that the aftermath of divisiveness seen during the campaign is still prevalent everywhere. The county commissioners themselves have had some lively public exchanges this year regarding Trump, and Branson said the ire and negativity that still permeates much of the country and the county isn’t beneficial to anyone and instead people should be focused on moving things forward.
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said there could be a highly positive effect on his town if Trump follows through with some promises related to bringing manufacturing back to this country. He said this week that High Point, which historically had an economy centered around furniture manufacturing and textiles, bled jobs for decades after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed and similar trade agreements went into effect.
“I don’t know what he will actually do,” Bencini said of Trump, “but if he follows through and changes those trade policies, it could have a significant effect on the economy of High Point.”
Bencini said trade deals such as NAFTA played a large role in devastating key sectors of High Point’s economy.
“They caused a major shift downward for our economy,” Bencini said. “Furniture and textiles and hosiery were a big, big thing here and then, poof. A single stroke of the pen killed our economy. Now, there are sections of this city that look like a small ghost town. Working-class American’s revolted on Nov. 8 against the idea of sacrificing their livelihood to build a middle class in China.”
The High Point mayor said federal legislators will often ask him, “What can we do to help things in High Point?” and his answer is always, “Instill trade policies to support industries.”
“We’ve lost all our small family-owned businesses,” he said.
According to Bencini, it’s too optimistic to think that all of that business is going to come back to High Point if Trump and other Republicans in Washington make beneficial trade agreements.
“Some of those jobs will never come back,” Bencini said.
But Bencini added that he thinks it’s reasonable to expect something of a renaissance of the local economy if the right steps are taken at the federal level. He said High Point is well positioned to take advantage of a new economic environment in which manufacturing in America is made more attractive to companies.
“We’ve got a lot of expertise here in the design, manufacture and finishing of furniture, and we have lots of capacity,” Bencini said.
He added that High Point had been proactive in dealing with blight and attracting and retaining young people and has made other moves to make High Point attractive to businesses of all sorts.
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning even has a personal connection to the Trump team: He’s friends with – as well as an admirer of – Betsy DeVos, who Trump has named as his secretary of education. Henning said that move gave him some real confidence that the Trump administration is going to make good on its promises.
“I used to work for her back in Michigan and have kept in touch,” he said, adding that he considers her a friend. “I do have faith they will return more power to the local level. I consider her to be very genuine, very giving. She’s the real deal.”
DeVos was chairman of the state Republican Party in Michigan in the late ’90s, which is how the conservative Henning got to know her.
Henning said that, based on what he knows about DeVos and what Trump has said, coming changes to the educational structure could mean less federal control and more school choice in education. He said that could make a difference in Guilford County schools as well as in other school systems across the country.
“I can speak a lot more optimistically now that I see the pick that Trump has made,” he said.
Henning said that in the past, Democrats and even some Republican administrations have felt a need to centralize more and more power in Washington, DC, but he added that he was optimistic a Trump administration would reverse that trend.
“We need to get back to local decision making,” Henning said.
Henning said a loosening of federal control and a reduction in red tape that comes with federal grant money could open things up for local elected officials.
Earlier this year, Henning was critical of regulations that forced changes in how the county’s social services benefits were distributed. In order to comply with the regulations that came with the administration of federal food stamp benefits and other benefits, Guilford County was required to deliver those services through county workers – rather than the outsource those duties, as Guilford County had been doing. The county was happy with the contractual arrangement and found it efficient. Henning said it saved money, but the new regulation required the county end the contract and add employees.
“We had to hire more people because of it, and it made absolutely no sense,” Henning said. “The services were getting delivered; what difference does it make how we do it?”
Henning said county government is often tied down by federal rules and regulations. He said Guilford County is often kept from doing something in the most efficient manner because “some bureaucrat in Washington came up with something on a Friday afternoon.”
“I can go down the list,” he said of ways state and federal government interfere with efficient administration of county services.
Henning added that it’s quite common for those federal dictates that come from above to be vague, with very little clarification even when county staff asks for it, which often sparks a lengthy and time-consuming debate about what the rules mean.
“I can’t think of a single thing a federal department does for us that we can’t do better at the local level,” Henning said.
Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad also said he anticipates a positive shift once Trump takes office.
“You can rest assured there will be changes,” he said. “You are coming from a completely different philosophy of governing. You may see dramatic changes.”
Ray Trapp, a Democratic Guilford County commissioner, said he too expects a major transformation due to the Trump presidency – only, he said, no one knows what those changes will bring. Trapp said that anyone who expected Trump to keep his promises should already be disappointed based on what they’ve seen so far. He said that Trump promised he was going to “drain the swamp,” but he added that he’s done anything but that.
“He’s recycling old GOP leadership,” Trapp said. “He is not a conservative. I don’t even think he wants to be president. He was elected and he was like, ‘Now I’ve got to give up my golden toilet and move to Washington.’”
Trapp said the whole purpose of the establishment of the Electoral College was to keep someone like Trump out of office.
“It’s frightening,” Trapp said of the implications of having Trump in the White House for four years.
Trapp said that there could be some good that comes from a Trump presidency if it means more local control for Guilford County government. He said that anyone who wants a quick lesson in the importance of local control should look at what happened to the county’s mental health services when it was turned over to a regional administrative collective. He pointed out that it’s now an hour-and-a-half drive to the office that oversees Guilford County’s mental health services.
Trapp said all mental health should be handed back over to county control and that a loss of that local control has devastated those services. He also said that, to the extent that Trump administration might make that possible, at least that part of it could be beneficial to Guilford County – even if Trump does otherwise lead the country to ruin, Trapp said.
Branson said maybe Trump will in fact make America great again.
“These last eight years of hope and change haven’t worked out too well,” Branson said.