The League’s Quarterly Legislator Q&A.
Jim Burgin is a numbers guy. The state senator from Angier, whose district covers Harnett County and parts of Johnston and Lee counties including Sanford, has big ideas for better communities. And those ideas beat from the heart. But they’re all about the data.
In a recent Southern City interview, Senator Burgin, now in his second term following two terms as a Harnett County commissioner, set a tone of better living through data-backed programming and in being involved enough in the important issues to make informed change. A key focus for this senator is health care, particularly mental health care, which he sees as a rife-for-
improvement sector that at its most successful should lead to better, more fulfilled communities.
Senator Burgin has been in the insurance business for more than three decades, hence his eyes for data and health care, and currently chairs the Senate Health Care Committee, as well as its related appropriations committee, where he was deep in the numbers around the time of the interview, in late April, as general assembly lawmakers worked toward a biennial state budget.
Below is a relevant portion of Southern City’s conversation with the senator.
How’s the legislative session going for you?
JB: We got off to a really fast start. A lot of bills. I’m afraid I did my part (laughter). I said I was only going to do 12 to 15 (bills), and I think I’ve done 30-something.
Issues find you sometimes?
JB: Well, they do. And being on (the Senate Health Care Committee) and being a chair and my past experience, a lot of folks came to me with different things. I think they’re all good ideas. We’ll let the collective find out and see. I’m enjoying this part of the session so far.
Sometimes with committee assignments, you get a committee you have to study up on. Other times you get a committee aligned with your expertise. With you chairing the Health Care Committee…
JB: I asked for it. They say be careful what you ask for. I wanted Health Care and Health Care Appropriations, Transportation, Ag, Insurance, Commerce—all of the things I have great interest in. But Health Care is where I think I have the most potential to help and have the most impact.
Put that in context with your background and where you’ve been.
JB: I’ve been in the insurance business for 32 years. I’ve served on or represented all the different health care companies […] I have been on the hospital board for 15 years, we have a mental health unit, (Past) Governor (Pat) McCrory appointed me to the State Health Coordinating Council, so I was on that for a number of years, and all of that happened before I got elected. So, looking back, God put all these things in my life to get me ready to do this. The experience. Especially being around mental health. I can make the biggest impact in North Carolina on mental health issues. The opioid (crisis) and behavioral health—all of it to me is so wrapped together. What I think is happening in this country right now is we’re seeing a mental health crisis. In fact, I was telling folks at church the other day, every one of these gun shootings that we’ve had, when you go back to the root cause, there’s a mental health issue. So that’s where I’m really passionate about trying to focus on the “how do we deal with these issues” and not turn it into a gun issue or a certain issue, but how do we deal with people’s problems? The best thing we can do for these folks is get them to a place where they can function, have a job, stay in their home, stay with their family, and live a fulfilled life. And that’s what’s missing right now.
With your previous experience as a county commissioner—counties are typically the level of local government that take on health care. Is your familiarity with health care what led you to run for public office at that level?
JB: I’d been asked numerous times, just because of my involvement in everything from schools—I was PTA chair, I served on every kind of board, I coached teams, I was president of the chamber, president of Kiwanis. I’m one of those guys, if I’m going to be in something, I want to be involved in it, and if you’re going to be involved in it, usually you’re asked to lead. So, I’d done all those, I was asked to put in for school board or county commissioner, and I said as long as our children are home, I would not do that, because they’re my first priority. I have three millennials, I tell everybody. When our youngest was going to be a senior in high school, I ran for county commissioner the first time. And I said I’d only serve two terms, that’s eight years. So, I won and served, and won again and served. I served as chair for three of those years. And when I got to the end, I said I’m stepping away. And many people said, Jim, we know you said it, but things are going great, the county’s good, we straightened out a lot of financial issues. I said no. This is real important, that I keep my word. Politicians a lot of times don’t. So, I said when I came here as senator, that I would only serve 12 years. This is now starting my third year. And I will honor that. I will not serve past 12 years.
How has your experience in those eight years as a county commissioner played into your service as a senator?
JB: Great experience. I really feel like if you don’t have experience at the local level, either working as an elected official in a town or a county commissioner or school board, I think you miss a lot of opportunities to learn everything from how meetings run, parliamentary procedures, just how to glean information, how to work in the bounds—government is not like business. I’m a business guy, we’ve got multiple businesses—I had to make a decision this morning about hiring somebody. Up here (in government) it takes six months to hire somebody. And we’ve got to fix that. We’ll never run government like business, and it probably shouldn’t, because you don’t want one person making rash decisions. There is a method. The method is, it goes through committees, goes through hearings. Get collaboration, get all that. But it shouldn’t take six months to hire folks for the state.
With some processes taking so long, how do you stay motivated and on the ball to see things through? And with all the other variables that demand your attention…
JB: I’ve got books. (Editor’s note: The senator here has pulled out a three-ring binder, filled to capacity.) It’s my 2021 long session book of bills. It’s got bills from the first session, it’s got things that I worked out over the summer, and this is what we go with, this is what we use for everything that we do. I have this and I have follow-up lists. And if you go and look at the senate bills that were filed, the first ones that were turned in were mine. I have (bill) number 3, 4, 5. There were some bills I had been working on, right after the election—I knew that I was coming back, I started communicating with staff. […] So, we started pretty quick and so I keep this (binder) on my desk. I also keep a running tally sheet of bills and where they are. (Senator Burgin’s Legislative Assistant) Jessica (Daigler-Walls) is wonderful; she knows how I think, she keeps things in front of me all the time. The (legislative assistants) up here, people don’t give them enough credit for what they do, and we sure don’t pay them enough. I’m on a mission to try to get them raises.
It’s a really specialized thing, being a legislative assistant. Not just knowing how the political process works but knowing the personalities, the nuances, how to anticipate things when schedules are always changing.
JB: The secretary of (the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services) and I were supposed to meet tomorrow. We’ve had to change it because a committee that I didn’t know I was going to present a bill in front of said, “We’re going to hear your bill tomorrow.” So, we’ve had to switch gears. Every day that I come up here I have a list, but every day is a new day that you just don’t know what you’re going to—but I kind of like that. I like being able to adjust. I won’t say I’m real quick on my feet, but being in business for yourself, you’ve got to be pretty flexible.
When it comes to setting goals for yourself, and considering your self-imposed term limiting, what’s on your list of things to accomplish?
JB: A lot of things, and lot of them are things outside of what I would normally delve into. I think education, I’m interested in looking at state year-round schools. Think about this, if we as a state decided to go with state year-round schools, we’d save billions of dollars in school construction, because we wouldn’t have to build a new school for probably six years. I want to pay teachers so well that there’s no question about education, and I want to hold them accountable. When I was in high school, we had photography. Does anybody offer photography any more in school? We cut out music, the arts, we cut out a lot of things that I think make life richer and more fulfilling for people. Year-round school, you get so many more opportunities. […] All the studies show that people being under (the traditional calendar), the summer hurts them. So just think. You’re coming back, you’re spending the first couple of months just trying to get those kids back to where they were. Whereas if we were in a year-round program, we’d be in nine weeks, be out three weeks, go nine weeks, be out three weeks. The folks who don’t like the idea are tourism (industry). […] Here’s my argument. If you have people going nine weeks and off three weeks, you’ve always got people tracked out. To me, you’ve extended the season for vacations, you’ve tripled the amount of kids that are available during the year, because you’ve always got people tracked out. […] I think that it’s just a perception, “It’s always been that way.” If we want to make a huge difference in education, I think there’s a way to do it. I introduced a bill. All I said is let’s do a study. I’m not big on paying for these big studies but I said let’s let the Department of Public Instruction look at these factors and see if they would work. That’s one of the things, these are long-term things. Health care is really where I want to live.
Health care certainly connects to how a community flourishes and to the confidence levels of everyday people.
JB: Mental health—we made the decision years ago to close a lot of the mental health facilities, like (Dorothea) Dix (Hospital in Raleigh) and everything. I think a lot of people are seeing that was probably a mistake. I’ve been to all three of our mental health hospitals (operated by the state Department of Health and Human Services) and a ton of other mental health facilities just visiting. I’ve been to Central Prison, I’ve been on death row to see. I’m one of those, I want to go, I want to see, I want to talk to people. Everywhere I go, I ask questions—what would you change? What do we need to do? The three mental health hospitals are the only hospitals in North Carolina that do not have electronic medical records. They carry around paper files. I think the mental health hospitals are important. I think they should be up there with every other hospital. Great service, great medical care—have the best of the best there. We’re paying for it. It costs about $1,400 a day to house somebody in one of our mental health hospitals. That’s a passion of mine, so we’ve got it in the budget. That’s a big thing. Another bill I have is long-term injectables, for both mental health and opioid treatment. All of the studies I’ve read say that one of the big issues on mental health, is people get stable on whatever medication they’re taking, and then they’re discharged, and then they go out and they say, “I’m fine” and quit taking it, or the other complaint is that they said, “I’m foggy, I don’t feel like myself” and they quit taking them. What I want to do is put them on long-term injectables, where only once a month they have to get an injection and it keeps them stable, where they can work, they can stay with their family, they can function. Same thing about opioid treatment. This thing about putting somebody in a seven-day plan—it doesn’t work. I’ve talked to folks all over the state and other states. I’ve read all these studies. If you’re going to get somebody off of drugs, there needs to be a long-term solution. Part of it is, I think, injectables.
Another thing I’m really concerned about—you cannot treat somebody if they’re not in a safe environment. So, housing has to be one of the first components. It’s hard to treat a homeless person. It’s hard to treat somebody, even if they’re trying to make it, when they’re skipping around from place to place. So, I think housing ought to be one of our priorities. […] We need to have safe, adequate housing for these folks. Then we start a treatment plan, long-term.
All of us have our mental health moments, and we need to have a better plan for how we deal with it and we have to be willing to try to help people.
It seems like your goal is happier people, more confident people, set up for success, as data-backed solutions are changing the dynamics. It all makes for a happier place.
JB: People will tell you I’m a numbers guy. I’m always asking people for data. I just believe that the numbers show you what you need to do. Whether your spending is accurate. I’m the kind of guy, I’ll invest in things that I think are going to make a difference. If there’s a tool I can buy to make it better.