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State government on a stopwatch

by Keith Barber

At approximately 5:44 a.m. on Saturday, July 10, members of the North Carolina General Assembly put the finishing touches on the 2010 legislative session after a marathon 19-hour final day.

When members of the House and Senate emerged from their respective chambers, they had passed an ethics reform bill, a bill banning internet sweepstakes operations and the Safe Schools Act. All the legislation passed in the final week of the General Assembly now goes to Gov. Beverly Perdue for her signature.

The Safe Schools Act, which requires school superintendents to report to the state when a teacher or administrator has been recommended for dismissal and resigns without the consent of the superintendent, was authored and sponsored by Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth).

On July 7, Folwell’s day began with an 8 a.m. sit-down meeting with representatives from the state Division of Motor Vehicles in his compact yet functional office inside the Legislative Building, which sits adjacent to the General Assembly.

At 9 a.m., the Republican Joint Caucus held a press conference on the first floor of the General Assembly building.

Folwell did not attend, opting instead to strategize with legislative assistant Paige Fitzgerald about reaching out to as many members of the Senate regarding the Safe Schools Act. The bill was on the calendar when the Senate convened later that day. The Safe Schools Act, known as House Bill 1377, was up for its second reading on July 7.

During the press conference, Phil Berger, the Republican leader in the Senate, and Paul Stam, the Republican leader in the House, distributed a press release entitled, “Democrats Refuse to Confront Important Issues: Legislature to Adjourn with Unfinished People’s Business.”

Berger and Stam made their case as to why North Carolina voters should cast their ballots for Republican candidates in the fall elections. Berger and Stam addressed eight issues that are of great concern to Republicans, and in their eyes, North Carolina citizens as well.

The Republican Caucus criticized the Democrats for not considering a bill that would disapprove of a policy change by the NC Community College Board that allows undocumented students to go to college. The caucus also criticized Democrats for not allowing a constitutional amendment that provides that marriage in the state is between one man and one woman. The reporters at the press conference deviated from the script, asking Berger and Stam them about the ethics bill that was pending in both the House and Senate.

“I don’t think this bill is going to end the whole issue of needing to change some of our statutes on issues of ethics but it’s a step in the right direction,” Sen. Berger said.

The ethics bill, or House Bill 96, deals with such sticky issues such as bribery of public officials and kickbacks to government officials from contracts awarded to private companies.

The stated goal of the legislation is to “strengthen transparency of government.”

Folwell, a three-term incumbent, was one of the co-sponsors of the bill, but later that day, he offered a different perspective on government ethics.

“We can pass a law a day on ethics, but it basically comes down to, ethics is what you do when nobody’s watching,” Folwell said. “Ethics is not what you do when you read a piece of legislation and everybody’s around you. Ethics is what you do when you’re at that stoplight at three o’clock in the morning and it’s not turning green…. I’m a strong believer in ethics, but

I also believe that every time we pass an ethics bill, somebody finds a way around it.”

On July 10, the Government Ethics and Campaign Reform Act of 2010 was ratified by the General Assembly.

At 9:35 a.m. on July 7, Folwell was pacing outside two Senate committee meeting rooms looking for Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake) and Sen. Linda Garrou (D-Forsyth).

“I’m just bird-dogging to see who comes out first,” Folwell said.

When he spotted an opening, Folwell approached Sen. Blue, a former speaker of the house.

Folwell first spoke about a bill that Blue had sponsored that would treat school teachers the same as all state employees with regard to health insurance coverage. Under Blue’s bill, when teachers are laid off, they retain one year of health insurance under the state’s plan. Folwell explained to Blue that he proposed an amendment to the bill that ensured if a former teacher took another job with an employer that offered group coverage, the state could drop that person from their healthcare plan. The House approved Folwell’s amendment and it was headed to the Senate later that day for concurrence.

“I got no problem with that,” Blue said. “It makes sense.” Then Folwell promoted the Safe Schools Act to Blue, explaining how the bill had been endorsed by the NC School Boards Association, NC Association of School Administrators, the NC Association of Educators and the NC Department of Public Instruction.

“You come with these easy bills,” said Blue. “I thought you needed my help on something.”

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Rep. Dale Folwell hands a revised version of House Bill 1377, or the Safe Schools Act, to Rep. Bill McGee (R-Forsyth) on July 7. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Folwell then headed back over to the legislative building to catch Sen. Garrou just minutes before the start of a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. Along the way, he ran into Brian Lewis and Linda Gunter, lobbyists for the NC Association of Educators.

Lewis said when he and other NCAE representatives first read the Safe Schools Act, they were adamantly opposed to it. The group believed the first draft of the legislation did not offer teachers and administrators due process in disciplinary proceedings, Lewis said. However, Folwell didn’t give up and worked closely with the group’s legal counsel, going through 20 drafts of the bill before reaching a compromise that was suitable to all stakeholders.

“They say that politics is the art of the possible and Rep.

Folwell found the possible,” Lewis said.

When Folwell arrived at the Senate committee meeting room around 9:58 a.m., the sound of dozens of conversations reverberated off the walls. Folwell approached Garrou, the committee co-chair, as she stood on the dais. Garrou leaned forward as Folwell spoke. She smiled and nodded in agreement. In an hour’s time, Folwell had reached out to seven senators on behalf of his bill.

Folwell exited the room and headed two flights downstairs to his 10 a.m. House Pensions and Retirement Committee meeting. The meeting barely lasted 15 minutes and Folwell headed back to his office to check in with Fitzgerald.

After a brief update, Erin Schuettpelz, a lobbyist for UNC- Chapel Hill, asked for a few minutes of Folwell’s time. She discussed an energy bill on the agenda of the Energy and Energy Efficiency Committee meeting slated for 11 a.m.

“It’s UNC Energy Savings,” Schuettpelz explained. “It’s going to allow us to reinvest any savings generated from energy efficiency projects into new energy efficiency projects, so it’s a way to self-fund energy efficiency across the UNC system.”

“You’ve got this down, don’t you?” said Folwell. “Yes, I have talking points,” she responded. “The benefit to the state is that it allows us to do energy efficiency without any appropriation.”

“Is there any opposition to it?” asked Folwell. “Not so far,” said Schuettpelz. Seeing an opening, Folwell pushed his own agenda with the lobbyist.

“Water fountains,” Folwell said. Schuettpelz appeared puzzled. Then Folwell explained that because water fountains on college campuses either don’t work or the water quality simply isn’t up to par, college students are drinking tons of bottled water and those empty bottles are going straight into landfills.

“Any investment you make in water fountains is good for the environment,” Folwell said.

“Okay, will do,” replied Schuettpelz. All the while, Fitzgerald and Bridget Porowski, a college intern, waited patiently in Folwell’s outer office.

Fitzgerald, a 2009 Wake Forest graduate, said she’s always been interested in politics. Many of her friends are interested in public service but don’t see politics as serving others, but she disagrees.

“You really can make a difference,” she said. Public service is a calling, Fitzgerald said, and Rep. Folwell lives up to that ideal.

“Quite a few people in politics are in it for themselves and not necessarily elected officials but people working in it,” Fitzgerald said. “I think it’s really unique to work for Rep. Folwell because he’s not in it for himself. He’s in it to make the state a better place to live and work.

“You’re not just working for someone,” she continued.

“You’re working towards helping other people and a cause.”

Folwell said he makes it a priority for all his legislative assistants to realize how valuable they are to the work he does in the House.

“When they go home, if they’ve helped me pass an organ donation bill that somewhere in the state somebody’s life was saved because of something they did,” Folwell said, “when they help me pass the volunteer firefighter act that now allows recruits and junior cadets to train to be firefighters, then they need to know that they had some impact on lower property taxes and homeowners insurance rates. When they help me pass school-bus safety bills, they need to know that there’s some invisible person out there they may have not have been hit or put in danger because of the work they did.”

For Fitzgerald, coming to work every day is equally challenging and rewarding.

“I agree with everything Rep. Folwell stands for,” she said.

“I would never work for someone that I didn’t agree with — that makes this part of the job very easy.”

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Rep. Dale Folwell reviews incoming e- mails on the morning of July 7. Folwell said he receives, on average, 150 e-mails an hour and replies to as many of them as possible. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Not everyone agrees with Folwell, but he appears to have a talent for bringing stakeholders together on issues that matter most to him. Lewis said Folwell’s willingness to truly listen to everyone makes him a unique legislator.

“Folwell is an interesting guy,” Lewis said. “We may disagree with him on some key issues like tax credits, but he’s not one to say, ‘Okay, we disagree on this so we can’t work together on other things.’ He calls us into a room and those other issues never come up. It’s just the bill that is in front of us.”

Folwell’s dogged persistence is another one of his admirable qualities, Lewis said.

“Dale doesn’t just introduce a bill — his bills have multiple editions before they become law,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t say, ‘This is my bill.’ He’s not an ideologue. He doesn’t hold grudges. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t get mad at us, he does. We’ve had huge disagreements, but tomorrow we may be working on legislation together to help public schools and I really like that.”

Based on his track record, Folwell is one of the most effective members of the NC House. He attributes his success to crafting a bill so that it incorporates input from all stakeholders and makes good, solid sense to all legislators, regardless of party or ideology.

“There’s more to getting a bill to the governor’s desk than meets the eye, but what I try to focus on is making sure the bill speaks for itself because as you’ve seen, when a bill’s in the Senate, I can’t speak for it,” Folwell said. “So the bill and the idea has to speak for itself.”

The legislative process is lengthy, laborious and downright exhausting, which helps ensure that bills get plenty of review before they are approved. Just getting a bill on a legislative committee calendar is an arduous task in itself. And after the bill passes both the House and Senate and is ultimately ratified, the bill’s sponsor must send a paragraph describing the purpose of the bill to the governor’s staff so they will know where the idea came from, said Folwell.

“You never give up until it becomes law,” he said. At 11 a.m., Folwell attended the Energy and Energy Efficiency Committee meeting and Senate Bill 886, or the Cleanfields Act of 2010, was discussed. The bill, which would allow the state to establish a cleanfields renewable energy demonstration park, was approved by voice vote. Folwell left before the final vote was taken to meet with Sen. John Snow (D-Cherokee) to go over minor revisions to the Safe Schools Act.

At 11:35 a.m., Snow and Folwell sat down at a table in the atrium of the General Assembly building and went over the changes.

“Career employees, certified teachers and administrators, if they have committed some act of misconduct and they’re being looked at for that act before there’s any determination to fire them, they resign,” Snow said, repeating Folwell’s explanation for the bill. “And what’s happening with those people a lot of times is they’ll resign and there’s no action taken on the action that was pending and therefore, they can go to another system and try to get employed without [them] ever knowing this has happened.”

“Because on the application, the question is, ‘Have you ever been dismissed?’ and they answer, ‘No,’” Folwell said.

Folwell read through the bill, pausing to tell Snow that superintendents have traditionally been reluctant to share compromising information about teachers and administrators that have resigned during the disciplinary process. This bill gives superintendents the backup they need, Folwell added.

“We’re putting sunshine on these people that go from district to district,” Folwell said.

“This [bill] is the kind of thing that stops this,” Snow replied. Folwell thanked Snow for his help, and headed back to his office.

Three hours later, Snow introduced the bill on the Senate floor. The Safe Schools Act was unanimously approved, but Sen. Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg) objected to the third reading so it remained on the Senate calendar.

The July 7 afternoon sessions of the House and Senate offered a glimpse into the hectic nature of the final days of a legislative session. Members of the House and Senate considered a wide variety of bills, including a controversial ban on internet sweepstakes operations; the establishment of the Uwharrie Resources Commission, which would act as a legal vessel for the state to take over the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project upon its successful recapture of the resource from Alcoa; and a bill to prohibit home foreclosure rescue scams.

As the internet sweepstakes debate raged on for more than two hours, Folwell seized the opportunity to meet with stakeholders from the NC Association of Educators. After updating

the group’s representatives on the bill’s progress, Folwell took a moment to reflect on the day and why he chose to get involved in politics.

“People’s confidence in government is at an all-time low, and it’s not good to be in a profession when people don’t have confidence in you, especially when we control so much of what goes on in their life,” Folwell said.

Having a broad awareness of the impact lawmakers have on the lives of their constituents is key to crafting legislation that serves the common good, Folwell said, which can ultimately restore faith in government. Interestingly, Folwell said he doesn’t believe that partisanship, like the daily press conferences by the Republican Caucus, adversely impacts the public’s faith in the process.

“I don’t think it hurts the process,” he said. “When we hold a press conference, it’s a little bit about politics but mostly it’s about policy, and typically what we try to do is differentiate between who we are and how we would govern and who [the Democrats] are and how they govern.”

Folwell said his style of governing comes from his background as a mechanic, and his willingness to embrace himself.

“When I look at embracing who I am, I have to look at what I’ve done most of my life, which is fix things,” he said. “I’m a mechanic by training, and that mechanical skill that I use with my hands, I started applying it mentally to the field of accounting. Now, I’m sort of applying that to this field so I’m really bringing the same tools out of the toolbox. I’m just applying them in a different way.”

And there’s nothing more frustrating for a mechanic than to see something that needs fixing, and not being able to fix it, Folwell said.

“The legacy cost of the state’s pension plan on behalf of the state employees and the post healthcare retirement obligation on behalf of retirees are going to suck all the air out of this room and all of the air out this building, and all the energy out of our budget for the next 15 to 20 years,” Folwell said.

When faced with monumental issues like the state’s budget woes, Folwell said he relies on his philosophy of knowing what you don’t know, surrounding yourself with people who do know, and listening carefully to what they have to say.

And as each day brings forth a new challenge, Folwell stands on his principles to guide his decision-making. For Folwell it comes down to four things: the Bible legislators place their hand upon when they’re sworn in, the oath of office, the party platform and, if he violates any of the aforementioned principles, the fact that he must go back to his constituents and explain why.

As Folwell was speaking, a sergeant-at-arms opened the door to the House chamber and announced that a vote was about to take place on House Bill 80, or the internet sweepstakes ban bill. Folwell stepped back inside the chamber and voted in favor of the ban.

Twenty-four hours later, the Safe Schools Act was ratified by the House and Senate and was sent to the governor for her signature — another victory for Folwell, and in the minds of many, a victory for all the parents, teachers and children in the state.

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Rep. Dale Folwell speaks with legislative assistant Paige Fitzgerald on July 7. Folwell described his assistants are “the brains’ behind anything I accomplish here.” (photo by Keith T. Barber)

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