By Pete Zamplas- State Sen. Chuck Edwards has introduced a bill to help small businesses better afford health care for their employees.
Edwards (R-Henderson Co.) recently spoke to fourth-grade students of Upward Elementary in Henderson County about the legislative process, and demonstrated it last week.
The District 48 senator represents all of Henderson and Transylvania counties, and also southern Buncombe.
Edwards is among three primary co-sponsors of the Small Business Health Care Act (S86) that was filed Feb. 19 then passed on a first reading the next day.
The bill makes it more affordable again for small businesses to help insure their workers and to recruit and retain them, by putting them back up with bigger companies’ pricing breaks.
Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee Co-chr. Edwards got the bill to his committee on Thursday, Feb. 21. If it passes as many expect, then it goes to two more committees — on health care then in turn to rules, before it can return to the floor for a general senate vote.
Sen. Edwards calls S86 a “plan that takes monumental steps towards meeting two of our vital needs in North Carolina — increasing access to health care for those who need it, and helping our small businesses succeed.”
Small business owners constantly remind me of their challenges under ACA (Affordable Care Act/’Obamacare’), to provide affordable options for their employees.
This bill removes many of the burdens that have prevented them from creating Associated Health Plans (AHP) to help meet their workforce needs, and to provide stable benefits for their employees and their employee’s families.”
The GOP-sponsored bill would ease current federal restrictions on AHPs that emerged under then-Pres. Barack Obama. Currently, small businesses, sole proprietors and contract workers are grouped into a pricing market more costly than the one for larger companies.
The bill reverses that, expanding eligibility to join AHPs. The proposed state insurance code revisions are estimated to financially benefit as many as 110,000 North Carolinians, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
A key potentially cost-saving clause allows small businesses in North Carolina to join an AHP with those in bordering states of South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Another change is to enable joining an AHP that includes different industries, not merely the same one.
Another clause slashes from five to two years the time an AHPS has to exist for businesses in N.C., before it can add members from this state.
Further, the bill’s revisions expand consumer protections to small business-insured people — such as the right to get insured despite having preexisting medical conditions. This is contrast to an insurer turning down a potential client, for an ongoing malady.
That is a prime element of evolving federal health mandates. However, forcing an insurance company to offer a policy by itself does not prevent it from charging much extra for preexisting conditions.
This bill not only helps small businesses’ budgets by reducing health premium contributions for employees, it helps them better compete against larger firms for workers.
Paving the way for such reversal by states was a federal Labor Department ruling in June of last year, in Donald Trump’s administration. The ruling enables states to let small businesses join larger ones in insurance pricing groups.
Now, that move is gaining steam among lawmakers in Raleigh. If the bill passes in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, it becomes law if not vetoed by Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper.
Or if he vetoes a bill, it takes three-fifths (60 percent, or 30 votes) of legislators to over-ride his rejection. Republicans had a 70 percent veto-proof “super majority,” at 35-15. Now they are one seat below the 60 percent threshold, with a 29-21 edge after Democrats gained six senate seats in ’18. In the House, the GOP has 65 seats (54 percent), and Dems 55.
The bill is also co-sponsored by Senate Health Care Committee Co-chr. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) and Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth), and has 12 other senate sponsors.
Sen. Edwards co-chairs the Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources Committee, in addition to Commerce and Insurance. He also serves on such committees as Rules (that screens bills), Finance, and Appropriations on Higher Education.
He noted one-fifth of Henderson County’s “economic output comes from agribusiness” from 557 farms, that Buncombe and Transylvanian also rely on tourist spending, and that commercial revenue rose in all three counties of District 48 since he took office.
Introduction of S86 is among achievements early in the long session that began Jan. 3, and which concludes only after passing a state budget for 2019-20 that begins July 1.
The budget is usually passed by then or shortly thereafter following a brief extension, but once it took till December, Edwards told three Upward fourth-grade classes on Feb. 8.
The 62 Upward fourth-grade students hearing Edwards’ talk are taught by Marcie Molton Burlett, Becca Blackwell, Makala Coggins and Carrie Isley. Coggins told The Tribune that the talk fit into such lessons as citizens’ “right and responsibility to vote, and to bring up political concerns.”
Pupils asked Edwards questions about his senatorial experience, after he explained such aspects as the various steps it takes to make a state law.
As he noted, a bill starts with sponsors and getting written. It goes to at least one committee and perhaps first a sub-committee, before reaching the chamber’s floor.
There, in debating for a bill, “I tell them why I think it’s such a great idea. You have to convince enough people,” to win the vote. “I don’t have the power to make laws by myself.”
A simple majority of 26 of the 50 senators gets most bills through that chamber, he emphasized. In the House, 61 of 120 votes are required. The bill must pass both chambers, and any final-version differences ironed out before it goes to the governor.
If he or she vetoes the bill, the governor does so with a “big red stamp with the word ‘veto’ on it,” Edwards told the students. “We then try to decide whether the bill is a good enough idea to try to override the veto.”
A mere two weeks after the over month-long federal shutdown ended, students wondered if the state could similarly shut down. No, Edwards said. The statutory safeguard is an “automatic continuing resolution” extending spending levels as they were heading into the new fiscal year, until the new budget is enacted.
Such intricate words did not phase Upward principal Jason Joyce, regarding the presentation. Joyce told The Tribune after Edwards’ talk that fourth-grade students are expected to understand most if not all political and legal terms he used.
Students looked most attentive to Edwards’ comments on the social and personal reward of public service in the Senate. Edwards said most “rewarding” for him is “we get to write policy that affects lives” of many. He stressed the importance of care-taking $28 billion in annual tax revenue, prioritizing spending needs, overseeing utility tax rates, safeguarding private property rights, and seeing that “businesses are treated more fairly by agency rulings” and regulations.
Edwards told the students he strives for greater “educational opportunities, and to help businesses offer higher pay.” He noted his value in well-earned “sweat equity.” His priority legislative issues have also included improving the local and statewide economies, lowering taxes, and making state government more efficient.
This month, he told the Asheville-based Council of Independent Business Owners that he is open to privatizing state-controlled liquor sales.
Looking back on recent achievements in education, Edwards told The Tribune how the state reinstated teaching fellowships in 2017 in these areas of greatest need for more teachers: science, technology, engineering, math and special education. He said a teaching fellow on average gets $8,250 per year toward college tuition.
Seventy-five percent more in state lottery proceeds — $100 million — were earmarked for building public schools in ‘18-19 than in the prior fiscal year. Further, $30 million went to a new Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, with $75 million more planned for ‘19-20.
In an ongoing trend, funding more classroom teachers further reduced class size last year and secured more individualized instruction. This resulted in test scores indicating third-grade public education students across this state are becoming “more proficient in math and reading,” he told The Tribune.
Children are getting an earlier start in their schooling, with more money for preschool to reduce the waiting lists for pre-kindergarten sessions.
Sen. Edwards told pupils he also enjoys to “helping constituents” individually, such as “reuniting” a prisoner with his children.
A student wondered what is most fun about being a senator. It is “opportunity to meet people, in situations I never could have been in otherwise.”
A pivotal skill of a senator is “prioritization” both of issues to tackle and daily tasks, Edwards said. “What’s most important today?” He thrives best when on the go. “The more I have on my plate, the more active I am” and the more he gets done.
Students were curious about the senator’s schedule. He is busiest mid-week on a Tuesday and Wednesday, when in total he typically is in four committee sessions and eight meetings with constituents starting at breakfast at 7:30 a.m. to “hear their concerns.”
Edwards said that during a session such as now, he usually is in Raleigh Monday night to Thursdays. He gets back home Thursday nights, and stays in the district through Sundays. It takes him four and a half hours to commute, and he said he racks up about 7,000 miles per month in travel. Rather than stay in a hotel as some colleagues do, he bought a condo merely three blocks from his office.
Legislative pay is low. Ballotpedia.org lists each N.C. senator’s base salary as below $14,000, with $104 daily per diem for expenses.
Senate and House legislators serve two-year terms, Edwards noted. He was appointed in 2016 — three months ahead of the election — to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville. Edwards twice beat Norm Bossert of Pisgah Forest, to win reelection. Edwards garnered 62 percent of the vote in ’16, then 56.3 percent last November.
The first Democrat to announce a challenge of him so far is Brian Caskey. The Mills River councilman got on that board by unseating then-Mayor Larry Freeman in 2017, and represents District 1. His website is BrianCaskey.com.
Sen. Edwards has said he tries to bring to state government “principles, compassion, business acumen and determination.”
Chuck and Teresa Edwards, who live in Flat Rock, own seven McDonald’s restaurants in three area counties. Chuck bought his first Golden Arches restaurant 21 years ago, in 1998. He helped take Entegra Bank — then Macon Bank — public and raise $65 million in capital, as a board director. Its market cap is nearly $200 million, he noted.
He studied business at Blue Ridge Community College. The 1978 West Henderson grad was a Falcon football player. He moved from Waynesville to Henderson County at age 12. He married Teresa Wilson in 1979; this year marks their 40th wedding anniversary.
For more on Sen. Edwards and issues he works on, check nc48.com.