Without some backstory, the Tuesday, Feb. 21 Greensboro City Council meeting doesn’t make much sense. In the past it has seemed that the City Council has gone out of its way to antagonize the North Carolina state legislature, but this year was supposed to be different.
After the longest discussion of the short meeting on Tuesday, the City Council voted 6 to 2 to delay the vote on the legislative agenda – a list of items that the City Council is asking the North Carolina General Assembly to pass – until the next meeting.
Councilmembers Marikay Abuzuaiter and Sharon Hightower voted against the motion. Councilmember Yvonne Johnson was absent.
Councilmember Mike Barber made the motion and led the charge for the delay. He stated several times that the City Council needed to get the wording right on the legislative agenda before passing it. No doubt that’s true, but that wasn’t really the issue.
The council spends an inordinate amount of time on legislative agenda it submits, a list that is routinely ignored by the legislature.
The City Council is made up of eight Democrats and one Republican, District 5 City Councilmember Tony Wilkins. Both the state House and the state Senate have veto-proof Republican majorities. So on the City Council the Democrats have unlimited power and in the legislature they have no power.
It’s amusing that the News & Record gives big play to bills introduced by Democrats in the Guilford legislative delegation, which have virtually no chance of passing or even being considered unless they also have a Republican sponsor.
Instead of a legislative agenda, the City Council might get a better response if it authorized Wilkins to contact Republican legislators about the issues, but that is far too simple.
Understanding that its relationship with the legislature was not good, the more sensible councilmembers devised a plan to try work with the legislature. Instead of passing a legislative agenda that had a bunch of stuff on there that the city knew it would never get and that the majority of the Guilford legislative delegation opposed, the idea was to put items on the legislative agenda that the Republican legislators who have to support a bill for it to pass would have no trouble supporting.
So when the City Council met with the Guilford legislative delegation in January, what was presented to the members of the delegation who were present was a list of eight mostly nonpartisan items: Environment/Jordan Lake, Collection of Parking Fines Linked to Vehicle Registration, Sales Tax Redistribution, State Tort Cap Reform, Body Worn Cameras, Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction, Repair of Nonresidential Buildings and Re-Write of Planning Statutes and Water Resources Capacity User Fees. Each item had a short summary outlining the legislation being sought.
These were all the items that were on the city’s PowerPoint presentation to the Guilford delegation and that the City Council had agreed to place on the legislative agenda.
However, when the agendas for the Tuesday night meeting went out, there were nine items on the legislative agenda.
The final one added since the legislative delegation meeting, and not agreed to by the City Council, was “Tuition Equity.” The summary states: “Support legislation that allows in-state resident status for students who are undocumented and who have attended school in North Carolina for at least three consecutive years prior to graduation and received a diploma, or have obtained a GED from North Carolina.”
This is a highly partisan and controversial topic and is exactly the kind of item on the legislative agenda that the City Council had agreed not to include. It was added, not at the request of the majority of the City Council like the other eight items, but at the request of Abuzuaiter.
Giving in-state tuition to people who are living in the state illegally is not something that the Republican legislature is likely to do. A request from Greensboro will make it, if anything, less likely.
Barber, always the diplomat, didn’t talk about that. He said in support of his proposed two-week delay, “There is no rush here.”
He also noted that there was a resolution about the Jordan Lake Rules – to express the city’s appreciation to Wade for all the work she has done to keep the rules from being fully enforced – that needed to be revised. (See sidebar.) Complying with the rules will cost the city tens of millions of dollars, and according to some developers a full implementation of the rules would cost the area billions in lost development.
Wilkins, who is not so diplomatic, asked why the final item had been added when only eight items had been on the legislative agenda that was discussed with the Guilford delegation.
City Attorney Tom Carruthers noted that Councilmember Johnson did bring up in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at the meeting with the legislators, but he noted that it was not part of the PowerPoint presentation.
Abuzuaiter said that, in 2015, students had spoken at a council work session and the council had discussed the issue. So she concluded, “We had that discussion.” And she added, “I asked that it be put on the agenda.”
Wilkins noted that the discussion she was talking about was two years ago and at least five councilmembers had agreed to place all the other items on the legislative agenda. He said, “If there are five members who want to do it, so be it.” Essentially he was calling Abuzuaiter’s bluff because they both knew she didn’t have five votes. Abuzuaiter could have called for a vote to add that item to the legislative agenda, but did not because it was a vote she knew she would lose.
Councilmember Justin Outling said that the council had agreed on a strategy to work with the General Assembly. He said that if the in-state tuition item was included on the legislative agenda, “We risk losing the other items.”
He said, “I feel very strongly committed to the strategy.”
And he added, “We can do the same thing that we have done in years past and get the same lack of results we have gotten in years past.”
Barber went back to the need for the wording to be revised and made the motion that the vote on the legislative agenda be continued to the March 7 meeting and that councilmembers receive a copy of the rewritten legislative agenda by March 1, and that’s the motion that passed.
Hightower said that the legislative delegation seemed very amenable to the idea of giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. She was correct, the Democratic members of the legislative delegation did speak favorably about it, and if the City Council wants to get nothing from the legislature it can submit a legislative agenda that the Democrats in the legislature like. But the reality that Hightower doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to admit, is that in the legislature the Democrats have no power.
In other business, the City Council agreed to accept a $7 million grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a $1.4 million grant from the North Carolina Department of Commerce to construct the water and sewer line to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite. The total cost of the line according to City Manager Jim Westmoreland is $28.9 million, and so far the city has committed to spending $2.5 million on the design and an additional $1.5 to acquire right-of-ways and easements. Westmoreland said that if the megasite attracts a client then the city would likely be able to get more grants for the project.
The council voted unanimously to accept both grants.
Hightower removed several items from the Consent Agenda to vote on separately so that she could ask about the Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise (MWBE) participation.
The City Council continues to discuss the MWBE program far more than any other single issue.