Sen. Vickie Sawyer was elected for her first full N.C. Senate term in November after stepping into former Sen. David Curtis’ seat when he resigned in August. February marked Sawyer’s sixth full month in office.
“It has been a privilege to serve, and the six months have been wonderful. I’m really coming into my own as far as figuring out the lay of the land. That’s literally as simple as figuring out where the bathrooms are, which is very important, but also to know the players in the legislature,” Sawyer said. “These first six months have been glorious because I have made so many wonderful friends and new friendships that will only help us here locally, so I can be more effective and bring things home.”
First bill passed
With the filing period open for bills in the senate, Sawyer has not been shy in her freshman term. Her first bill, extending the application deadline for hurricane relief assistance and allowing Iredell and Wilkes Counties to apply, passed March 8.
Sawyer said she was asked to champion the bill by Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Steve Troxler.
The local farm service boards submitted applications for the counties. Sawyer said the board serving Iredell and Alexander Counties felt Iredell had not suffered enough damage to include Iredell in the application. All of the surrounding counties with agriculture as their number one industry except Iredell and Wilkes received federal funding.
Sawyer said the federal government offered to extend the application deadline to include Iredell and Wilkes. The state just had to pass legislation to allow it.
“I feel pampered, I guess,” Sawyer said. “What freshman legislator gets there and gets their bill passed in the very first few weeks of session? Maybe pampered isn’t the word. I would say it came too easily. I’m sure my second one will not come so easily.”
Bills in process
Sawyer has filed two bills and is working on another to file before the April 2 deadline to be voted on by state legislators this year.
One filed bill would stop allowing coal ash in amounts under eight cubic tons to be used as structural fill without a liner.
Mooresville has several unlined structural fills composed of coal ash along NC150. One is near Lake Norman High School and was exposed during Hurricane Florence.
“My bill is going to say, ‘You know what, science is still a little iffy about coal ash. Let’s not put it in the ground at all. If it’s one ounce or a hundred tons, it needs to go into a lined landfill,’” Sawyer said. “Just because coal ash is a hot topic now, we may forget, and 10 years from now, we may start putting it in the ground again. It would be nice to have it in legislation that we’re just not doing this anymore. It’s not a good thing. We’ve decided we need to be environmentally responsible. Go the old fashion way and just buy fill dirt and please keep the coal ash out of the ground unless it’s in a lined pit.”
The second bill Sawyer filed is being fast-tracked through the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee, she said.
The bill aims to assemble a panel of state officials and academic experts to study cancer clusters in North Carolina.
Two zip codes in Mooresville have elevated thyroid cancer rates. Sawyer lives in Mooresville and has spoken about the alleged cancer cluster at several public meetings.
“My anger has turned into patience. I’m not giving up. I still want to know the answer,” Sawyer said. “I just want to continue to fight for our local area to get answers.”
The bill Sawyer is working on now was also inspired by Mooresville’s search for the cause of the elevated thyroid cancer, she said. She’s working with the Central Cancer Registry now.
“One of the reasons I felt anger initially is that we could not get the right numbers out of the Department of Health and Human Services to tell us how many thyroid cancer cases are in Iredell County,” Sawyer said. “It took us six months to get 2016 numbers certified and a guesstimate of 2017 numbers. As of January 2018, we had preliminary data from 2017. How do you protect lives taking that long to (collect data)?”
Sawyer said she understood why new data took so long to publish. Relying on doctors and hospitals to report means there are a lot of sources to get numbers from.
To lessen the amount of time required for current data, Sawyer is suggesting a change in the source of the information. Instead of relying on doctors and hospitals, the registry should turn to insurance companies.
“When I asked an insurance carrier to give me the number of thyroid cases that they’re treating by zip code, it took them six days,” Sawyer said. “Admittedly, she said she didn’t ask for it until three days after that. From six months to six days. There’s a better way.”
Sawyer is also voicing her support for bills filed by other representatives.
In education, she’s advocating for a bill that changes school grading to 50 percent growth and 50 percent testing instead of 10 percent growth and 90 percent testing.
“Standardized testing we know adversely selects minorities and folks who are not in those traditional paths in education that lead to success,” Sawyer said. “Kicking a guy or girl when she’s down is not the best way to promote education. That’s something I’m personally working on.”
She is also supporting a bill restoring more pay for teachers with master’s degrees.
“There are teachers who are more proficient because they got a higher education,” Sawyer said. “A lot of them are in our elementary and our STEM program, so let’s look at restoring that pay. I’m excited to hopefully get that passed. That’s going to have a hard lift though.”
Issues to look out for
“For Iredell County, we’re a unique district because we’re a microcosm of North Carolina. We go from farms to Ferraris. We really do,” Sawyer said. “Each one of those different areas, South Iredell, Middle Iredell and North Iredell, although we are combined by a county border, we are completely different in some things we care about.”
Sawyer said Northern Iredell and farmers in the county should look forward to state legislation on rural broadband, hemp production, CBD oil regulations and rural medicine.
As more farmers turn to hemp, Sawyer said the FARM Act will guide them through the production of the unfamiliar crop.
As CBD oil becomes more popular, the state needs to ensure the product people are buying is what it’s advertised as. Sawyers said there had been testing done on CBD oil being sold in the state and some were simply coconut oil. A place producing CBD oil was a residential trailer with dogs running through freely.
The SAVE Act would allow nurse practitioners to provide healthcare without physician supervision, which is currently required. The goal of the bill is to increase the amount of healthcare providers in rural areas and lower costs.
In central Iredell, Sawyer said schools are the major concern as companies consider the area for economic development.
“Locally, schools are a concern. There are some great restart programs that are happening. I’m very happy for that. I’m excited to see where they’re going. You have a great school board that’s working really hard every day for every child. Some things like calendar flexibility and more interconnectivity between Mitchell and ISS, work force development,” Sawyer said. “Things like that, economic development and education are key.”
South Iredell should be focused on transportation, Sawyer said. Communities to the south have seen great growth, but their transportation infrastructure is struggling to keep up, causing congestion.
“Iredell County is uniquely positioned to be the strongest county in North Carolina in a long time,” Sawyer said. “We have some amazing leaders. I think the folks of Iredell have elected some really strong people, excluding myself, but some really strong people to represent them with Rena and John, some great town councils who are working hard together. The great thing is we all work together.”