Pricey Harrison

Friday, June 24, 2005

Parents, Students Request Additional Funding For Low-Wealth Schools

Several dozen advocates and students took their pleas for more money dedicated to improving poor schools to state lawmakers this week, holding a rally and visiting legislators' offices. Proponents have endorsed a two-year, $374 million package for such schools, but Senate and House budget proposals fall far short of that amount. The debate centers on the Leandro school financing case, which is named for one of the original plaintiffs in the 1994 lawsuit seeking more money to educate students in low-wealth schools. The state Supreme Court has affirmed lower court rulings in the case that say North Carolina's constitution guarantees every student a "sound basic education" provided by the state.

Film Incentives

The Senate has approved legislation that would provide tax breaks to the film industry to help North Carolina better compete with other states and countries. The House included similar incentives in its budget, which was passed last week. Supporters have said the state has lost up to 2,000 jobs as film projects were recruited away from North Carolina, and that, without incentives, more jobs are at stake. The Senate approved an amendment that caps a tax credit for a feature film at $7.5 million. Senate Republican leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County said the bill sets a bad precedent, favoring the film industry over textiles, furniture, and other industries in the state. SB 1144 was sponsored by Sen. Julia Boseman (D-New Hanover) and will now move over to the House for consideration.

Toll Roads In North Carolina

The Senate passed House Bill 253 and returned it to the House for concurrence yesterday. This bill would expand from three to nine the number of toll-road projects that could be studied and built in North Carolina. The measure also would accelerate construction of the 2.4-mile Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks, a somewhat controversial proposal which is at odds with the Department of Transportation's recommendations as well as good environmental policy. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority agreed this year to study four projects but under existing law can't build them all. Supporters say increasing the number of potential projects would make it easier to complete critical highway jobs while a cash drain at the Department of Transportation is expected to reduce the number of highway contracts this year. Any project approved for construction would be financed with bonds repaid with collected tolls. There are now no toll roads in North Carolina.

New Age Requirement For Childrem On Jet Skis

The Senate voted 47-1 in favor of a bill that would raise the minimum age to operate a personal watercraft from 12 to 14. The bill would require users of Jet Skis and similar personal watercraft who are 14 and 15 to either share the craft with someone who is at least 18 or have completed an approved boating safety education course. Children who are 12 before Nov. 1 would be grandfathered into the law. The bill now returns to the House, which approved the measure in April and must decide whether to accept the changes made by the Senate.

Changes To North Carolina's Sex Offenders List

House Bill 1209, which would require someone convicted of the crime "sexual battery" to give a DNA sample to authorities and register on the state's sex offender list, was approved on June 22 and sent to Governor Easley for signature. Sexual battery is a high-level misdemeanor and is defined as engaging in nonconsensual sexual contact that stops short of intercourse or rape. Currently, a person must give a DNA sample if convicted of any felony, stalking or assaulting a handicapped person.

Murder By Parent Terminates Parental Rights

A bill heading to Gov. Mike Easley's desk for signature would lay out how someone's parental rights could be terminated if a parent kills his/her child's other parent. State law now allows terminating parental rights for someone who kills a child, but not for killing the other parent. The bill, House Bill 97, would allow survivors, including a victim's grandparents or siblings, to petition to end the parental rights of a parent who has committed murder or voluntary manslaughter of the other parent. The Senate unanimously approved the bill Monday night.

Bill To Protect Children From Internet Predators Is Approved

The General Assembly gave final approval Tuesday to legislation, sought by Attorney General Roy Cooper, which will help undercover officers go after online sexual predators. By a vote of 47-0, the Senate agreed to changes made by the House to the bill that makes it a felony for people to solicit sex from a person they believe to be a minor, even if that person is a police officer posing as a child. The existing law allows a person to be charged only with a misdemeanor during such a sting. In addition, the legislation requires a convicted online predator to provide DNA samples for the state's crime database and to register as a sex offender. Further, it gives the State Bureau of Investigation the formal jurisdiction to investigate sex-relate crimes involving children and computers. North Carolina cases of child sexual exploitation rose from 11 in 2001 to 533 in 2004, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Sen. Scott Thomas (D-Craven) sponsored the Child Exploitation Prevention Act, SB 472. Representative Laura Wiley (R-Guilford) ran similar legislation in the House. The bill now heads to Governor Mike Easley to be signed into law.

Hit and Run Loophole To Be Fixed Soon

The Senate gave final approval to legislation which closes a loophole in our state's hit-and-run law, so that a motorist cannot change places with a passenger to avoid a conviction. House Bill 217, which I introduced in February, states that a driver would be convicted of a crime if after an accident the motorist allows or agrees to let the car be moved from the scene without an officer's permission. The measure, which includes some exceptions, was amended Wednesday to add similar restrictions to passengers in the vehicle. I introduced the legislation because of the tragic death of Tar Heel Sports Network commentator Stephen Gates in 2003. He was struck and killed by a passing car on an interstate ramp while he examined a flat tire.

Stephen's parents, George and Pat Gates, worked tirelessly during the trial of the defendants last year and since the legislation was introduced to ensure that those responsible for such accidents are held accountable. Sen. Kay Hagan did an outstanding job handling the bill in the Senate, where it was amended to clarify the responsibilities of passengers, and will now return to the House for concurrence before it can go to the Governor for his signature into law.

Contested Election Committee Meets To Discuss Superintendent Race

The Joint Select Committee on Council of State Contested Elections met for the first time on Wednesday afternoon to decide how to make recommendations on the unresolved race for superintendent of public instruction.

The meeting was largely procedural and laid out the history of the contest to the panel of six Democrats and four Republicans. The panel agreed to hold its formal hearing on the election on July 14, with July 15 available if more time is needed. The two candidates, Democrat June Atkinson and Republican Bill Fletcher, and their lawyers will be allowed to make their case before the panel, which also will be allowed to call and question witnesses.

This marks the first time in at least 170 years that lawmakers have determined a winner for a statewide office. After receiving the committee's recommendations, the Legislature will meet in joint ballot to decide whether Atkinson or Fletcher should take the office. Atkinson leads Fletcher by 8,535 votes out of more than 3.3 million cast during last November's election, but Fletcher has said that thousands of certain provisional ballots should be thrown out. Atkinson contends that she got the most votes and that the provisional ballots should count. The North Carolina race is the only remaining undecided election in the nation.

Budget Update 06-24-05

Speaker Jim Black appointed House members to the House Budget Conference Committee on Tuesday. Conferees were assigned to specific subcommittees, which will work on issues such as education, health and human services, economic and natural resources, justice and public safety, general government, and transportation. Freshmen were not appointed to the Conference Committee, with the exception of our Chair.
Legislative leaders and members of the conference committee met with Governor Mike Easley on Tuesday morning to discuss their shared goals in reaching an agreement on the budget as soon as possible, which makes the needed investments in the education of our children and the health care of our citizens and those most in need. Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders have been meeting privately and publicly to try to move the budget negotiations forward. Conferees met on Wednesday afternoon to receive their spending targets for the agencies overseen by each subcommittee. Conference committee chairmen and leadership decided to split the difference between overall House and Senate spending levels for agencies and programs to begin the negotiations.

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations and Finance Committees approved their own version of a continuing resolution that allows state government to continue operating after the new fiscal year begins July 1, 2005. The House approved its version two weeks ago. The major differences, which must be resolved by June 30, 2005, include making the extension of the one-half cent sales tax, currently set to expire June 30, 2005, permanent, whereas the House extended it for two years. The House also extends the one-half percent surcharge on the wealthiest income owners for two years, whereas the Senate lets that sunset. The House feels that if we are going to extend the one-half cent sales tax (which hits the poorest the hardest), it is only fair to extend the surcharge on the wealthiest.

House and Senate members are expected to continue their work and discussions through the weekend.

Greetings From Raleigh 6-24-05

Following last week's passage of the House budget, which was rejected by the Senate on Monday night, Speaker Jim Black (D-Mecklenburg) appointed members to the House Budget Conference Committee. House conferees will work with members of the Senate to iron out the differences between the two spending plans. Legislators remain hopeful that agreement on a final budget proposal can be reached and passed by both legislative chambers before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1; however, they know it will take a lot of work and compromise to do that before the end of next week.

Please feel free to contact me with your comments or questions; your views are very helpful in influencing and guiding public policy debate.


Cheers,

Pricey

Friday, June 17, 2005

Budget Highlights

EDUCATION

Public Schools
* Meets projected increased enrollment of 28,309 students: $9.4 million.
* Provides $30 million in supplemental funding for low-wealth schools and provides an additional $22.5 million to the Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Fund, which was created by Gov. Mike Easley last year in response to Leandro school funding ruling. (Keeps funding at current levels to cover 16 pilot districts.) Therefore, the House budget provides $52.5 million to ensure a quality education for all students in North Carolina, which is mandated by our state's constitution and reaffirmed by Judge Howard Manning in the Leandro ruling.
* Funds ABCs of Public Education teacher bonuses: $100 million.
* Provides $4.2 million to expand Governor Easley's "Learn and Earn" high school initiative to 15 schools with planning money for 20 more. The Learn and Earn program allows students the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma and a college degree after just five years of study.
* Funds additional workers at small specialty high schools at eight pilot sites: $1.5 million.
* Establishes school-based child and family support teams to coordinate services education, human services assistance for at-risk students, hire Division of Social Services facilitators: $7 million.
* Reduces 275 vocational education positions due to increased student-teacher ratio: -$13.1 million.
* Reduces 225 seventh-grade teaching positions due to increased student-teacher ratio: -$10.5 million.
* Reduces instructional support positions to reflect higher employee-student ratio: -$5.1 million.
* Allots one assistant principal for every 800 students, down from current 761 students: -$5 million.
* Redirects corporate income tax receipts from school capital and technology fund to operations fund: -$13.1 million.

Universities
* Provides $41.9 million to hire professors, staff and other items to meet projected enrollment of 3,986 students on UNC campuses.
* Funds enrollment growth for UNC distance education programs (less than sought by Senate): $18.1 million.
* Special funding for UNC-Wilmington and Appalachian State University to raise per-student level: $8.4 million.
* Additional faculty, staff and equipment to create approved doctoral programs at UNC-Charlotte: $10 million.
* Legislative tuition grants for private college, part-time teaching and nursing students: $2.9 million.
* UNC campuses and program reductions of 2.4 percent, with cuts determined by schools: -$42.3 million.
* Biotechnology initiatives at N.C. Central University and N.C. State University: $4 million.
* Operations, staff and maintenance costs for Friday Institute for Educational Innovation in Raleigh: $1.9 million.
* Focused growth funds for seven UNC institutions: $5 million.
* Special funds for N.C. A&T, UNC-Asheville and N.C. School of the Arts: $2.1 million.
* Teacher improvement initiatives: $2.5 million.

Community Colleges
* Provides $7.8 million to meet projected increased enrollment of 2,449 students at our state's community colleges.
* Raises tuition by 4 percent to $39.50 per credit hour: -$5.6 million. However, tuition remains the lowest in the south and 3rd lowest in the nation.
* Additional funding for four colleges with multi-campus sites: $1.4 million.
* Custom industry training for workers at local businesses seeking to remain competitive: $2.8 million.
* School equipment, including $500,000 to replace boat for marine technology program at Cape Fear Community College: $10 million.
* Operating funds for community college system's BioNetwork initiative: $7.1 million.
* One-time funding for initiatives at four community college campuses: $10 million.

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

* Provides $15 million to counties to offset the local share of Medicaid.
* Freezes Medicaid rates for most hospitals: -$62.5 million.
* Cost management initiatives for Medicaid Personal Care Services: -$6 million.
* Increases Medicaid funding for personal care services at adult care homes for Alzheimer's and other special needs patients: $1.7 million.
* Increases Medicaid co-payments for chiropractic, optometry, podiatry and non-emergency ER visits: -$5.4 million.
* Limits Medicaid patients to reimbursements for five name-brand prescriptions in a month: -$2.75 million.
* Community Care of North Carolina managed care projected savings: -$22.2 million.
* Closes one of four state-run mental retardation centers by July 2006: $0.
* Removes enrollment cap on NC Health Choice health insurance plan for children of low-income families: $14.7 million.
* Startup, recurring costs for community-based mental health crisis services for children and adults: $2 million.
* Hires 41 workers to expand mental health facility, adult care home, and home care agency licensure and inspections: $2.95 million.
* Doubles inspection and licensure fees for various mental health and adult care homes: -$1.8 million.
* Increase funding for North Carolina Food Banks: $1 million.
* Hires additional child protective service workers at county level to reduce caseloads: $2 million.
* Hires 30 new public school nurses: $1.5 million.
* Establishes the Governor's Commission on Early Childhood Vision Care to ensure all school children receive eye exam within six months of entering public schools: $2 million.
* Funds Community-Focused Eliminating Health Disparities Initiative, providing grants to close health gap with Latino, black and American Indian citizens: $5 million.
* Develops N.C. Families Accessing Services through Technology initiative to reduce time on administrative tasks within social services: $4.9 million.
* Expands More at Four preschool program by 3,200 slots over next two years: $16.6 million.
* Provides grants, loans for rural health clinics: $3 million.

SALARIES AND BENEFITS

* The House budget provides much-needed and well-deserved pay raises for our teachers and state employees, which will cost the state $237.3 million. Public school teachers would receive an average 2.5 percent salary increase; rank-and-file workers and university employees would receive a flat $1,086 raise; community college and other state workers would receive a 2.5 percent or $500 increase, whichever is greater; the House budget also creates a minimum wage of $20,112 for all permanent, full-time state workers. Community college faculty and professional staff also would receive an additional 2 percent raise.
* 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees: $13.8 million.
* Repay money withheld from state pension during 2001-02 budget crisis: $25 million.
* Cash influx to cover projected shortfall in state employee health plan: $137.4 million.

NATURAL AND ECONOMIC RESOURCES

* Partially restores funding for Department of Labor's Apprenticeship Program: $663,000.
* Various reductions within Agriculture Department: -$1.35 million.
* Doubles Coastal Area Management Act fees: -$290,000.
* Reduces funding for equipment, vehicles within Division of Forest Resources: -$1 million.
* Funds permanent oyster rehabilitation program: $575,000.
* State matching funds for Superfund, clean water initiatives: $6.3 million.
* Reduces Clean Water Management Trust Fund to $62 million: -$38 million.
* Adds to Gov. Mike Easley's One North Carolina Fund for economic incentives: $5 million.
* Job Development Investment Grant program reserve: $4.5 million.
* Pilot funds for Kerr-Tar Regional Hub, a four-county economic development project: $6 million.
* Promotes proposed live entertainment complex in Roanoke Rapids: $750,000.
* Marketing funds for High Point International Home Furnishings Market: $500,000.
* Promotes Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament in Charlotte: $500,000.
* Supports strategic plan for expanding North Carolina biotechnology economy: $3 million.
* Continues North Carolina Rural Center's rural economic infrastructure fund: $20.8 million.
* Fund Generations Credit Union and Latino Community Credit Union: 43 million.
* Build, operate advanced vehicle research center in Northampton County: $7.5 million.

JUSTICE AND PUBLIC SAFETY

* Provides $1.8 million to hire 27 State Bureau of Investigation positions to fight methamphetamine production and child exploitation and analyze DNA on a timelier basis at our state SBI labs.
* Provides $3 million in Juvenile Crime Prevention Council grants for gang prevention programs, which was based on recommendations by the interim study commission on gang violence.
* Provides $1 million to increase the Crime Victims Compensation fund.
* Provides $4.5 million to increase the maximum monthly pension benefit for N.C. National Guard members from $100 per month to $150.
* Reduces and restructures Sentencing Services: -$1.2 million.
* Reduces funding for Youth Development Centers, affecting 46 positions, to reflect lower juvenile population and beds in operation: -$1.9 million.
* Eliminates 25 vacant probation/parole officer positions: -$1.2 million.
* Reduces physician, hospital charges for state prisoners: -$4.1illion.
* Purchases new telephone system for Mecklenburg County courthouse: $1.5 million.
* Creates Mecklenburg County Business Court: $225,000.
* Provides travel allowance for appellate court judges, eliminate allowance for Superior Court judges: -$680,000.

TRANSPORTATION

* Continues deployment of VIPER statewide emergency response radio system: $8.1 million.
* Trains and transitions all Motor Enforcement Officer positions to give them the same level of arrest authority and pay as other troopers: $2.2 million.
* Increases maintenance funding: $166.5 million.
* Installs automated driver's license testing system in 23 more DMV offices, raising total to 68: $1 million.
* Increases road contract resurfacing: $27.8 million.
* Global Transpark funding: $1.6 million.
* Ferry maintenance: $1 million.
* Short line railroad rehabilitation projects: $1 million.

OTHER AGENCIES AND FUNDS

* Various funding for historic sites: $3 million.
* International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro: $100,000.
* Library grants: $1 million.
* Kids Voting NC Funds: $200,000.
* Hires 75 revenue Department positions for compliance, enforcement and debt collections efforts: $3.9 million.
* Transfers 47 Revenue Department positions to receipt-supported positions: -$2 million.
* Continues payroll/human resources system modernization within state government through State
* Business Infrastructure Project: $18.4 million.
* Mental health reform trust fund: $10 million.
* Pays for senior prescription drug program until Medicare drug program is up and running: $14 million.
* Reserve to carry out proposed Driving While Impaired task force recommendations: $1 million.

CAPITAL

* Equipment and infrastructure for Wilmington, Morehead City ports: $5 million.
* Water resources development projects: $12.4 million.
* Expansion of Rollins Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory: $10 million.
* Planning funds for UNC-Wilmington nursing school: $2.65 million.

Protecting Water Supplies From Gasoline Additives

North Carolina would ban a gasoline additive that has leaked into water supplies across the state and nation under a bill approved by legislators and sent to Gov. Mike Easley. North Carolina would become the first state in the Southeast to ban MTBE, which has leaked from underground storage tanks into groundwater in the state more than 2,000 times in the past few years. About 245 of those leaks showed up in well water, according to state figures. While environmentalists and the oil industry support the measure, the North Carolina Petroleum Marketers Association fears that banning MTBE here could lead to a supply shortage and higher consumer prices. Rep. Joe Tolson, the bill's sponsor, agreed to introduce additional legislation to make the 2008 deadline more flexible if supplies became an issue. On Wednesday, the Senate gave its unanimous approval to House Bill 1336, which I co-sponsored, and the House passed several weeks ago.

Senate Votes To Extend Toll Roads

The Senate gave tentative approval on Wednesday to expanding the number of toll road projects in the state, which will expand from three to nine the number of toll-roads that can be studied and built. In addition, the Senate approved a provision to accelerate construction of the 2.4 mile Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks at an estimated cost of $130 million to $150 million. It is not planned as a toll road, but was included in the legislation because of its increasingly unsafe condition.

Film Industry Tax Credits

The Senate tentatively approved a bill that would give tax credits and grants to 15 percent of what a production spends in North Carolina above $1 million. The Senate Finance Committee lowered that threshold to $250,000 to match a version, which was included in the House budget. The state hopes to encourage more film companies to work in North Carolina, creating jobs and providing much needed new money for our economy. In recent years, hundreds of jobs have been lost in that industry and more are at stake unless incentives are granted.

Driving From/Leaving Scene of Accident(Stephen's Law)

House Bill 217, one of the first bills I introduced this session, was unanimously passed in the Senate Judiciary I Committee on Tuesday and I expect it to be calendared for full Senate consideration next week. My constituents, George and Pat Gates, the parents of Stephen Gates who was killed by a hit and run driver in October, 2003, have been heavily involved and very helpful in moving this legislation through the General Assembly.

Greetings From Raleigh 6-17-05

A goal was reached early Thursday morning when we passed the House budget, leaving for upcoming weeks the larger goal of finding agreement with Senate members on all aspects of the proposal so that Governor Easley can sign the package - ideally before the beginning on the new fiscal year on July 1.

The House approved a $17.1 billion spending plan for 2005-06 that will respond to North Carolina's increasing needs in education, health care, and public safety programs. It restores important funding that the Senate proposal cut from the Medicaid program and such public safety programs as the Drug Treatment Court and SBI services. In addition, it provides tax relief to small businesses that provide health insurance to their employees, ensuring that more workers will have access to affordable health care.

A comparison of the House budget with the Senate budget will note that the temporary sales tax increases that the Senate would have made permanent will be extended for only two years if the House decision prevails. The House also extended the temporary increase of the income tax on upper income taxpayers, the Senate would have cut this tax. The House also declined to go along with the Senate-suggested corporate tax rate drop. Another major difference - on the tax side - is that the House passed a 25-cents per pack increase on cigarettes. House members' suggestions on this issue ranged from zero to 75 cents per pack, but a decision at 30-cents would keep North Carolina far below the national average of 84.5 cents.

Other major differences between the two versions of the budget are:
1. Health and Human Services programs - a House proposal to close one of the four mental retardation centers and a $15 million provision to offset counties' Medicaid costs
2. Public Schools - increased funding of $9.4 million for 28,309 new students and millions more for low-wealth schools, teacher bonuses and Governor Easley's "Learn and Earn" high school initiative
3. The University System - increased funding for project enrollment growth on campuses and growth in the distance education programs.

An item that the House and Senate agreed to include in the budget would increase the level of the lowest salary for state employees to $20,112 per year, an increase of $1,420. Fulltime state employees would then be paid a minimum of $9.67 an hour, compared to the federal minimum wage of $5.15. This would affect many state employees in custodial and cafeteria jobs.

Another important aspect of the budget proposal for the Department of Education, our largest state agency, is that it used some of the principles of zero-based budgeting. In this instance, education subcommittees examined line items and heard staff in the Department of Education explain and justify expenditures. Speaker Jim Black has said he plans to set up a select committee this year that will look at the concept of zero-based budgeting with the hope that programs can be eliminated or consolidated to make them more efficient. He added that the committee's recommendations can be evaluated and considered next year while adjusting the budget for the second year of the biennium.

Some highlights of the House budget bill that, if included in the final budget, would directly affect Guilford County are:

* a $500,000 allocation to the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point
* a $100,000 allocation to a civil rights museum in Greensboro
* a $1.5 million allocation to the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum
In addition, an amendment that I proposed during final House budget negotiations was approved and will shift $40,000 in each year of the 2005-2006 biennium from the Natural Heritage Trust Fund to the North Carolina Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. If it is included in the final budget, it will help farmers keep their land in agriculture.

The budget bill has returned to the Senate and we expect that House changes will not be accepted. The procedure then will call for a conference committee - comprised of House and Senate members - to work out the differences and create a final budget. After the budget compromise is approved by the House and Senate, it will go to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature into law.

Cheers,

Pricey

Friday, June 10, 2005

Groups Meet With Legislators 6-10-05

Tuesday was Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority Day at the General Assembly. Sorority members, including Representatives Alma Adams (D-Guilford), and Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) heard from legislative leaders in the Legislative Building Auditorium during the opening session of their visit and then spread out to meet with other legislators throughout the day.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people lobbied House members to ask them to restore tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid spending which was cut from the Senate budget. In particular, they want the restrictions on personal care services for stay-at-home invalids eliminated. In addition, they asked that the House budget restore Senate cuts in health coverage for an estimated 8,000 of the 50,000 people who would be shifted from Medicaid to Medicare.

Land For Tomorrow Coalition

The Land for Tomorrow Coalition held a press conference in the Legislative Building on Wednesday to announce and discuss efforts by several leading nonprofit organizations to build awareness of the importance of land conservation and historic preservation in North Carolina and to advocate for expanding funding to meet the their goal to save North Carolina's critical land and historic places. The coalition, formed in 2003, seeks to follow through on the 1971 Constitutional Amendment, Article XIV, Section V, which mandates that the state must use "every appropriate way to preserve as part of the common heritage of this State its forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands and places of beauty." Members of the coalition presented their report of research conducted by more than one hundred experts, entitled, "Saving the Goodliest Land: A Five-year Plan for Investing in North Carolina's Land, History and Future".

NAACP Lobbies On Education, Minimum Wage and Death Penalty Moratorium

The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held their annual lobby day at the General Assembly on Wednesday. In laying out its annual legislative agenda, the civil rights group encouraged legislators to support members' priorities, such as improving education for at-risk students, increasing the minimum wage, a temporary halt in execution, and increasing home ownership. House Speaker Jim Black told the gathering of more than 250 people later that the minimum wage bill could re-surface in a different version before the session ends this year. The NAACP also reaffirmed its support for a moratorium on executions. The NAACP crowd, which included dozens of teenagers, also heard from Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and some Democratic Council of State members, including Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, Attorney General Roy Cooper and State Treasurer Richard Moore.

Registering Kegs To Reduce Underage Drinking

The House Finance Committee approved a bill that would require all purchased malt beverage kegs to have a unique encoded tag or label as a way to prevent or prosecute underage drinking cases. The tags would provide information about who bought or sold the keg. It could help police track down adults who buy beer for people who can't legally buy it themselves. Charlotte-Mecklenburg's police attorney has said the tag will serve as a reminder to adults to monitor closely whether young people are drinking at their parties. The American Civil Liberties Union said it is concerned that information collected by retailers about keg purchasers could be used by police to snoop around a buyer's neighborhood, even when there's no reason to suspect wrongdoing. The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.

Protecting Childern On The Internet

The House unanimously approved legislation on Wednesday, which would raise the penalty level from a misdemeanor to a felony for those who solicit sex online from a police officer posing as a child. The bill was approved 119-0. It was earlier approved 46-0 by the state Senate. The bill now returns to the Senate, which will consider minor House changes. North Carolina cases of child sexual exploitation rose from 11 in 2001 to 533 in 2004, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Transfer Of Contaminated Property To The State

A controversial proposal, Senate Bill 629, that sailed through the Senate last week was unanimously approved by the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday and would transfer a portion of an inholding in the DuPont State Forest from DuPont Corporation to the state. The bill would take the unprecedented step of requiring the state to take ownership of a knowingly contaminated piece of land, thereby acquiring liability for the contamination (the full extent of the contamination is not yet known) while releasing DuPont from all liability to both the State and third parties. That would be a terrible reversal of the state's long held policy of making polluters pay. It would also require the State to transfer the property to Ilford, a British company of uncertain financial stability. Ilford would "guarantee" a $5,000,000 cleanup, although the Department of Environment and Natural Resources estimates that the cost of the cleanup, based on what is known about the site to date, will exceed $7,000,000 All this would set a very dangerous precedent and is probably unconstitutional in several ways. It is being justified because it would bring 50 to 60 jobs to a depressed area in Transylvania County. This complicated piece of legislation has not received proper scrutiny and the Governor's Office, the Attorney General, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and several environmental groups have serious concerns. Without significant revision, this could be the single worst piece of legislation this session.

Greetings From Raleigh 6-10-05

Attention this week has focused on passing a Finance Committee proposal, House Bill 1630, which cleared the House yesterday as members approved the $562 million revenue package. Now, attention will shift back to passing a spending plan by the end of next week. To help accomplish that, House Appropriations subcommittees scheduled rare Friday morning meetings for today and hope to finalize a budget in the next several days if levels of spending for state-funded programs can be determined.

Most of the revenue for this part of the budget will come from a two-year extension of a half-cent sales tax and higher individual income tax rate on individuals making more than $120,000 or couples making over $200,000. Both of these increases were initially passed in 2001 during the height of the recession with the intent of improving the state's economy. House members and staff said that although North Carolina's economy has improved slightly, job losses continue and the state would not be able to meet the growing needs of our citizens if these taxes were cut as suggested by the budget bill passed in the Senate several weeks ago. House members stressed their intention to return to pre-2001 levels of tax in these areas as soon as our economy is thriving again, and as soon as sufficient revenue can be generated to meet the state's commitments to its citizens.

House Bill 1630 also includes $62.7 million in sales tax changes and modifications, which is part of a national effort to streamline sales taxes so the states can collect sales taxes on purchases over the Internet. The Governor and Senate also recommended these streamlining changes in order to keep North Carolina in compliance with the national agreement.

Finance Committee members pointed out that North Carolina is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. We have more than 100,000 new people moving to our state each year and these people depend on our schools, health care system, roads, police and public safety programs, and other vitally important state-funded programs. A recent report released by the N.C. Justice Center found that although the state budget has increased by $1.2 billion between fiscal year 2000 and 2005, spending as a share of the state's resources and per capita has shrunk over the last several years. From fiscal year 2000 through 2005, general fund appropriations actually shrank from 6.5% to 5.9% of total personal income. A similar result emerges when the budget is adjusted for inflation and allocated per person. By this calculation, the fiscal year 2005 budget allocated $313 less per North Carolinian than in the 2000 budget.

Cheers,

Pricey

Friday, June 03, 2005

Lemon Law Changes

On Wednesday, the House also overwhelmingly approved a bill (HB 1295) I introduced that would make the lemon law more consumer friendly. Under current law, once an automobile has been determined to be a lemon, the owner has to pay for the right to drive the car while a settlement is being negotiated with the manufacturer. North Carolina is in the minority of states in handling the charges for reasonable use of a car that has been determined to be a lemon. Manufacturers have been known to drag out the settlement process and this bill provides for a more consumer friendly approach. It is now over in the Senate.

Inspections, Higher Fines For Group Homes Approved By Senate

Governor Mike Easley, the N. C. Department of Health and Human Services, and now the General Assembly are taking steps to improve the standards and care provided for mentally ill children in the state's 1,000 group homes. These homes would have to be inspected annually and could face double the current fines for violating safety regulations in a bill the Senate approved Wednesday. The bill comes two months after a lawsuit alleged that North Carolina is failing to protect mentally ill children living in group homes. The lawsuit was prompted by the September death of a 12-year-old Buncombe County girl in a Charlotte group home.

The bill, which now comes to the House for consideration, also would require adult care homes such as assisted living units to be inspected annually. The law now says they shall be inspected on "a regular basis." Home care agencies also would be inspected every three years, while a state commission would set minimum professional requirements for agency staff.

The state could assess civil penalties from $1,000 to $20,000 per violation - up from the current range of $500 to $10,000 - for adult care or group homes with at least seven beds where the death or serious injury of a patient has occurred. The similar doubling of fines was approved for smaller homes and for rule violations that don't jeopardize patient safety. The division also would require adult care homes and group homes to post the division's complaint hot line phone number in a conspicuous place. The Senate budget contains funding for new staff to complete these inspections.

Driver's License Renewal On The Internet

The House approved a bill on Tuesday that would allow motorists to renew their driver's licenses on the Internet and receive their licenses by mail. The measure now goes to the Senate. The bill would give drivers who are between the ages of 18 and 38 a license renewal for an eight-year period of time, up from the current five. After that, drivers who are not yet 60 years old could renew once on the Internet for an additional five years before having to return to a local DMV office, meaning a maximum 13-year span between in-person visits.

Bill supporters say this change would eliminate lines at DMV offices and also would eliminate the need for all Division of Motor Vehicles offices to be equipped with card-making machines. Instead, licenses and permits would be generated at a centralized location and mailed to applicants. In the meantime, DMV offices would issue a temporary driving certificate good for 10 days. The temporary certificate would not be valid as an identification card. The 10-day period also would give DMV officials a chance to determine whether a motorist is trying to generate a false identification or steal someone else's identity.

Pledge Of Allegiance Bill Passes Senate

Public schools would have to make time for students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every school day, under a bill the state Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. The bill would require school boards to adopt policies on reciting the pledge; display of U.S. and North Carolina flags, if available, in each classroom; and instruct students on the meaning and origins of both flags, the pledge, and the state motto. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that states cannot compel anyone to salute the flag and say the pledge.

Cell Phone Restrictions Fail In House Judiciary Committee

A House judiciary committee failed to pass legislation designed to restrict the use of hand-held cell phones in cars. A bill sponsored by Rep. Mary McAllister, D-Cumberland, caused much debate but failed to receive a favorable report. Rep. McAllister and others argued that too many drivers are being distracted while talking on their portable phones. The measure did not seek to prevent people from making calls using earpieces or other hands-free phones and devices. The proposal would not apply to making emergency calls from a car. Failing to follow the restrictions would result in a $100 fine and some court costs. Because the bill did not include a tax or fee, it was subject to the June 2nd "crossover" deadline and thus is unlikely to be debated again until it is re-introduced in a future session.

"Move Over" Law Penalties Toughened In House

The House on Wednesday agreed to increase penalties for drivers who don't slow down or move over for emergency vehicles. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Haywood, sponsored the bill after two troopers were killed while responding to emergencies in his county. A Haywood County officer was killed when a tractor-trailer crossed onto the shoulder of Interstate 40 as he was writing a ticket. He said that 66 troopers have been injured on North Carolina roads since May 2001. The bill would increase the fine for failing to move over from $100 to $250. Those who cause property damage of $500 or more by failing to move over could face a Class 1 misdemeanor, and those who cause injury or death to an emergency responder could face a Class I felony.

Bill To Reduce Smoking In Resteraunts Defeated

The House defeated a bill that would have required restaurants to set aside half of their dining space for nonsmokers. The debate preceding the vote pitted health concerns against business owners' rights to manage their restaurants. Bill sponsor Representative Hugh Holliman, (D-Davidson), cited studies declaring second-hand smoke a carcinogen that leads to thousands of deaths each year. He also said that fourteen states have banned smoking in restaurants, bars, workplaces or some combination of such bans.

The original bill would have banned all smoking in restaurants. By its second appearance in a House judiciary committee last week, the proposal was amended to require gradual changes. Bill supporters are hopeful that the issues raised in the bill can be considered at a later date.

State's Minimum Wage Increase Proposal Fails

The House defeated a bill late Wednesday night that would have raised North Carolina's minimum wage by a dollar to $6.15 per hour. The bill, which was defeated by a vote of 66-52, sought to raise the wage from the federal hourly minimum of $5.15 per hour.

A lively floor vote on the bill occurred late Wednesday night, but opponents of the wage increase ultimately won, making arguments that a higher wage would hurt local businesses and the workers that the introducer, Representative Alma Adams (D-Guilford), sought to help. Representative Earl Jones (D-Guilford) also strongly debated the merits of the bill.

The legislation that reached the House floor on Wednesday night was a compromise from the original bill. An earlier version would have gradually raised the wage to $8.50 by 2007. The federal minimum wage law applies to businesses that do at least $500,000 in business a year; smaller firms involved in interstate commerce; and federal, state or local government agencies, hospitals and schools. At least a dozen states set their own minimum wages at hourly rates that exceed the federal minimum.

Vote On Two-Year Moratorium On Executions Delayed

House Democratic leaders hoped for a full House vote Wednesday on a two-year ban on executions, but then delayed it until later this month. Speaker Black decided to focus on the "crossover" deadline and on the House budget, which needs to be finalized by the middle of June, before bringing the bill up for a vote. He remains committed to debating the moratorium bill in the House and will continue to work with supporters to win enough votes for passage.

Momentum had appeared to swing toward moratorium proponents Tuesday after a House judiciary committee voted 8-6 to approve a two-year pause to allow for an examination of capital punishment's fairness. If approved, the bill provides that murder trials, convictions, sentencing and the appeals process would continue during the two-year moratorium. It was noted that a limited number of inmates would be affected during a two-year pause.

Supporters of the moratorium bill point to the recent exonerations of Alan Gell and Darryl Hunt, who spent a combined 28 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Greetings From Raleigh 6-03-05

Now that the "crossover" deadline has passed, attention has shifted to passing a House budget within the next few weeks. Members of the House Appropriations Committee continued working this week on their budget proposal and hope to finalize its spending plan over the next week or two, with passage expected by June 16. Once this is done, members of the House and Senate will begin negotiations to work on the differences in the two spending plans. Legislators hope to be able to pass a final budget prior to July 1 when the new fiscal year begins.

I hope to provide more details in the next week or so as many of these important decisions and spending proposals begin to be finalized by House budget writers. Many difficult choices lie ahead for lawmakers, who must balance the budget and find a way to meet the growing needs of our state and its people. However, I remain committed to adequately funding education, health and human services, environmental initiatives, transportation, public safety, and efforts to further strengthen our economy and create jobs.