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Can State Sen. Chuck Edwards really force defunding of Asheville?

While his political opponent calls the move a "cheap political stunt," Chuck Edwards' vow to defund Asheville if it defunds police is a real possibility.

After Asheville City Council voted Sept. 22 to defund police by 3% — actually more of a reallocation of funding to other areas — State Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Hendersonville, announced plans to enter legislation to defund cities that defund their police departments in the upcoming 2021 General Assembly session. Edwards, who represents the 48th Senate District in the legislature, said his idea is a dollar for dollar reduction, a reaction to a council action he calls "reckless."

Edwards' Democratic opponent, Mills River Mayor Pro-tem Brian Caskey, says what Asheville has done is reallocate spending to more appropriate areas, while removing the weight of responsibilities such as animal control from the Police Department. "What I think about this is Edwards is trying a cheap political stunt," Caskey said. "My thought is he knows going to lose his seat in November, and he’s desperate for votes. That press release tells Western North Carolina the same thing."

The senator says his idea is about ensuring police departments are properly funded and can provide adequate safety to city residents. His proposal would call for defunding any municipality that defunds its police department, not just Asheville, dollar for dollar. "We should make no mistake about it — the city manager made the comment that this is initial, first step," Edwards said. "So there’s huge concern among those who are interested in protecting their property and their lives in Asheville, (as to) whether or not city leadership has the fortitude to stand up to those radicals and make sure the Police Department has the resources to keep the city safe."

North Carolina state sales tax is funneled back to counties, which then pass it on to towns and cities. Edwards said that's true, "but all of that is based on formulas that are written by the General Assembly." Edwards said he has research ongoing into just how much state funding Asheville receives and the specific sources. "There are a number of other sources — ABC sales, telecommunications (taxes), some other utilities such as natural gas and electricity taxes, tire disposal, the Powell Bill, which is a transportation tax," Edwards said. "There are plenty of sources. If you ask the mayor how much of that the city is willing to give up, it wouldn’t be very much."

The larger issue of whether or not Edwards can actually make state cuts to cities a reality brings into the play the North Carolina Constitution. In short, the answer is probably so.

Article 7, section 1 of the Constitution states: "The General Assembly shall provide for the organization and government and the fixing of boundaries of counties, cities and towns, and other governmental subdivisions, and, except as otherwise prohibited by this Constitution, may give such powers and duties to counties, cities and towns, and other governmental subdivisions as it may deem advisable."

"The legislature has complete control over local governments by virtue of their broad authority in the state constitution...," said Frayda S. Bluestein, the David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the UNC School of Government. "The legislature creates cities, and all of their authority comes from the state," Bluestein said. "What the legislature authorizes they can also retract or modify as they see fit."

Bluestein also noted that if one city is singled out for defunding, some barriers to that may come into play. But Edwards said his idea is that any city that defunds police in North Carolina would lose state funding dollar for dollar, not just Asheville. "If they reduce (police) funding by $770k, I’m looking for a way to reduce the funding they have from the state by $770,000,” Edwards said Sept. 24. "I've got research going on right now, but I’m confident I would have the ability to do that. I believe it should be dollar for dollar."

In short, Edwards summarizes his position this way: "I believe the state should insist that in order to have a (city) charter in North Carolina, one of their primary responsibilities would be to keep the citizens safe, and if they’re not able to do that, they would not be entitled to the funding coming from the taxpayers.”