Wake County is preparing for another long state legislative session by putting as much as $200,000 into its lobbying and communication efforts.
As the General Assembly prepares to convene Jan. 14, the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Monday approved the hiring of a new staffer and a well-known lobbyist to shape – or weather – the state government’s new agenda. The session could bring more significant changes in funding and powers for local governments.
“We need to develop a relationship. They determine, to some degree, what we can and can’t do,” board Chairman James West said.
“They’re sitting right here. This is the capital county.”
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Richard Stevens, the former Wake County manager and a former state senator, will be walking the statehouse halls on behalf of the county, and collecting a $100,000 fee for the year’s work. The county will contract with Stevens through his employer, the Smith Anderson law firm.
Meanwhile, a new “intergovernmental relations manager” will work as a county staffer for a salary between $64,750 and $110,250; hiring begins now.
Together, the new hiring represents Wake County’s greatest spending on legislative affairs in recent history. The relations-manager position has mostly sat empty since it was created in 2006, and the county previously has only hired single-issue consultants, while Stevens will work with any county-related issue.
“We’ll be one of his major clients,” County Manager Jim Hartmann said.
The effort comes at a time when the county’s all-Democratic board stands in contrast to a Republican-dominated legislature, and it follows years of state action that have put some local officials’ hairs on end.
The legislature in the past two years has set limits on when governments can ask voters to approve new debt; stripped the city of Boone of its extra-territorial jurisdiction (a common municipal planning power); and abolished the privilege tax, a controversial and bountiful source of revenue for cities.
“I think Richard (Stevens) will be dealing with a great many things that have been cut out of our budget,” said Commissioner Betty Lou Ward. She was referring to state cuts and actions on education and the environment, she said.
Commissioner Jessica Holmes also pointed to education as a priority.
“I would request a statewide raise in teacher pay,” she said, describing last summer’s raises as a “down payment.”
Before it can put forward its own agenda, though, Wake County may be playing catch-up with a potential rush of legislative action that would affects its government and million residents.
On the job for less than a year, the county manager has made the legislative relations positions one of his first requests for new staff. Hartmann said he’s making it because he wants the county to be quicker to react to complex changes to state law.
Stevens, who was county manager for 16 years, will become Wake’s advocate in the Legislative Building. The former state senator is already registered as a lobbyist for Accenture, Duke Energy Carolinas, the N.C. Association of Independent Schools and SAS Institute. He couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
Working alongside Stevens, the new “relations manager” will coordinate the responses to legislative action. Previously, legislative matters were handled by an assistant county manager.
The new hire is “not going to be an expert on everything, but it’s someone who can rally the troops ... when we know we need to get very accurate, detailed information to the state legislators, and federal (lawmakers),” Hartmann said.
Stevens also will work with the county to build a more “robust” unit for legislative affairs.
At the same time, the county commissioners themselves will have to decide what kind of issues they want to bring to the legislature. That process begins at a work session at 2 p.m. Monday.