Pricey Harrison

Friday, July 29, 2005

Reminder- Sales Tax-Free Weekend is August 5-7

Mark your calendars - North Carolina's three-day, sales-tax-free weekend is August 5-7th. The holiday, in its fourth year, will allow parents to buy needed back-to-school items and other North Carolinians can take advantage of the discounts as well.

Customers will be able to purchase certain items during the weekend without paying a sales tax. These items include clothing, shoes and school supplies that cost less than $1,000 per item and computers for personal use that are priced less than $3,500. Shoppers will see a few changes this year, specifically in the computer software and printer supplies category. Canned software, or packaged software sold off-the-shelf, will be taxed this year, as will be printers and printer supplies. Computer parts such as the monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers and cables are not taxed when sold with a central processing unit, but are taxed when sold separately. Additionally, shoppers this year can add school supplies such as blackboard chalk, cellophane tape, index card boxes, markers, pencil boxes, rulers and writing tablets to the approved list.

During the 2001 budget crisis the North Carolina General Assembly was forced to raise the state's sales tax to 7 percent (7.5 percent in Mecklenburg County) in order to balance the budget and meet the state's needs in education, health care, public safety and other vital state-funded programs. Realizing that the sales tax increase hurts both consumers and retailers, the General Assembly voted to offset this plan by creating a weekend that was free of sales tax on items parents will be buying to send their children back to school.

Nurses/Assisstants Supervised Who Provide Anesthesia To Patients

After weeks of debate, a bill dealing with the role of nurse anesthetists finally made it out of a House health committee and has been referred to the House Finance Committee. Doctor's groups contend that the legislation simply "confirms and reiterates" the state mandate that physicians supervise certified registered nurse anesthetists, or CRNAs. Supporters of the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Jim Harrell, D-Surry, say that codifying is needed to help deter more legal challenges from nurses who disagree. The N.C. Board of Nursing sees it differently. The group says an 11-year-old consent order between it and the N.C. Medical Board enables CRNAs to perform anesthesia services "in collaboration with a physician." The agreement prohibits CRNAs from prescribing a medical treatment or diagnosis "except under the supervision of a licensed physician." Both sides disagree on whether administering an anesthesia falls under the category requiring the supervision of a physician. A lawsuit over the issue is pending. Many of you have been in touch with me on this subject and I would really appreciate your feedback on the revised proposal.

Restitution For Crime Victims

The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would give state officials and crime victims more tools to collect restitution from criminals. The Crime Victims Restitution Act, House Bill 788, now moves to the Appropriations Committee. The bill would force employers to withhold income from some convicted criminals. It would also keep some criminals on probation until they have paid all restitution, and it would prohibit a judge from considering a defendant's ability to pay when determining restitution. Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, said that only 60 percent of restitution that is imposed in North Carolina is ever paid, compared with 80 percent in some states. Legislators passed a bill in 1998 that, for the first time, required judges to order restitution in certain cases. In a statewide referendum in 1996, voters made restitution for crime victims a right under the North Carolina Constitution.

Increasing Voter Turnout

The House has given tentative approval to legislation, which would let voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro cast ballots at locations of their choosing. The bill, Senate Bill 98, would create a pilot program through the 2006 elections in which "super precincts" would be created, likely in easily accessible areas that have plenty of parking. Voters at these locations could cast votes, either in early one-stop voting or on Election Day. Supporters say the idea could increase voter turnout by making voting more convenient for commuters and others, compared to standing in lines at local precincts near their homes. The bill was approved by an initial vote of 61-56 mostly along party lines on Tuesday and a final vote may happen next week. The Senate has passed a somewhat different version of the bill, so a compromise will have to be reached. Guilford County Board of Elections would like to try a similar pilot project and we are working on such legislation.

Unclaimed Property Fund For Scholarships

A bill heading to Gov. Mike Easley's desk for signature would give State Treasurer Richard Moore additional flexibility to invest in the $600 million unclaimed property fund. The House gave final legislative approval to a measure giving the treasurer the authority to invest up to 20 percent of the fund in stocks, real estate trusts and venture capital. Moore currently can only invest in government securities and more liquid investments. The fund is important because proceeds from the fund's investments go toward scholarships for needy college students. The fund retains cash from long-forgotten insurance policies, checking accounts and utility deposits. Some owners ultimately recoup their money. The bill was approved by a vote of 116-1. The Senate approved the changes earlier this year. Many of you may remember that I published a list of folks in Guilford County who were owed money by this escheats fund. I still have that publication available, but it is probably faster to check the website. If you need a copy, please let me know.

To find out if you have unclaimed property, go to www.nccash.com

Smoking Ban In Prisons

North Carolina would ban smoking inside prisons under a bill that cleared by the House judiciary committee on which I sit. Superintendents in at least 51 of the state's 76 prisons already bar indoor smoking by prisoners and Corrections Department employees. The remaining prisons would have to prohibit smoking by January 1, 2006. Smoking still would be allowed in prison yards. Senate Bill 1130 also orders the department to ban smoking completely in at least one prison as a pilot project and report back on how it was implemented. The officials also would tell lawmakers by early 2007 about the feasibility of banning tobacco at all prisons. The measure now goes to the full House. The Senate already passed a similar version.

Making Vending Machines Healthier For Students

House members took an important step forward in the battle against child obesity on Wednesday by approving new restrictions on vending machines in middle schools. State law currently bars soft drinks from being sold in elementary schools or during a student's lunch period. The Child Nutrition Standards bill, Senate Bill 961, which was recommended by the North Carolina Health and Wellness Trust Fund, expands the soda ban to machines in middle schools and when breakfast is sold. No more than half of the beverages offered to students in high schools from the vending machines could be sugared soft drinks and bottled water also must be offered. Diet soft drinks still could be sold in middle schools. The bill also would prohibit elementary school students from using snack machines. In middle and high schools, 75 percent of the snacks available in the machines would have no more than 200 calories each. The measure, which has already passed the Senate, now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

House Committee Approves ATV Regulations 7-29-05

The House approved legislation on Thursday that would prohibit children younger than 8 years old from operating an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). There is currently no minimum age requirement in our state, which makes North Carolina one of only five states without regulations. The Senate has passed a slightly different version of the bill so negotiators from both chambers will begin to work on a compromise.

Bill supporters argued that the changes, which also require drivers to complete a safety course, would lead to fewer deaths and serious injuries. The measure would allow children ages 8 to 15 to operate only child-sized ATVs under an adult's close supervision. An amendment was approved that also reinstated an exemption for hunters and farmers, and for those who owned the ATV prior to enactment of the legislation. Violators would be subject to an infraction, punishable by fines of up to $200. Some opponents argued that parents should decide at what age their child should be allowed to operate the machines. The bill was given initial approval on Wednesday by a vote of 70-41 and final approval on Thursday by a vote of 77-33.

North Carolina ranked 10th nationally with 189 ATV-related deaths from 1982-2002, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The number of children under 16 who died in ATV-related accidents in our state doubled from five in 1999 to 11 last year. Supporters of the bill cite statistics showing that of the 157 ATV deaths in the state between 1999 and 2004, 43 involved children under 16 and 22 involved children under 12. There have been several accidents across the state this year where children were killed or seriously injured.

Dupont Liability For Transylvania County Site

A bill to release Dupont from liability for cleanup of environmental contamination at their manufacturing site in Dupont State Forest re-emerged suddenly in House Rules Committee on Wednesday and was quickly passed by the House later that day. The bill, Senate Bill 629, Manufacturing Redevelopment Districts, introduced by Sen. John Snow (Cherokee-D), was passed by House Commerce Committee in June, but was pulled from the House calendar and sent to the Rules Committee while Governor Easley negotiated some changes with the bill proponents.

Under the bill, Dupont would transfer title of the land to Transylvania County, who would then immediately transfer it to a new company, Ilford, which manufactures photographic paper. In exchange, Dupont would receive partial immunity for contamination at the site and Ilford assumes all cleanup liability. After Ilford has ceased operations and completed cleanup, they transfer the title to the State and the land becomes part of Dupont State Forest. The substitute bill makes several changes: 1) limits Dupont's immunity; 2) takes the State out of the chain of title, and thus the chain of liability, by passing the title through Transylvania County instead; 3) increases Ilford's accountability for cleanup; 4) requires Ilford to remove all buildings before transferring the land to the State; and 5) requires Ilford to provide a certain level of investment and jobs. The new version theoretically does not provide complete immunity for Dupont, but what they would practically be liable for is unclear. Additionally, while language requiring the new operator (Ilford) to guarantee cleanup of the contamination has been strengthened, what would happen in the event of bankruptcy is also unclear. In House Rules, there was little debate, and the bill passed unanimously.

On the House floor, the rules were suspended to allow the bill to be considered the same day and it passed on a vote of 109-2. I voted against it because of constitutional concerns and issues related to the uncertainty of the cleanup of the contaminated site.

Lobbying Reform Bill Advances In House 7-29-05

Following last week's passage by a judiciary committee, the House Finance Committee has now approved lobbying reform legislation and referred it to the Appropriations Committee, which could sign off on the measure and send it to the full House for a vote as early as next week. The legislation, which is sponsored by House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, would require lobbyists to file monthly reports during the General Assembly session to disclose all expenses - above $10 - to legislators and high-ranking executive branch officials. The bill also proposes an important "cooling off" requirement that would prohibit legislators from immediately jumping into lobbying. The proposal is a substitute for the Senate's lobbying bill that capped spending on individual legislators at $100 annually, but included a broad exception for non-profits and only required biannual expense filings. Both bills would eliminate "goodwill lobbying," which allows lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts on legislators for meals and entertainment and not report it to state regulators if specific legislation is not discussed. A commission led by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and composed of lobbyists, legislators, and special interest advocates recommended changes to the lobbying rules last year. (Many of you may have seen my op-ed in the News and Record on this subject last Saturday.)

House Passes Strong, Comprehensive Meth Bill

The House approved legislation on Wednesday that seeks to reduce the increase of methamphetamine (meth) production and use in North Carolina. In recent years, meth has become one of the biggest crime problems in North Carolina and is having a dramatic impact on many communities and families. The Methamphetamine Lab Prevention Act, Senate Bill 686, was approved by a vote of 111-0. Supporters of the House bill said that North Carolina would have one of the nation's strictest laws governing the sale of cold medicines used in the making of meth if the measure becomes law.

Medicines that contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed, would be required to be kept behind a counter and customers would need to show a photo ID to purchase the products. Meth-makers "cook" the stimulant out of cold medicine tablets. The House bill also expands the limitation of access to gel and liquid caps and children's cold syrup.

The House measure also goes further than the Senate bill by requiring video surveillance of sales areas for cold medicines, more restrictions on where the products are kept at stores, civil penalties for retail violators, training requirements for employees who sell the medicine, and regulations for wholesalers that sell cold medicine. The House bill would also increase the penalties for shoplifting or embezzlement of cold medicines and allow individuals with a pattern of meth abuse to be held without bond once arrested. Several states, such as Oklahoma, which included a presumption against bond in their anti-meth legislation, have said that this provision has had a big effect on preventing repeat offenders from getting out on bond while awaiting trial and setting up another meth lab.
The House proposal is a stronger and more comprehensive bill than that proposed by the Senate, and is based on legislation adopted by many states including Oklahoma, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, California, and several others states that have also experienced a rise in meth production and use in recent years. Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), who chaired the judiciary subcommittee that drafted the new House proposal, and other members of the Judiciary IV Committee should be commended for their extensive research on this issue.

The House anti-meth bill will now go back to the Senate for approval. If the Senate does not agree to the House bill, members of both chambers will begin negotiations on the two proposals in an effort to pass a compromise bill.

North Carolina's meth problem has increased over the past few years, and legislators, the Governor and Attorney General Roy Cooper have been working to battle the spread of secret drug labs that produce the dangerous drug. In 1999, the first year that meth labs were reported in North Carolina, SBI agents discovered 9 labs. That number has skyrocketed, with agents shutting down 322 labs in 2004 and more than 135 so far this year. In 2004, 124 children were found living in meth labs in the state. Children in these homes are threatened by toxic chemicals, fire and explosions, and are often neglected or abused. Thus far in 2005, more than 50 children have been removed from homes where meth was being made.

Budget Update 07-29-05

The House and Senate budget negotiators continue their work on the budget and hope to reach a final compromise on the approximately $17 billion spending plan soon. Legislators are trying to pass the budget prior to August 5,2005, when the current "continuing resolution" expires. House Speaker Jim Black said that he and House budget negotiators want to get a budget approved as quickly as possible, but they would not rush through the process and would take the time needed to ensure passage of a good budget that meets the growing needs of our state and its people.

The Senate appears to have given up on its proposal to reduce or eliminate Medicaid coverage for 65,000 elderly, blind, and disabled patients, (that would have saved the state $53 million this year). State officials estimated 8,000 people would have lost their health coverage entirely had the proposal become the law. House and Senate negotiators were still working this week on spending for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Medicaid.

Budget negotiators have reached a tentative agreement that would maintain the current sales tax rate. In addition, the personal income tax rate would remain the same for individuals making an average of $800,000 a year.

The main points of contention between House and Senate budget negotiators are the cigarette tax, adequate pay raises for teachers and state employees, the state health plan, repayment to the state retirement plan, and the lottery. No matter how you feel about the lottery, the idea of placing the item in the budget without the opportunity for discussion and debate is bad government. This idea seems to be coming from the Governor's office, along with an arbitrarily arrived at spending cap which is proving to be one of the biggest budget nightmares. This self-imposed cap is preventing us from adequately funding education, health care, environmental protection, etc. Many of us are quite frustrated by this cap, and hope it does not impede good budget decisions. We remain committed to taking care of our citizens, including our teachers and state employees - not balancing the budget on the backs of our people in need. I have become especially concerned about adequate funding for those in need of HIV/AIDS assistance. We have one of the weakest assistance programs in the country; folks who make more than $12,000 a year who need drugs that cost $13,700 a year, are ineligible in North Carolina. This is an example of how this artificially imposed a spending cap affects real folks, who will die because they can't meet our very strict eligibility requirements.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-29-05

We've had another busy week at the General Assembly! House and Senate members continued their work on the budget and other legislation that must pass before the end of the session. Several other important topics were discussed in committee or on the House floor this week including tougher restrictions and penalties to combat methamphetamine, lobbying reform, ATV regulations for children, vending machine regulations for schools, and improved environmental enforcement.

As I've said many times, it continues to be an honor and a privilege to represent you and please continue to let me know how you feel on issues before us.

Cheers
Pricey

Friday, July 22, 2005

Additional Updates 7-22-05

* The death penalty study bill (HB 529) will be up for a full vote by the House on Monday, July 25.

* Stephen's Law (HB 217) is being reworked in conference, and should be voted on by the House and Senate within the next two weeks.

* Global Warming Study Commission is also being negotiated in a conference committee, where there are only two small differences between the House and Senate versions.

* The Salt Water Recreation Fishing License conferees met this week to begin settling the differences between the House and Senate versions.

Cracking Down On Movie Piracy

The House gave its final approval to legislation that would make it a state crime to record or copy a film showing in a movie theater. Similar laws are on the books in 22 other states and in the federal code. The measure creates a new criminal offense. The first act of film piracy would result in a misdemeanor. A second would lead to a felony. In the past, federal copyright laws have addressed actions of film piracy. The bill was approved unanimously and sent to the Senate for consideration.

A 2003 study by AT&T Laboratories and the University of Pennsylvania estimated that fake VHS and DVD copies of films cost the industry $30 billion a year. Even so, their study, which looked at illegal content available on the Internet, put the blame for most of the activity on disks made during production or prior to release that were stolen from or leaked by industry insiders.

Training More Teachers For North Carolina Schools

This week Governor Easley signed a bill into law that will ease North Carolina's shortage of highly qualified teachers in our state. The new law allows community colleges to set up a study program for students who want to become teachers through lateral entry. Anyone with a college degree will be able to attend a community college rather than a university to earn a teaching certificate. Studies show that North Carolina needs to hire about 10,000 teachers each year. However, of the 3,000 teachers graduating from our colleges each year only 2,200 end up teaching. Further, about 30% leave the profession within 3 years.

Soft Drinks In Schools

On Tuesday, the House Education Committee passed Senate bill 961, which puts new restrictions on school vending machines. Proponents of the bill say that selling soft drinks in schools is contributing to the growing problem of childhood obesity in our state. The bill now goes to the House floor for consideration.

House Committee Approves ATV Regulations

A House judiciary committee approved legislation on Tuesday that would prohibit children younger than 8 years old from operating an all terrain vehicle or ATV. North Carolina one of only five states with no minimum age requirement. The bill includes a possible fine of up to $200 for violations.

Voter Verifiable Paper Trail

A Senate committee approved a bill implementing new voting machine standards that would require a paper record of each ballot cast and require sample hand counts to ensure accurate totals. Counties would be limited to using three voting systems: optical scan ballot machines, electronic recording machines, or paper ballots counted by hand. Electronic machines, which caused problems in Carteret and Burke Counties in November, 2004, would have to generate a paper record that is "viewable by the voter before the vote is cast electronically," although it could not be touched by the voter because it would serve as a backup for recounts. Computer programming code for voting machines must be made available for review by political parties and state officials. The bill now heads to the Senate floor.

Same Day Voter Registration 7-22-05

The House Election Law and Campaign Finance Reform Committee approved House Bill 851, which would allow voters to cast ballots the same day that they register during the early voting period for elections. State law now requires that a person must be registered 25 days before a primary or an election in order to cast a ballot. The bill, which would take effect with the 2006 elections, would require a person arriving at a one-stop site to show a picture ID or other proof of identity. The person would complete a registration form attesting as a U.S. citizen living in the county for at least 30 days. The person could vote immediately by early absentee ballot, but only on that day. Otherwise, the registration would be voided. The bill was approved along party lines, as has been the case with all campaign reform bills this session.

House Passes Tougher DWI Laws

The House unanimously approved several changes to North Carolina's drunk driving laws on Wednesday, with the intent of improving enforcement and conviction rates. The bill was based on many recommendations of a task force led by Governor Easley. House Bill 1048, which was sponsored by House Majority Leader Joe Hackney (D-Orange), now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Many changes are designed to ensure that judges, prosecutors and law enforcement statewide follow the same streamlined procedures in handling these cases. House members agreed to an amendment that would make any commercial driver guilty of driving while impaired if a police officer's test reveals any alcohol in the person's blood. The bill also requires keg permits and disclosure by someone who buys a keg and drives somewhere else in North Carolina; toughens punishment for felony deaths by vehicle, a charge that is used in cases where the driver is impaired; and allows a judge to require substance abuse treatment, community service, and other punishments for those under 21 who plead guilty or are found guilty of driving after consuming alcohol. The bill also now makes it a crime for those under 21 to consume alcohol and allows law enforcement officials to test underage passengers in vehicles and other locations to be tested for alcohol consumption (a change from current law).

Extending North Carolina's Jobs Incentives Program 7-22-05

Two of North Carolina's economic incentives tools would stay in effect for at least two more years in a bill headed to Gov. Mike Easley's desk following final legislative approval earlier this week. The House agreed by a final vote of 79-34 on Wednesday in favor of extending the William S. Lee Act and the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program. The Senate has also approved the bill.

The legislation would allow a four-year extension for two kinds of projects in Lee Act development zones, an insert designed to attract the Cheesecake Factory to Rocky Mount and a Dole Foods plant to Gaston County. The Cheesecake Factory is expected to create up to 500 new jobs and the Dole plant could create up to 3,000 new jobs

The bill also extends by two years the state's Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program, which gives back to companies cash grants equal to a portion of state withholding taxes generated by their jobs. The JDIG program has helped the state to create more than 10,000 new jobs since 2001.

Opponents of the bill argued the extensions should not have been so long and argued that the Lee Act needs significant revision. The bill considered by the House had not been deliberated in committee, and instead appeared before the House as a substitute for an entirely different matter than the House had sent to the Senate. The Lee Act has received significant criticism since it was first enacted in 1996.

Lobbying Reform Bill Advances In House

A House judiciary committee agreed Tuesday to require lobbyists to file monthly reports during the General Assembly session to disclose all expenses to legislators and high-ranking executive branch officials above $10. The measure is a substitute for the Senate's lobbying bill that capped spending on individual legislators at $100 annually, but included a broad exception for civic and trade associations and retained biannual expense filings. Both measures would eliminate "goodwill lobbying," which allows lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts on legislators for meals and entertainment and not report it to state regulators if specific legislation is not discussed. The bill also requires a "cooling off" period of one year before legislators can become lobbyists. A commission led by Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and composed of lobbyists, legislators, and special interest advocates recommended changes to the lobbying rules last year, after concluding that we had some of the weakest lobbying rules in the country.

House Committee Passes Stronger, More Comprehensive Meth Bill

A House judiciary committee approved legislation on Tuesday that seeks to stop the increase in methamphetamine production and use in North Carolina. In recent years, meth has become one of the biggest crime problems in North Carolina and is having a dramatic impact on many communities and families. The House bill has been described as one of the nation's strictest and most comprehensive laws governing the sale of cold medicines used in the making of meth and is much stronger and more comprehensive than a bill passed by the Senate.

Medicines such as Sudafed would be kept behind the counter in pharmacies and grocery stores in part to curb the production of meth in clandestine labs in North Carolina. Meth-makers "cook" the stimulant out of the tablets. The House measure adds more teeth to a bill passed by the state Senate, including video surveillance of sales areas for cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, civil penalties for retail violators, and more restrictions on where the products are kept at stores. The House bill would also regulate children's cold syrup, gel, and liquid forms of the medicines, which were not addressed in the Senate bill. Individuals buying the medication would be required to sign a logbook with their name and address.

As in the Senate bill, consumers would have to show photo identification at the pharmacy counter, where most of the medicines would be stored. But stores that don't have a pharmacy could still sell them at a single designated register where the packages would be kept. This change was made in response to the concerns expressed by many law-abiding consumers in rural areas who worried that they would have to travel 10 to 20 miles to a pharmacy instead of being able to purchase cold medicine at a local grocery store.

North Carolina's meth problem has increased over the past few years, and legislators, the governor, and Attorney General Roy Cooper have worked to battle the spread of secret drug labs that produce the dangerous drug. In 1999, the first year that meth labs were reported in North Carolina, SBI agents discovered 9 labs. That number has skyrocketed, with agents shutting down 322 labs in 2004 and more than 135 so far this year. In 2004, 124 children were found living in meth labs in the state. Children in these homes are threatened by toxic chemicals, fire, and explosions, and are often neglected or abused. Thus far in 2005, more than 50 children have been removed from homes where meth was being made.

Budget Update 07-22-05

The House and Senate approved a second temporary budget bill by unanimous votes to keep state government running through August 5, 2005, in order to give budget negotiators additional time to reach a compromise on the approximately $17 billion spending plan. The "continuing resolution" also provides more than $205 million in education funding needed to hire new teachers and pay for other items to cover increasing fall enrollment in the public schools, University of North Carolina, and community colleges.

Budget negotiators have reached a tentative agreement that would maintain the current sales tax and personal income tax on individuals making an average of $800,000 a year, but continue to discuss the state's cigarette tax, debating between a 35-cent tax increase preferred by the Senate, and a 25-cent tax increase preferred by the House.

The other main points of contention between House and Senate budget negotiators are adequate pay raises for teachers and state employees, the state health plan, repayment to the state retirement plan, and Medicaid coverage for the blind, disabled, and elderly, which was cut in the Senate budget. However, we remain committed to taking care of teachers and state employees, and not balancing the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.

Governor Mike Easley also issued an executive order on Wednesday to spend up to $75 million on additional educational efforts across the state. House and Senate leaders and budget negotiators said that most of the programs included in the executive order were generally agreed to in negotiations.

The order instructs the State Budget Office to dedicate the following funding:
* $22.5 million to continue a fund for disadvantaged students in 16 of the state's poorest districts. Governor Easley initiated funding for that purpose last year;
* A $16.6 million increase in money the state distributes to about 70 "low wealth" school districts, where local resources for schools fall below the state average. Last year, those districts got $109 million;
* $16.6 million to expand the state's pre-kindergarten More at Four program, which will increase enrollment capacity for 4-year-olds by 3,200. Last year, the program received approximately $49 million and reached about 13,600 children;
* Nearly $6 million on high school reform projects, including 15 small-scale "Learn and Earn" schools that will be cooperative ventures with community colleges. There will also be 11 other smaller high schools oriented toward particular economic-development themes, such as health science; and
* $11 million for an initiative to open 100 school-based child and family support teams through the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-22-05

This was an extremely busy week in Raleigh on several fronts. House and Senate members continued their work on the budget and other legislation that must pass before the session can end. Several other important topics were discussed in committee or on the House floor this week including economic incentives used to create new jobs in North Carolina, tougher restrictions and penalties to combat methamphetamine, lobbying reform, voter verifiable paper trails, and same day voting registration.
As I've said many times, I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues that are being debated by the North Carolina Legislature and the challenges you and your family are facing each day.

It continues to be an honor and a privilege to represent you in Raleigh.

Cheers

Pricey

Friday, July 15, 2005

Gang Activity Increasing In North Carolina

Law enforcement officials across North Carolina are aware of more gangs and members than five years ago and are doing more to combat them, according to a new study released this week by the Governor's Crime Commission.

The study reported 387 gangs in the state with 8,517 members last year, which is up 68 percent when compared with police responses from a 1999 questionnaire. However, it is not clear how much those numbers signal a rise in gang membership and how much is attributed to police better recognizing gang activity. Many police agencies are now reporting and tracking gang-related crimes better than in years past.

The General Assembly also recognizes this growing problem. The House Select Committee on Gang Prevention met prior to the start of this year's session in January and made several recommendations on how to prevent gang activity and to increase criminal penalties. The House budget also included $3 million in grants to prevent gang violence.

Better Protection For Airplanes

The House approved legislation this week that would increase penalties for anyone intentionally pointing a laser beam at a traveling aircraft in North Carolina. An offender of this crime would now be guilt of a felony rather than a misdemeanor if the bill becomes law. The measure, Senate bill 428, has returned to the Senate for concurrence. Federal research has shown laser illuminations can temporarily disorient or disable a pilot during critical stages of flight. The Patriot Act, which was passed by Congress, already makes it a federal crime.

Extending North Carolina's Jobs Incentives Program

The House and Senate are working to reach an agreement on an extension of the state's primary economic incentives program, which could help the state land several new employers and thousands of jobs in the coming years. The William S. Lee Act, passed in 1996, is due to expire at the end of this year. The bill being considered would extend it for two years and makes no changes. The Senate approved a committee substitute to House Bill 1004 on Wednesday. However, the House wanted to make minor changes to the bill, so conferees were appointed from both chambers to work out a compromise.

The Lee Act currently provides credits of $500 to $12,500 for every job created by certain industries in the state. There are also credits for installing plant machinery and conducting worker training, research, and development. The bill also extends by two years the state's Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program, which gives back to companies cash grants equal to a portion of state withholding taxes generated by their jobs and has created more than 10,000 new jobs since 2001.

Several newspapers reported this week that several companies are considering a move to or an expansion in North Carolina, which would help several counties with high unemployment rates. The Cheesecake Factory is expected to create 70 jobs and invest about $12 million to get the bakery running by January. The bakery would be the company's first outside of California. The bakery is expected to employ a total of 500 by 2012.

Same Day Voter Registration

The House Committee on Election Laws considered a bill to allow same day registration for voters. Other states that allow voters to register and vote on the same day have experienced significant increases in voter turnout. A similar bill has been introduced in past sessions, and may have better luck this session.

Climate Change Legislation Update

The House and Senate will also have to work out minor differences on their respective versions of a global warming study commission bill. North Carolina will be the first state in the Southeast to conduct such a study and other states have expressed an interest in enacting similar legislation. In the meantime, The John Locke Foundation hosted a luncheon and press conference this week featuring Dr. Fred Singer, one of a handful of scientists out of thousands who disputes that global warming is a problem and that it has any anthropogenic connection. They also distributed a copy of Michael Chrichton's polemic on global warming to all legislators.

Saltwater Fishing License Update 07-15-05

The House and Senate will have to work out differences in their versions of a bill that reworks a coastal recreational fishing license permit approved last year but that hasn't yet taken effect. The Senate decided to reject the bill that was approved by the House last week. I was appointed to a conference committee made up of members from both chambers formed to reach a compromise.

Contested Schools Superintendent Race

The joint House-Senate committee examining the unresolved state schools superintendent race held its first formal hearing on Thursday morning. The race between Democrat June Atkinson and Republican Bill Fletcher is the only remaining unresolved statewide election in the nation. Atkinson currently leads Fletcher by 8,534 votes out of more than 3.3 million votes cast last November. The committee heard testimony and evidence and will make a recommendation to the entire General Assembly. Mr. Fletcher said he does not believe the General Assembly should be hearing the case in the first place because the rules approved earlier this year by the Legislature to handled contested elections shouldn't apply retroactively. However, the state constitution clearly gives the Legislature the authority to decide contested council of state races.

Lobbying Reform Debated In House Committee

A House judiciary committee began debate on a lobbying reform bill on Tuesday. The House bill focuses on more disclosure of lobbyists' expenses to legislators and executive branch officials. The bill also requires lobbyists to report any expenses above $10 in monthly disclosure reports while the General Assembly is in session and quarterly reports at other times. The Senate approved a lobbying reform bill in April that instead put a $100 annual cap on spending on any legislator or person lobbied within the executive branch of state government. Both measures would eliminate "goodwill lobbying," which allows lobbyists to spend unlimited amounts on legislators for meals and entertainment and not report it to state regulators if specific legislation is not discussed. The bill also includes a cooling off period of one year between serving as a legislator and becoming a lobbyist. The House committee will hold additional meetings to discuss the bill before members vote on the measure and send it to the full House for consideration.

Death Penalty Study

A House judiciary committee on which I sit agreed on a voice vote to a bill that would create a commission to study capital punishment in North Carolina, but stops short of a two-year pause or moratorium on all executions. The same panel agreed at the end of May to a two-year temporary halt to executions while the study was performed to examine pitfalls in the justice system, but supporters did not have the votes to get it through the full House, which prompted the compromise measure.

The latest version would allow a Superior Court judge to delay the execution date of a death-row prisoner if it falls during the study period under certain circumstances. The new version would set up a 15-member legislative study commission to look at how race relates to the death penalty, whether defendants have qualified attorneys, whether prosecutors are following correct procedures and other aspects of the system. I was able to amend the study portion of the bill to add the appropriateness of the application of the death penalty in cases involving the felony murder rule. Legislators would have until early 2008 to finish the study. Opponents say this version is worse than the hard moratorium because it would allow a trial judge to overrule decisions by higher courts. The bill now goes to the full House.

During the study, inmates on death row could ask a Superior Court judge for a stay of execution based on credible evidence of one of seven factors outlined in the bill:

* The inmate is innocent;
* Prosecutorial misconduct may have contributed to the verdict or sentence of death in cases that predate recent law that required prosecutors to give murder defendants their files;
* Errors were made by defense counsel in cases that predate recent state standards for defense lawyers;
* Race was a factor in the handling of the case;
* Execution would not be proportionate with punishments in similar cases;
* Prosecutors might not have asked for the death penalty in cases before May 2001, when they first got discretion to ask for a life sentence instead; and
* The inmate might not have gotten the death penalty if a life sentence had been available at the time.

Supporters of the study continue to point to recent exonerations and exposed problems with our state's judicial system and the need for a closer examination to ensure absolute fairness and accuracy. Alan Gell of Bertie County spent six years on death row before getting a new trial, where he was acquitted. Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem served 18 years of a life sentence before being exonerated. And, last week DNA evidence at the least put into question the conviction of Rex Penland, who has been on death row for 11 years.

Budget Update 07-15-05

House members have been hopeful that they could reach an agreement with members of the Senate on the budget prior to next week's deadline; however, a few details remain unresolved and negotiations are continuing. The House and Senate must reach an agreement on a revenue package and a roughly $17 billion spending bill. Legislators will have to pass another continuing resolution (CR) to keep government running beyond next week's deadline while they finalize the budget. It is thought that the next CR will run through August 5, 2005, and will include money for public schools, community colleges, and universities, so that those budgets can be set and hiring decisions made. The continuing resolution under which state government continues to operate at current levels expires Wednesday, July 20, 2005.

Negotiators have reached a tentative agreement that would maintain the current sales tax and personal income tax on individuals making an average of $800,000 annually, but they will continue to discuss the state's cigarette tax. The Governor recommended an increase in the cigarette tax earlier this year of 45 cents, the Senate recommended 35 cents, and the House budget included a 25-cent increase. The House had difficulty pulling together enough votes to pass a 25-cent increase, and it is unlikely it will be much higher. The state's current 5-cent cigarette tax is the lowest in the nation and is well below the national average of 89 cents.

A majority of House members are committed to passing a budget that ensures adequate funding for our priorities such as education at our K-12 schools, universities and community college, health care and human services for our state's neediest citizens, public safety programs for our neighborhoods, and pay raises for teachers and state employees. I am hopeful that a budget agreement can be reached soon so lawmakers will be able to finalize or vote on other non-budget bills such as the lottery, a study on the death penalty, lobbying reform, and clean cars legislation.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-15-05

House and Senate members continued their work this week on the budget and other legislation that must pass before the end of the session. No budget compromise has been reached and negotiations are continuing. The legislators are expected to pass another continuing resolution early next week in order to finalize the budget and keep government running.

Several other important topics were discussed in committee or on the House floor this week, including a study of the state's death penalty, lobbying reform, the contested Superintendent of Public Schools race, and same day voter registration.

I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues being debated by the North Carolina General Assembly and the challenges you and your family are facing each day. It is an honor and a privilege to represent you in the legislature.

Cheers,

Pricey

Friday, July 08, 2005

Law Takes Effect To Protect Credit Card Numbers

A new law took effect on July 1, 2005, which prohibits North Carolina businesses that use electronic credit-card machines from printing a customer's entire credit card number on a receipt. The law, approved by the General Assembly in 2003, requires that any new credit card machines installed after February 2004 print only the last five digits of the credit card number. All businesses had to be in compliance with the stricter standards last week or face fines of $500 per violation up to $2,000 per year. The measure applies to the receipts given to customers. Merchants are still allowed to keep receipts with complete card numbers and expiration date for their records. The bill is aimed at reducing credit card fraud, which costs companies about $2 billion a year, according to Bankrate.com, an online personal finance and research service.

"Aedins Law" Passes, Making Petting Zoos Safer

A bill to set stricter sanitation requirements for petting zoos received final passage by the Legislature on Wednesday and now awaits Gov. Mike Easley's signature. The measure was prompted by an outbreak of bacterial infection that struck 108 visitors - more than half of them children - to petting zoos at the North Carolina State Fair last fall. The bill is called "Aedin's Law" in honor of 2-year-old Aeden Gray of Orlando, Fla., one of 15 children whose exposure led to a life-threatening kidney ailment. The law will require petting zoo operators to be inspected and obtain a permit from the state Agriculture Department. It also allows the department to set rules regarding animal care, hand-washing facilities, signs warning the public of health and safety issues, and any other requirements to protect visitors from potential harm. In April, the department announced stricter rules for animal exhibits that will apply to the upcoming state fair.

Lateral Entry Teachers

The Legislature has approved legislation that would allow community colleges to offer certain courses for lateral-entry teachers - those who already have bachelor's degrees in other subjects but want to enter education. The bill is aimed at addressing the teacher shortage problem we have in the state. Under the plan, community college campus would be allowed to hold certain classes these applicants need to get a teaching certificate. Leaders of community colleges and the State Board of Education would select the classes. The House approved the bill last month, the Senate approved a slightly different version last week, and the House gave final approval on Thursday. The Senate altered the original bill to cut the length of a provisional teaching certificate issued to a lateral entry teacher from five years to three. House bill 563 now goes to the Governor for his signature into law.

Learn and Earn Program

On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 566, which would give high school students the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma and a college degree after just five years of study. Under this initiative, high school students can take community colleges courses at their high school. The bill now heads to the Governor, who has strongly promoted this program.

Protecting Children on ATV's

A proposal to prohibit children less than 8 years old from operating all-terrain vehicles easily cleared a House committee on Wednesday. North Carolina is one of five states with essentially no operating restrictions for the machines. The number of children less than 16 who died in ATV-related accidents in North Carolina jumped from 5 in 1999 to 11 last year. Children from ages 8 to 15 would only be allowed to operate child-sized ATVs under an adult's close supervision. All ATV drivers starting in October 2006 would have to complete a safety course and follow equipment and driving standards. The initial version of the bill would have prohibited children under 12 from operating an ATV. Some senators argued that age was too restrictive. The ATV industry had recommended barring children under 6. Senators approved the bill after adjusting the minimum age to 8 and setting exemptions for farmers and hunters.

Move-Over Law Approved 07-08-05

The Legislature has adopted tougher penalties for motorists who fail to slow down or move over for police or emergency vehicles. Motorists who don't move to another lane when approaching a standing emergency vehicle on a multilane road or slow down while on a two-lane road would face a traffic infraction and a $250 fine. House Bill 288, which is sponsored by Reps. Ray Rapp (D-Haywood) and Bill McGee (R-Forsyth), updates an original law approved in 2002, which made the violation a $25 fine, with $100 in court costs. A motorist now also could face a low-grade felony charge and a six-month driver's license revocation if a first responder at the scene is injured or dies. If the accident leads to property damage of at least $500, the driver would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The House gave final approval to the law, which now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.

Clean Lakes Bill

Another important piece of environmental legislation, Senate Bill 981, Drinking Water Reservoir Protection Act, Janet Cowell (Wake-D), was approved by the House, 113-2, and is on its way to the Governor for signature. It requires the State to assess the current status of all drinking water lakes, requires more instant monitoring when a lake shows water quality problems, provides a timetable for cleaning up Falls Lake, and caps nutrient load levels in Jordan and Falls lakes until clean up rules are issued for each water body. The Jordan Lake provisions affect Guilford County, since we are in the Cape Fear Watershed, which feeds into Jordan Lake.

Saltwater Fishing License

The House gave the initial OK to a massive rewrite of a flawed fishing license law passed last year that would require coastal saltwater anglers to get permits for the first time. Senate Bill 1126 would still require coastal recreational fishermen to get a license to fish, but it also would create a unified permit to fish in all public waters. Freshwater and commercial fishermen are already required to get a license. Proceeds from the new coastal recreational licenses would go to grants to improve marine resources. This is an important step in our state's 8-year effort to overhaul fishery management. North Carolina has been the only state on the Southeast coast without a recreational license. Bill opponents focused on a provision that would allow state fisheries inspectors the power to enforce federal marine fisheries law on out-of-state fishing vessels (which would draw down more than $1million in federal money). They also did not like the idea of requiring coastal residents to get a permit to fish off an inlet that may be in their backyard. The bill was tentatively approved 74-43 on Wednesday and received final approval by a vote of 73-34 on Thursday.

Global Warming Commission

The House gave final approval on Thursday to a bill that would create a commission to study global warming's impact on North Carolina. The measure passed its initial reading on Wednesday 78-37 - with all the "no" votes cast by Republicans. The House gave final approval to Senate bill 1134 on Thursday by a vote of 78-29. Robert Jackson, an environmental sciences and biology professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, said research over the past 30 years has increasingly shown that modern climate changes are primarily due to the use of fossil fuels by humans. The 32-member commission would make recommendations for pollution reduction and develop a climate action plan, with a report due in November, 2006. This comes on the heels of progress on climate change at the G8 Summit, where our president has admitted for the first time that global warming problems are "largely" man made.

Giving 16 and 17 Year Olds A Second Chance

Adults convicted of nonviolent felonies while they were 16 and 17 years old could seek to have their records cleared so that they could more easily get into college, get a job, or enlist in the military. The legislation would allow people who committed crimes at 16 or 17 to apply to have the convictions expunged. North Carolina is the only state in the nation that treats 16 and 17 year olds as adults for purposes of criminal convictions and is one of handful that does not currently allow such expunctions. Most offenses committed by children under 16 are handled in juvenile court, and those records are sealed. The bill would create a method in which the first-time offenders could ask a judge to have their convictions removed so that it would no longer show up in criminal background checks. The process would require a hearing at which the district attorney could respond to the petition. The judge would be authorized to call law enforcement officers to testify. The law would expire after seven years, giving lawmakers an opportunity to look back and see whether the legislation has had the intended effect. Juvenile court records already are sealed from the public, and certain offenders convicted of misdemeanor alcohol and drug charges below the age of 21 are currently allowed to seek an expunction.

Rep. Alice Bordsen, the primary sponsor of the legislation, said there are numerous safeguards in the bill that would prevent anyone who is truly dangerous from getting through the system. House bill 1084 was given final approval on Thursday by a vote of 60-51, largely on a party line vote, despite a great deal of opposition from several groups arguing the change would eliminate information in employment background checks. Those supporting the bill felt it would to give young people who have made a mistake a chance to atone and become productive citizens.

Budget Update 07-08-05

Legislators in both the House and Senate continued their efforts to try to reach a compromise on the budget following last week's action to extend budget negotiations and keep our state government running through July 20,2005.

Gov. Mike Easley also met with House and Senate Democratic leaders and budget chairs on Wednesday to discuss tax and budget issues as the Legislature tries to work out an agreement on both. House Speaker Jim Black expressed his opposition to any tax cuts - especially those that would go to individuals making an average of $800,000 per year - if that meant education would face spending cuts in the budget. Senate Democrats have pushed to lower the marginal tax rate for the highest wage earners from 8.25 percent to 7.75 percent. Some House members said at the end of last week that they would accept that tax cut only if it could be coupled with tax reductions for low- and middle-income people. However, these tax cuts would take more than $120 million out of the state budget, which we currently can't afford.

A number of House Democrats still would prefer no tax cuts at all in order to ensure adequate funding in the budget for priorities such as education at our K-12 schools, universities, and community colleges, health care and human services for our state's neediest citizens, and public safety programs for our neighborhoods. House Democrats will continue discussions with members of the Senate regarding the upper income tax and a possible reduction in the sales tax, but remain committed to passing a budget as soon as possible that adequately funds these priority programs as well as efforts to further strengthen our economy and create jobs. Other major points of negotiation include whether the tobacco tax will be increased by 25 cents or 35 cents and whether lottery provisions will be included in the budget.

Also on Wednesday, Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, cancelled all committee meetings unrelated to tax and budget issues while Senators work out an agreement with the House, which means that many House bills will not be considered by the Senate. House committees are continuing their work as budget talks continue in an effort to wrap up non-budget bills before the end of session.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-08-05

Budget negotiations dominate the news from the Legislature this week. House members are hopeful that the budget can be finalized in the next several weeks prior to the end of the continuing resolution on July 20,2005.

Several important environmental bills were approved by the House this week including efforts to better protect drinking water, establish a global warming study commission, and establish a salt water fishing license.

As I've said many times, I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues that are being debated by the North Carolina General Assembly and the challenges you and your family are facing each day. It is an honor and a privilege to represent you in Raleigh.

Cheers,
Pricey

Friday, July 01, 2005

Potential Assistance For North Carolina Military Bases

North Carolina communities that suffer job losses or other economic problems because of military cutbacks will share in a $1 million federal grant announced Wednesday, which comes months before the Pentagon's realignment plans are finalized. The grant from the Labor Department is intended to help workers, businesses and communities that take a hit under plans to close or realign military facilities. If the money is not needed because of the military reorganization, the state Commerce Department can spend it to help workers who lose their jobs for other reasons.

A commission that heard public comment Tuesday in Charlotte is considering the Defense Department's realignment proposals, which were announced May 13. The panel will make recommendations in September to President Bush, who will decide with Congress whether to accept the plans or demand a new report. Even though the final decision isn't due until autumn, states had a June 10 deadline to apply for the grants, Commerce Department spokeswoman Alice Garland said.

The money must be used by the end of the year. In all, the state would lose 568 military positions and gain 307 civilian jobs if the initial Defense Department proposals were implemented as written. But some individual communities could see significant job losses. Changes proposed for the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point would add 48 military positions but cut 656 civilian jobs. One civilian job and 182 military positions would disappear due to changes proposed for Camp Lejeune and the Marine Corps Air Station at New River. The loss of the Army Research Office in Durham would cost 113 civilian jobs. In all, 35 states, the District of Columbia and Guam shared in more than $28 million in grants, the Labor Department said Wednesday. The largest amounts, $1.5 million each, went to Illinois and Indiana. North Carolina was one of 15 states to win a $1 million grant.

Drinking Water Supply Reservoir Protection

Senate Bill 981, "Drinking Water Reservoir Protection", was approved unanimously by the House Environment Committee this week. I sponsored the House companion to this bill. The bill, a major clean water priority of the environmental community, would take a proactive approach to protecting our water supplies. The need for the bill was highlighted by a proposal last summer that would have significantly increased the discharge of wastewater and nutrients into Falls Lake, a vital source of drinking water for the triangle region. Current law addresses cleaning up water after it has become impaired. The bill would affect the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake watersheds, the latter of which includes Greensboro.

Global Warming Study

A House committee approved Senate Bill 1134, which would establish a commission to study issues related to global warming and possibly set pollution reduction goals for the state. I cosponsored the House companion to this bill. The Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change would recommend whether the state should reduce pollution that researchers argue contributes to a warmer overall climate. The panel would be composed of legislators, scientists, environmentalists, and members of utility companies and other industries. Robert Jackson, an environmental sciences and biology professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, said research over the past 30 years has increasingly shown that modern climate changes are primarily due to the use of fossil fuels by humans. Of major concern to North Carolina is the dramatic impact sea level rise will have on our 320 miles of ocean front and 4000+ miles of estuarine shoreline. In the absence of leadership at the federal level on this issue, many states have taken on issues of climate change. I have introduced several bills related to climate change, and I am hopeful that some will get a hearing before we adjourn.

Cracking Down On Meth Labs In North Carolina

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn warned a House judiciary panel that methamphetamine manufacturers may be headed to North Carolina unless members approve a bill similar to a new Tennessee law. Tennessee experienced a 39 percent decline in meth lab busts in May, and Gwyn attributes the drop to a law restricting cold tablet sales to pharmacy counters. Attorney General Roy Cooper wants a similar law in North Carolina. The Senate already has approved the measure, but House committee members wanted more information about an alternative proposal that would keep the medicines in a locked cabinet behind a store counter, but not under a pharmacist's control. The Target and Wal-Mart retail chains, as well as the CVS and Rite Aid drugstores, announced this year they would put the cold tablets behind the pharmacy counter. A subcommittee will look at both bills, Senate bill 686 (Meth Lab Prevention Act) and House bill 1345 (Limit Certain Self-Service Drug Purchases) and make recommendations.

Bill Approved To Protect Children From Internet Predators

North Carolina will be able to stop Internet predators from going after children under a new law that was given final approval by the General Assembly last week and signed into law by Governor Mike Easley on Wednesday. The new law will go into effect on December 1, 2005.

Senate Bill 472, "The Child Exploitation Prevention Act," will allow law enforcement officers to go online undercover to catch child sexual predators who use the Internet and will authorize the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to use additional technology to investigate certain crimes committed with the use of a computer. Under current law, a predator who solicits an officer posing as a minor could only be charged with a misdemeanor. The measure will also require convicted online predators to be added to the state's Sex Offender Registry and to provide DNA samples for the state's convicted offender database.

A national survey conducted by the Crime Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found that almost one in five young Internet users have received an unwanted sexual solicitation. Incidents of child sexual exploitation reported in North Carolina continue to rise. In 2001, there were only 11 incidents reported, however, 533 such incidents were reported in 2004 according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

All parents are encouraged to talk to their children about the potential dangers on the Internet and ways to protect themselves better from potentially dangerous individuals. The Attorney General's website at www.ncdoj.com (select "Internet Safety" from the Jump To menu at the top of the page) has helpful information on this topic including a video and resource guide for parents and children. Attorney General Cooper partnered with law enforcement and child safety experts including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to develop the information.

Protecting Children On School Buses

Any motorist who passes a stopped school bus that's receiving or removing passengers would be convicted of a felony if a person is seriously injured in a bill unanimously approved by the Senate. House bill 1400 is sponsored by Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth), whose 7-year-old son was killed boarding a bus in 1999. Folwell introduced the bill at the request of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board. The bill sent to the Senate also would make it a higher grade of misdemeanor if the motorist passes the bus while its red lights are flashing or its mechanical stop signal is in use. The bill now returns to the House, which approved a similar version of the bill in May, for concurrence.

Move Over Law Approved

The Senate has unanimously agreed to a bill that would toughen penalties for motorists who fail to slow down or move over for police or emergency vehicles. House Bill 288, which is sponsored by Reps. Ray Rapp (D-Haywood) and Bill McGee (R-Forsyth), updates the 2002 "move-over" law. Motorists who fail to move to another lane when approaching a standing emergency vehicle on a multilane road or slow down while on a two-lane road would be guilty of a traffic infraction, punishable by a $250 fine. The current punishment is up to a $25 fine, with $100 in court costs. The proposed punishments would be greater - reaching a low-grade felony and a six-month driver's license revocation - if a first responder at the scene is injured or dies. The bill now returns to the House, which approved a somewhat similar version of the bill earlier this month, for concurrence.

State's Hit-and-Run Loophole To Be Fixed Soon

The House and Senate will work out differences over a proposal to clarify the hit-and-run law (HB 217, which I introduced) to make it a crime for a motorist to change places with a passenger to avoid a conviction. The bill 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 Senate amended the measure last week which attempted to clarify the responsibility of passengers in the vehicle. But some House members found the new language was too vague, and the Senate version was rejected on Wednesday. A conference committee of House and Senate members will now be formed to reach a compromise. The legislation was inspired by the death of Tar Heel Sports Network commentator Stephen Gates, who was struck by a car and killed in October 2003 while he examined a flat tire on an interstate ramp.

Budget Update 07-01-05

The General Assembly reached a deal Thursday that would keep state government running through July 20,2005, while legislators work an a final budget agreement. The "continuing resolution" agreed to by the House and Senate will keep a half-cent sales tax until the two-year budget is finally approved. The bill also allows North Carolina to continue collecting its share of the estate tax until the federal version expires in 2010. The Senate approved the compromise by a party-line vote of 29-19 and the House soon followed its OK by a vote of 65-51. Governor Easley signed the measure into law just before 3 pm.

The House passed a continuing resolution several weeks ago and the Senate passed a different version on Monday night. Members of the House and Senate were appointed to a conference committee on Tuesday morning and got right to work on reaching a compromise, which had to be passed and signed into law by the Governor before midnight on Thursday.

Both plans sought to extend the temporary half-cent sales tax increase first adopted in 2001 at the height of the recession and job losses. If it had not been extended by the General Assembly, it would have expired Friday, and lawmakers would have lost more than $400 million in potential revenue. The major sticking point was that the Senate proposal sought to make the sales tax increase permanent, while the House extended it two years. The House plan also extended a half-percentage-point increase in the income tax for individuals making an average of $800,000 per year and the Senate wanted the tax to expire at the end of the year. The House felt it was fundamentally unfair to extend the sales tax, which disproportionately affects the poorest, while giving a tax break to North Carolina's wealthiest citizens.

House Democrats will continue discussions with members of the Senate regarding the upper income tax and a possible reduction in the sales tax, but remain committed to passing a budget as soon as possible.

One item of note to those of you who are interested in farmland preservation. I had amended the budget bill last week to add funding for the farmland preservation trust fund, which leverages millions in federal matching money to help farmers stay on their land. The conference committee eliminated that funding. If this is important to you, you might want to let your senators and house members know.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-01-05

With the start of the new fiscal year, which begins today, House members continued their work this week on the budget while also passing a continuing resolution to keep the government running while the budget is finalized. House members are hopeful that the budget can be finalized in the next several weeks.

Several other important bills were taken up in committee or on the House floor this week including efforts to better protect drinking water supplies and to study global warming.

I appreciate your having comments and questions about issues on my blog or elsewhere, so please stay in touch.

Cheers,

Pricey