Nearly the full roster of Johnston County’s state lawmakers appeared last week at a town hall event in the Cleveland community. N.C. Sens. Brent Jackson and Rick Horner and Reps. Larry Strickland and William Brisson met with constituents in the community’s Johnston Community College outpost.
Jackson and his staff organized and ran the town hall, something the senator said he used to do more often in the past before he got out of the habit.
“I just wanted to give you an update of where we’re at and some of the things that have happened in the General Assembly and also get your feedback on some concerns you might have,” Jackson said.
Foremost on people’s minds was the prospect, or lack thereof, of Cleveland becoming a town or being annexed by nearby municipality. Those speaking up at the meeting made sure the representatives knew they were fine with the way things are now. That included their property-tax bills, which they feared could double if absorbed into a town.
“There have been a lot of rumors that they were starting to incorporate Cleveland Springs into a town,” Stephen Randolph said at the meeting.
Others raised fears that Garner to the north or Clayton to the east might try to bring the community into their limits. The politicians said they had heard no such talk.
“I’ve not heard anything; it might be just rumors,” Jackson said. “Your current General Assembly is not too crazy about (extraterritorial jurisdictions) and forced annexation, I can tell you that.”
If Cleveland residents wanted to form their own town, set a tax rate and begin providing services, that would be one thing, but annexation by either of the two closest towns seems unlikely. State statute allows satellite annexations about three miles from town limits, but Clayton’s line is more than six miles from Cleveland. It gets even more complicated for Garner, which, being a Wake County town, would have to get permission from the Johnston County Board of Commissioners to bring Cleveland into its limits.
“Garner can’t come across the county line without the county commissioners’ permission, and the Johnston County Commissioners would never give permission,” said Jonathan Breeden, a Cleveland attorney and resident.
Much of the meeting focused on the possibility of expanding Medicaid in North Carolina under the Affordable Care Act. Previously, under Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, the state declined the federal government’s offer to bring more North Carolinians into Medicaid, which provides health insurance for the poor. McCrory and the Republican-controlled legislature feared North Carolina’s costs would soar after the federal government stopped providing 100 percent of the money needed to add more people to Medicaid.
New Gov. Roy Cooper has moved to expand Medicaid, but the legislature has sued to stop him.
In a presentation, Jackson argued that North Carolina had already expanded Medicaid.
“Since 2011, the legislature has had to fill shortfalls in Medicaid totaling nearly $2 billion; that’s money that could be used for education or something else,” Jackson said. “So we’ve already expanded Medicaid.”
One mom at the meeting, Kristy Smith, challenged Jackson’s support of Betsy DeVos for secretary of eduction in the new Trump administration. Smith said she has a son on the autism spectrum and counts on federal law to see that he gets an affordable and quality public education. She is troubled by DeVos’ belief that states should make their own education laws for children with special needs.
“I’m concerned, on a personal level, how she feels about disabled children; she wants to leave it to the state to decide,” Smith said. “I can’t pull him out and put him in a private school like she suggests. What will you do to ensure my son receives the education my tax dollars go to?”
Smith told Jackson his signature was on a letter state lawmakers had signed supporting DeVos. Jackson said he had never signed such a letter and suggested Smith had confused him with another senator.
“We’ve gotten a lot of calls to our office trying to block her appointment; we have no control over that, none,” Jackson said. “I have nothing to do with education secretary. That is either bogus, but I have signed nothing of the sort. It wouldn’t do me any good to sign it. I have no clout or even a vote on that. ... I don’t know enough about her to say either way to be honest with you.”
Later in the meeting, a Jackson staffer showed the senator that in fact he had signed such a letter, as had 19 other North Carolina lawmakers. Jackson apologized and said he had signed the letter electronically under the advice of his colleagues.
“From what I have been told, I think President Trump will make the right selection in who he chooses to do this job,” Jackson said. “It goes back to either you’ve got confidence in us in the state to make sure we’re looking out for our citizens.”
Brisson offered some reassurance that North Carolina would look after its own.
“If you keep him in public school, he’ll never be turned away,” Brisson said.