Pricey Harrison

Monday, August 29, 2005

In Other News...(8-26-05)

Historic Joint Session Names New State Superintendent
A historic joint session of the State House and Senate gave Democrat June Atkinson the title of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Lawmakers voted 93-21 to select Atkinson. Despite Atkinson’s lead of 8,535 votes out of more than 3.3 million ballots cast in last November’s election, legal challenges from her Republican opponent kept the state without a schools chief for nine months. The state constitution directs that contested statewide races be finalized “by joint ballot of both houses of the General Assembly in the manner prescribed by law”; however, the law that governed such voting was inadvertently deleted from state statute in 1971 and had to be clarified by legislation passed earlier this year. The General Assembly had not selected a winner for statewide office since North Carolina law was changed in 1835 to allow citizens to directly elect a governor. Atkinson was immediately sworn into office, bringing to an end the last undecided statewide or federal race in the nation following last year’s election.


Unfinished Business: House wants Senate to take action before adjourning
House members are hopeful that the Senate will vote on several bills already approved in their chamber including: the establishment of an innocence commission (HB 1323), which would create an independent panel to review the innocence claims of convicted felons; DWI task force recommendations (HB 1048), which would improve enforcement and conviction rates of DWIs in North Carolina; an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6 per hour; and a tax credit for small businesses that provide health care insurance for employees (HB 20); the Gang Violence Prevention Act (HB 50).

Legislative Update From This Week(8-26-05)

The House considered and approved more than 200 bills this week as we near the end of the 2005 legislative session. Following is a quick snapshot of some of the bills that were approved by the House in the last several days:

Lobbying Reform – SB 612: The Legislature gave final approval early Wednesday to a rewrite of state lobbying rules that requires more disclosure of expenses and expands regulations to cover spending on top executive branch officials. The compromise of competing House and Senate bills largely follows the House version, which requires lobbyists and their principals to report any expenditure above $10 whereas the Senate bill simply capped spending at $100 per year. Under the approved proposal, legislative lobbyists, including those who lobby for state agencies, would have to file monthly reports while the General Assembly is in session starting in 2007 and quarterly otherwise. Only lobbyists at the General Assembly file now, and they do so twice a year. The measure eliminates a long-standing “goodwill” loophole that allows lobbyists to treat legislators to unlimited meals and entertainment as long as no specific legislation is discussed. Lawmakers or executive branch officials such as the governor, Council of State members, and department secretaries who leave office would have to wait six months before returning to lobby the Legislature or the executive branch, thereby addressing the “revolving door” issue.


Gang Violence Prevention Act – HB 50: The House approved legislation that seeks to prevent gang violence through preventative measures and increased criminal penalties for people who participate or abet gang activity.
A person who organizes or leads a gang can receive an additional 10 years in prison for their crimes. The Governor’s Crime Commission recently identified 387 gangs operating in the state with 8,517 members - a 65 percent increase over four years ago. North Carolina led in the numbers of people arrested in a national roundup of gang members earlier this month. The bill was based on recommendations made by the House Select Committee on Gang Violence Prevention, which met prior to the start of this year’s session. The state budget approved two weeks ago included $2 million in gang-prevention grants that will be awarded to community programs. The bill has been sent to the Senate, but further action may be delayed until the start of next year’s short session in May, 2006.


Identity Theft – SB 1048: The House gave final approval to legislation that seeks to better protect customers’ personal information by restricting the sale and display of Social Security numbers and forcing companies to properly destroy information when they throw it away. The bill would also allow consumers to “freeze” their credit with the national credit bureaus, which would then forbid any credit inquiries and prevent potential thieves from opening accounts or applying for loans in other people’s names. Once a freeze is requested, consumers receive an identification number that allows only them to “thaw” their credit when they want to buy a car, apply for a credit card account, or seek a loan. Such freezes are being considered or have passed in 25 states. The Senate unanimously approved a version Tuesday that was modified in the House to clarify guidelines for bringing an identity theft lawsuit. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature. At least 286,000 North Carolina residents are victims of identity theft each year. A typical identity theft victim spends $800 and 175 hours over a nearly two-year period to repair credit and erase fraudulent charges, according to the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper.


Hit & Run Law – HB 217: The General Assembly gave final approval on Monday to my bill making it a crime if a driver and a passenger switch places after a car accident and flee the scene. The measure, sent to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature, was in response to the traffic death of Tar Heel Sports Network commentator Stephen Gates, in October 2003. Mr. Gates was struck and killed by an approaching car on an interstate ramp in Orange County while he examined a flat tire. A woman driving the SUV stopped, but a male passenger took the wheel and drove away, authorities said. The woman pleaded guilty to failing to report a traffic accident, a misdemeanor. The man was acquitted of a more serious hit-and-run charge. Mr. Gates’ parents and I have been working on for the bill since November, with the Gates making some three dozen trips from Greensboro to Raleigh.


Addressing Teacher Shortage – HB 706: The General Assembly gave unanimous final approval on Monday to a bill that would give local school districts more say in the hiring out-of-state teachers. School districts face an annual statewide teacher shortage in the thousands, largely because of retirements and enrollment growth. The measure would designate any out-of-state schoolteachers as “highly qualified” under the definition of the federal No Child Left Behind Act if they were labeled as such in their state. The North Carolina Association of Educators and Governor Easley have expressed concerns regarding the measure. The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature or veto.


Healthier School Food – HB 855: Lower fat and sugar in school diets is the mandate for the State Board of Education in a bill given final legislative approval. The bill sent to Gov. Mike Easley seeks to establish nutrition standards in schools by gradually increasing the amount of healthy foods available for students to eat. The nutrition standards would promote gradual changes to increase fruits and vegetables, increase whole grain products, and decrease foods high in fat and sugar. The standards, which would be implemented by the end of the 2007-08 school year in elementary schools, would then be extended to middle schools and high schools.


Homeowner’s Associations – HB 1541: The more than 13,000 homeowner’s associations in North Carolina would be barred from foreclosing on a homeowner for violating community rules or solely for attorney fees in legislation given final approval on Tuesday; however, associations still could place liens on property if someone fails to pay dues. The measure would reduce the maximum fines assessed by associations from $150 a day to $100 a day, as well as cap late fees for association dues unless rules state otherwise. Associations could not restrict or ban the flying of U.S. and North Carolina flags up to 4 feet wide and 6 feet long unless property documents prominently state the rules. The bill also would require associations to let members speak at board meetings and allow homeowners to review association finances and minutes.


Worker’s Comp – HB 99: The General Assembly has agreed to a compromise proposal between industry lobbyists and advocates for injured workers, which would make some technical changes to our state’s workers’ compensation law. The original measure generated lots of discussion and disagreement during the last several months; however, the ultimate bill which was passed by legislators deferred most of the controversial issues – including the length and coverage of wage and medical payments, whether compensation rates for injuries should be adjusted for inflation and compensation for workers exposed to asbestos – to a study commission that is to report back the General Assembly next spring.


Rachel’s law – SB 486: Lawmakers approved stiffer penalties for anyone who fires a gun into an occupied car or home in a bill given final legislative approval on Monday night. The bill would make firing a gun into an occupied building or traveling vehicle a felony punishable from roughly three years to 15 years in prison. Existing law makes the maximum term for the crime about six years. The punishment could reach as high as 17 ½ years if the shooting causes serious injury. The bill is titled “Rachel's Law,” named after Rachel Sanchez, a 5-year-old girl shot in the head while traveling on Interstate 40 in Catawba County in 2003. A teenager confessed to firing the weapon at the car; Rachel is recovering. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley.


Fishing license laws revamped – SB 1126: After a year of negotiations, the legislature has overhauled a coastal recreational fishing license law that was approved last year but had not taken effect. North Carolina has been the only state on the Southeast coast without a recreational license. Along with the permit for coastal anglers, the update would create a unified permit for someone to fish in all public waters. Freshwater and commercial saltwater fishermen already must get licenses. The compromise, however, removes a longtime license exemption for freshwater fishermen who use natural bait in their home county (this exemption had been problematic for the Wildlife Resources Commission). The changes, which would take effect in early 2007, retain optional licenses for pier owners and charter boats that would cover anyone fishing from piers or on charter boats. The annual coastal license would cost $15 a year for residents and $5 for short-term permits. The new unified permit would cost $35 and would increase to $55 if the permit applicant also wanted to hunt. A lifetime license is slightly higher. Children under 16 would be exempt and poor anglers could get free licenses. People fishing in ponds on private property would not need a license.


Incentives to get timely public airing – HB 393: The public will have access to information about government tax-incentive business deals within 25 business days of the arrangements’ announcement. The bill applies to local and state agencies, but is aimed mainly at the state Commerce Department, which has taken months to provide documents about incentive deals. The bill was in response to a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina Press Association and another group against the state Commerce Department, claiming the agency delayed releasing details on incentives packages for computer maker Dell Inc., pharmaceutical giant Merck, and airline manufacturer Boeing. The new law would require agencies to make their records of deals available for public inspection and copying within five weeks of the announcement. Government agencies also would have to report each year on the business incentives they administer.


Historic Mill Rehabilitation Tax Credit – HB 474: The House approved legislation on Tuesday that will provide tax credits for businesses that renovate historic textile mills. Supporters of the bill said there are approximately 30-35 such mills across the state. Virginia and South Carolina have recently enacted similar legislation. Supporters of the bill highlighted the fact that North Carolina has lost more than 164,000 jobs in the textile industry during the past decade and a large number of manufacturing jobs in other industries such as tobacco and furniture, which have resulted in the vacancy of numerous mill buildings, many of which are historic. Several legislators from the Triad said that large vacant mills in their districts can be an enormous eye sore in a community if it remains vacant and unused, resulting in the deterioration of surrounding neighborhoods and commercial districts, crime, vandalism, vagrancy, arson, and a loss of community spirit; however, an old factory or mill can have significant environmental, economic development, cultural, tourism, tax base, and affordable housing benefits for a community if renovated for new uses.


Tax Credits for North Carolina Businesses – HB 105: NASCAR teams and passenger airlines would get refunds on the sales tax they pay on aviation fuel in a measure given final approval Wednesday at the General Assembly. Both industries are major employers in North Carolina and have an enormous economic impact on our economy.


Local vote for education spending – HB 1050, HB 746, HB 947: The House considered several bills this week, which would allow voters in 48 counties across the state the opportunity to vote for a half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for new schools. Supporters argue that the counties need to raise money to replace classroom trailers with permanent buildings and stressed the importance of giving local officials another tool to pay for rising education costs, but pointed out that the local voters would have the ultimate say on the idea. Other sources of revenue have become inadequate.

HB 1050 and HB 746 would allow a ballot referendum in Pitt, Martin, Davie, Buncombe, Chatham, Anson, Union, Vance, Franklin, Lee, Duplin, Surry, Cumberland, and Davidson Counties to pay for public school and community college construction. The bill was given final approval by the House on Thursday.

HB 876 would allow Haywood County commissioners to raise the sales tax by an extra half-cent to pay for capital improvements at the local community college if approved by voters. Commissioners could not authorize the increase unless local voters approve the idea in a referendum. The bill was given final approval by the House on Wednesday morning.
HB 947 would allow another 31 counties the option to raise their sales taxes by an extra half-cent to spend on public school and community college construction in a bill that cleared the House Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon and given initial approval by the full House on Thursday. The House is expected to complete debate on the measure early next week. (NOTE: The bill originally included 32 counties, but Forsyth County was removed during debate on Thursday.)
However, even if the measures pass the House, they would have to be considered by the Senate, whose leaders have said they do not plan to take up any more work this year except to set a new adjournment date for the session

Smoking ban inside prisons – SB 1130: Smoking inside state prison buildings would end under a bill given final legislative approval Tuesday. Supporters said the goal was to reduce health problems associated with secondhand smoke. The House earlier this month passed a version that exempted Correction Department employees and inmates' visitors, but voted 70-43 Tuesday on a broader version sought by the Senate that bans indoor smoking at all of the state's 76 prisons. Inmate health care cost $138 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, not including dental and mental health services. The Senate passed the measure 40-1 Tuesday night. The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature.


Regulation of Genetically Altered Plants – H671, Dewey Hill (Columbus-D). This bill, initiated by the biotech industry, would eliminate local authority to impose restrictions on genetically modified (GM) crops. A Senate committee substitute passed two weeks ago also sets up a legislative commission to study the issue of GM crops in NC and adds an organic farmer and a consumer advocate to the Board of Agriculture. On the House floor, at the request of bill sponsor Rep. Hill, the House voted (113-0) to not concur with the Senate version, sending the bill to conference committee. Conference chairs are Rep. Dewey Hill (Columbus-D) and Sen. Charlie Albertson (Duplin-D), and conferees are Rep. Joe Tolson (Edgecombe-D), Rep. Arthur Williams (Beaufort-D), Sen. Janet Cowell (Wake-D), Sen. Clark Jenkins (Edgecombe-D), and Sen. Stan Bingham (Davidson-R). The bill appears unlikely to emerge from conference in this session, but the conference could meet when the legislature returns for the short session in May 2006.

Improve Environmental Enforcement – H1283, Bill Culpepper (Chowan-D). This bill raises penalties for serious violations of several environmental statutes, allows DENR to recover investigative costs, and authorizes DENR to allow violators to take educational courses or perform community service rather than paying fines if they would prefer. A controversial provision authorizing DENR to undertake a pilot program to retain actual costs of collection rather than the 10% they currently retain was removed in House Rules on August 22. The bill ran into trouble on the House floor. To the pleasure of the agency’s harshest legislative critics, the bill failed, 46 to 68, on second reading. For advocates wanting a sense of the distribution of environmental attitudes in the NC House, this is a revealing vote.

Disposal in Landfills/Additional Bans – H1465, Joe Hackney (Orange-D). As passed by the House this bill would have banned wood pallets, plastic containers, and used motor oil filters from disposal. In the Senate two weeks ago two amendments on the floor had added oyster shells to the list of banned items, and gutted the ban on disposal of wood pallets by allowing them to still be disposed of in unlined construction waste landfills. The bill takes effect in October, 2009. (A provision inserted into the Technical Corrections bill (H413), which awaits House concurrence, would move the effective date for the oyster shell ban up to 2007.) The House voted to concur with both amendments and the bill has been sent to the Governor.

ABC Licensees to Recycle Beverage Containers – H1518, Joe Hackney (Orange-D). This bill requires Alcohol Beverage Control permit holders (bars and restaurants) to recycle all beverage containers sold on premises, and bans the landfilling or incineration of beverage containers. A Senate substitute delayed the effective date one year, to 2008. On August 22, the House voted to concur (107-7) and the bill has been sent to the Governor.


Manufacturing Redevelopment Districts – S629, John Snow (Cherokee-D). This bill releases DuPont from liability for toxic contamination on a manufacturing site in the middle of DuPont State Forest, in exchange for transferring title to a new company, Ilford/Oji, to re-open the plant and clean up the contamination, and in the end, give the land to the State. The Governor has been negotiating this deal with Ilford/Oji, and at the beginning on August the Senate adopted the conference report, but Ilford/Oji had pulled out of the deal days before. This week, however, the conference report reappeared in the House and the House voted to concur on August 22 by a vote of 111-4 (dissenting: me, Paul Luebke (Durham-D), Jennifer Weiss (Wake-D), John Rhodes (Mecklenburg-R).


Energy Credit Banking/Selling Program/Fund – S1149, Clark Jenkins (Edgecombe-D) (I sponsored the companion in the House). The Federal Energy Policy Act (EPAct) issues credits to State agencies for use of alternative fuel vehicles. This bill allows the State Energy Office to bank and sell these credits and use the money to support further alternative fuel programs in the state. A Senate floor amendment on August 12 added the extension of the renewable energy tax credits from H1715, Renewable Energy Tax Credits, Paul Luebke (Durham-D) to the bill. The bill was sent to House Finance, where, on August 23, the bill received a unanimous favorable report with no discussion. The House approved the bill early this morning, 63 – 19 on second reading, and passed third reading on a voice vote and has been sent to the Governor.


No Local Regulation of Forestry / Agriculture – S681, David Hoyle (Gaston-D). This bill blocks local governments from regulating most forestry activities by prohibiting local ordinances from regulating timber harvesting and transport, including setbacks to protect water quality, restrictions on pesticide spraying, and weight limits on city roads. While the bill does not ban local ordinances as applied to development, it draws a blurry line between bona fide timber operations and development, and makes it easy for developers to escape any serious penalty for masquerading as forestry operations by clearing "in anticipation of development approval" - well before beginning the permitting process. The original bill allowed local governments to withhold building permits for up to five years if a developer violated a local ordinance; on the Senate floor, the sponsor amended this to an insignificant two years. In House Environment on August 9th, the penalty was raised to a milquetoast three years, and five years for "willful" violations, though "willfulness" would be very difficult to prove. On the House floor August 22, I offered an amendment to return the penalty to five years; it failed (24-91). The bill passed the House (99-16) and the Senate voted to concur on August 23. The bill has been sent to the Governor.

NC Lottery Still One Vote Short Of Passing

After another week of negotiations and vote counting, the Senate still appears to be one vote short of passing a lottery bill with 24 Democratic yes votes and 26 no votes, which include all 21 Senate Republicans and 5 Democrats. However, supporters are still hopeful that the lottery can be passed soon so that the issue isn’t put off until next May when legislators return to Raleigh. The House passed a lottery bill in April, and the state budget passed two weeks ago made changes to the way future lottery proceeds could be spent on early childhood education, school construction, and college scholarships.

Supporters and education groups across the state are trying to find at least one additional senator who will vote for the lottery and have been lobbying them hard. Some parliamentary maneuvering late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning nearly resulted in a lottery vote when Sen. Garwood (R-Wilkes) was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, leaving the chamber potentially tied, with the Lieutenant Governor poised to break the tie. Sen. Basnight thought better of it, and should be commended for such. Senators who are being targeted are: Martin Nesbitt (D-Buncombe), Janet Cowell (D-Wake), Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg), Charlie Albertson (D-Duplin), Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange), Harry Brown (R-Onslow), John Garwood (R-Wilkes) and Richard Stevens (R-Wake).

Greetings From Raleigh 8-26-05

Members of the House of Representatives worked many long hours and got very little sleep this week as we sought to wrap up this year’s legislative session, which began in late January. Lawmakers came back to Raleigh on Monday afternoon and worked past midnight, started back at 8:30 Tuesday morning and worked non-stop through the day and night until shortly after 4 am early Wednesday morning when we recessed for several hours before starting back at 2 pm for four more hours of work and meetings. House members were back at work on Thursday morning for session.

The House leadership said all week that it wanted to finish the remaining work as soon as possible, but would devote the necessary time needed for adequate debate and votes on such important issues as identity theft protections, preventing and punishing gang violence activity, our state’s hit and run law, tax credits for renewable energy sources and historic mill rehabilitation, and lobbying reform.

The House is expected to give final approval next week to legislation that seeks to reduce meth labs across the state by increased regulation of cold medicines, which are used to make the illegal and highly addictive drug, and increasing criminal penalties. Legislators must also complete work on the usual end of session bills such as the adjournment resolution, the technical corrections bill, which makes changes or clarifications to previously passed legislation, and the studies bill, which lists potential committees that will meet during the interim before the start of next year’s session.

The House will be back in session on Monday night at 7 pm as we try to finalize the remaining bills before adjourning for the year.
As I’ve said many times before, 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

Post Note: Pieces posted for 8/26/05 were posted late due to Jay was away on vacation. Sorry for the delay.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Miscellaneous 08-19-05

Several of my bills were before the Senate last week. HB 217, Stephen’s Law, was approved by the Senate last week and will be before the House on Monday. The bill was amended in conference to limit liability for hit and run charges only to drivers and passengers who become drivers. The bill had been bogged down with concerns about other passengers being held responsible for hit and run, when a passenger might not have any control over a decision to flee the scene of an accident. The bill makes it quite clear that criminal liability is limited to drivers and passengers who become drivers.
I also sponsored a bill that would make North Carolina’s lemon law more consumer friendly (HB 1295). This bill was approved by the Senate last week and is on its way to the governor for signature.
HB 1398, which would provide for the automatic opportunity to expunge one’s criminal record upon receipt of a pardon of innocence, was also approved by the Senate last week and is on its way to the Governor as well.

UNC System To Study Tuition

Following discussion by the State Senate over the last few months on the issue of giving UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State greater authority to set their own tuition rates, the University of North Carolina system has announced a new effort to study the financial needs of its 16 campuses and recommend changes in tuition policy.
Brad Wilson, Chair of the UNC Board of Governors, appointed a task force and asked the group to make recommendations by October. The group will take a look at all campuses, Wilson said, but will focus on the “unique complexities that a shrinking resource base poses for UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State.”
The move Thursday was a direct response to a Senate budget proposal to give the system’s two primary research campuses broader authority to raise tuition without going through the Board of Governors. The idea, pushed by Senate leader Marc Basnight and a political action committee of prominent UNC-CH supporters, created a fierce outcry from system advocates, former UNC presidents and four former governors, who warned that the move could undermine and weaken the state’s 16-campus public university system. The proposal died when it encountered strong opposition in the House, and therefore was not included in the final budget agreement, which was passed this week by the legislature.

Legislature To Hold Joint Session On Superintendent Race

House Speaker Jim Black has said that the Legislature will hold a special joint session on Tuesday, August 23, 2005, to determine who should lead the state’s education department. Last November’s race between Democrat June Atkinson and Republican Bill Fletcher for the State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction is the only remaining undecided race in the nation for a statewide or federal post. Atkinson leads Fletcher by 8,535 votes out of more than 3.3 million ballots cast last fall, but Fletcher has challenged the legality of thousands of ballots, which has further delayed a final decision. The state constitution gives the Legislature authority to decide such contested elections, so the House and Senate will meet in a rare joint session to hear from the Joint Contested Elections Committee before making a final decision on the winner. The 10-member, bi-partisan joint legislative committee recommended that the victory go to Atkinson earlier this week in its final meeting.

Vaccine Saftey

The House Health Committee approved a bill last week that would restrict the use of vaccines that contain a mercury-based preservative. The measure also would prohibit administering flu vaccines containing thimerosal to children ages 6 months to 35 months and pregnant women. Thimerosal is currently at the center of a nationwide debate concerning the safety and possible side effects of such vaccines. Parents of some autistic children and some researchers argue that vaccinations that contain thimerosal are the cause of developmental disabilities in children. State officials and some doctors have argued that no conclusive evidence that exposure to thimerosal is harmful. The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Car Registrations And Fees

The General Assembly has given final approval to a bill that would allow automobile owners to pay their property taxes and the license tax renewal fee at the same time. The legislation, House Bill 1779, now goes to the Governor for his signature. The measure will help cities, counties, and fire districts collect approximately $80 million a year in taxes that usually go unpaid. The bill instructs the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Revenue to upgrade computer programs so that the work can be completed jointly. The change will not take effect until 2009. Currently there is a months-long lag between the tag renewal and the property tax bill.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth), said that the bill should save cities and counties $8 million a year in postage by reducing the number of past-due notices that are mailed. Gloria Whisenhunt, the chairwoman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, told the House Finance Committee that one-third of auto owners across the state do not pay their vehicle property taxes on time. Another person stated that tax collectors statewide collect 86 percent of the property taxes due on cars.

New ATV Regulations Approved To Keep Kids Safe

The General Assembly has given its final approval to new minimum age requirements for operating all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), which would keep children under 8 from driving the popular four-wheelers. The House approved the compromise measure late last week and the Senate voted 32-15 in favor of the bill that would remove North Carolina from a handful of states with virtually no operating restrictions for ATVs. The bill, SB 189, now goes to Gov. Mike Easley to be signed into law. The new rules would bar children under 8 from operating an ATV, while children ages 8 to 15 would be limited to driving models with engines of less than 90 cubic centimeters. Most ATV drivers also would have to complete a safety course and follow equipment and driving standards. There would be some exceptions for certain individuals, including hunters and farmers. Children born on or before Aug. 15, 1997, would still be able to operate larger vehicles if a parent can prove they or a guardian owned the ATV before Aug. 15 of this year. The provision is meant to guarantee that families who already have purchased ATVs are not penalized.

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 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.

Increasing Voter Turnout & Confidence

The General Assembly has given final approval to legislation, which would let voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro cast ballots at locations of their choosing. The legislation, 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 General Assembly also gave final approval on Thursday to Senate Bill 223 which will permit only three types of voting methods in North Carolina and also agreed on how to disburse government grants to help pay for machine upgrades. The measure, developed after Carteret County electronic voting machines lost 4,438 ballots in last November’s election, also requires state election officials to hand out more than $36 million in grants to meet new standards. During the 2006 elections, voting in North Carolina only will occur in the form of optical scan ballot machines, electronic recording machines or paper ballots counted by hand. Electronic machines will have to provide a paper copy of a voter’s ballot, which could be corrected by the voter before they are recorded. Counties only will be able to purchase machine brands that have been certified by the State Board of Elections.
The House amended the Senate edition by laying out a formula by which federal and state grant money will be given to all 100 counties to meet the standards. As many as 88 counties may have to buy or upgrade machines. Bill supporters say the amounts should be enough for most counties to purchase the least expensive optical scan machines. If they want to buy more expensive electronic machines, they’ll have to pay the difference.
The bill also will allow the State Board of Elections to experiment during the 2006 elections with alternatives to a paper record of a ballot. That may include audio playbacks of a voter's choice or a photographic image of an electronic ballot.
Elections officials also will perform sample hand recounts statewide and compare totals to ensure voting systems are accurate. The Carteret County mistake occurred when a vendor failed to change a setting on a group of electronic machines used in early voting. The lost ballots threatened to require election officials to call a new statewide election in the close agriculture commissioner’s race.

Open Records: Let The Sun Shine In

The State House voted unanimously to approve legislation that ensures government lawyers will not have to reveal all of their strategies before a trial, and allows the public to challenge the protection of the records under the provision. Senate Bill 856, which returns to the Senate for concurrence, also ensures that judges have discretion when deciding whether to award attorney's fees in such cases. Judges could consider whether the government agency had “substantial justification” to deny access to public records or that circumstances made the award of attorney’s fees “unjust.” Said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange: “It creates a presumption in favor of the plaintiff in terms of getting attorney's fees instead of the other way around, which is the way it was before.”

The House also approved House Bill 393, which would require the N.C. Department of Commerce to release public records of its negotiations with companies within 25 days after a plant or project is announced. It would also require local governments to provide records once a specific location for a project is announced. “This is a good-government bill that will provide the information and sunshine that the public wants and deserves about economic-incentive programs in our state,” said Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake.

Lobbying Reform Advances In House

Late last week the House overwhelmingly approved legislation that would close a loophole that currently allows lobbyists to spend money on trips, meals and gifts for legislators without disclosing it as long as no specific legislation is discussed. House Majority Leader Joe Hackney (D-Orange), who introduced a lobbying reform bill in the House earlier this session (House Bill 6), offered a committee substitute to Senate Bill 612, which has already passed the Senate. The new version of the reform bill would require lobbyists and their principals to report any expenditure over $10. The disclosure reports would have to be filed monthly for legislative lobbyists while the General Assembly is in session and quarterly at other times. By a vote of 52-51, the House trimmed the time period that former lawmakers would have to wait before lobbying the legislative or executive branch of government until 60 days after they leave office instead of the proposed one year following the conclusion of the member’s term. The bill now returns to the Senate, which has already passed a lobbying bill that capped spending on individual legislators at $100 annually, but was less strict when it came to reporting and disclosure and included several broad exceptions, which could present additional problems in the future. Advocates for lobbying reform are encouraging the Senate to approve the stronger disclosure bill, which passed the House. The bill has been stalled by concerns raised by the Department of Commerce with regard to the bill’s impact on business recruitment efforts. Advocates are pushing hard for a resolution before the General Assembly adjourns.

The Innocence Commission

The House voted 80-23 in favor of legislation (House Bill 1323), which would establish an independent commission to review the innocence claims of convicted felons. A task force examining the state’s criminal justice system recommended the formation of the panel earlier this year. The task force was formed in part because of the murder case of Darryl Hunt, who spent 18 years in prison for the slaying of a Winston-Salem woman before DNA evidence exonerated him. If the measure is approved by the Senate and signed into law, the state Supreme Court chief justice and the chief judge of the state Appeals Court would choose the eight-member panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission members would review claims and send the case on to a three-judge Superior Court panel if five of the eight members agreed. Charges would be dismissed if all three judges determine there “is clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant is innocent. A split decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court. The bill is now before the Senate for consideration, although it appears unlikely that the chamber will get to the bill before the short session.

Health Care Tax Credit, Small Businesses/Increase In Minimum Wage

The House passed legislation that will provide a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees and increase the state’s minimum wage. The legislation, HB 20, combined the two issues and the bill sponsors, Reps. Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson) and Alma Adams (D-Guilford) argued the bill would help our state’s workers and small business owners, while ensuring better access to health care for more North Carolinians.

First, the bill would provide a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees, which business leaders have said is one of the biggest expenses that they continue to struggle to meet for their employees. Rep. Holliman said that we are all looking for ways to help our small businesses with less than 25 employees grow and prosper and this bill accomplishes this goal. The National Federal of Independent Businesses supports this tax credit, but opposes the combination bill. An amendment offered by Minority Leader Joe Kiser (R-Lincoln), which doubled the credit, was approved by the chamber.

Secondly, the bill would increase the state’s minimum wage to $6.00 per hour. The national minimum wage of $5.15 has not increased since 1997 and inflation has eroded 14 percent of its buying power since then, supporters argued. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. now have minimum wages greater than $5.15, and Florida recently raised its minimum wage to $6.15, indexed to inflation, which resulted from a 2004 ballot initiative that was approved by 71 percent and passed in every county.

The 85-cent increase is a compromise on a previous bill, which originally sought to increase the wage to $8.50 by 2007, but in June, was scaled back to $6.15 over the next year. The N.C. Budget and Tax Center said that modest increases in the minimum wage would have minimal or no impact on employment in the state despite opponents’ claims stating otherwise.

There have been approximately 20 wage increases over the past 67 years and supporters argued with opponents of the bill and said no evidence exists that prove that an increase leads to lost jobs. According to the census bureau, there are approximately 101,000 North Carolinians (3% of our state’s total workforce) making minimum wage or approximately $10,700 per year, and roughly half are breadwinners of a family and do not receive other state assistance such as Medicaid to help with expenses. Of these workers, three-fourths are 20 years and older, which includes 51.8% who are over 25 years old.

On the Senate side, a committee agreed last week to raising the state’s minimum wage to $6 per hour, but in a different way. The Senate instead included the wage increase as part of a tax package that would also reduce corporate and income tax rates, raise the cigarette by another nickel a pack, rework personal income deductions, and not provide the tax credit for small businesses. The House does not support a tax cut for our state’s wealthiest individuals and corporations as the Senate is proposing at this time.

Greetings From Raleigh 8-19-05

Last week’s newsletter and blog post covered the budget, and this week’s will cover other substantive legislation which the House and Senate considered last week. It has been a light week this week because many legislators are at a national conference in Seattle, so there were no committee meetings or votes in the House. I took the time to work on some bills that are still pending and to propose some studies that may occur in the interim between the sessions.

The House will be back in session on Monday at 5 pm with 72 bills on the calendar.
As I’ve said many times before, 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, August 12, 2005

Highlights Of The Spending Plan

* EDUCATION
The budget provides $9.48 billion for education, which is a 2.73% or $250 million increase over last year's education budget. The budget funds education at our state's K-12 schools, community colleges and universities, including additional funding to cover the more than 35,000 new students who will show up at our schools in a few weeks for the new school year. Legislators dedicated close to $80 million to address the on-going Leandro school funding lawsuit, which will provide additional funding to low wealth schools districts, disadvantaged students, high school reforms, school-based family support teams, and teacher recruitment. The budget includes $100 million for ABC bonuses for teachers, in addition to a pay raise of approximately 2.24%, and fully funds teacher assistant positions. More than $3.2 million is provided to expand Governor Mike Easley's "Learn and Earn" program, which allows students the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma and a college degree after just five years of study. And, if the Senate passes the House lottery bill, funding from the proceeds would be invested in school construction, early childhood education, and college scholarships.

* HEALTH CARE
The budget provides more than $4 billion in funding for health care for children, folks who are blind, disabled or elderly, and restores many of the previously proposed cuts in the original Senate budget. Legislators provided funding to ensure 65,000 aged, blind and disabled North Carolinians and 30,000 children will continue to be covered by Medicaid. Children ages 0-5 currently covered by Health Choice will be moved to Medicaid, which will bring the total projected enrollment to approximately 200,000 children over the next three years. The North Carolina Senior Care prescription drug program, which currently covers 120,000 seniors, will receive $10 million. Approximately 3,200 additional children will be enrolled in the state's More at Four pre-kindergarten program. The budget also includes $10 million for the Mental Health Trust Fund and slightly more than $981,000 to hire new inspectors to ensure compliance with the new requirement that all group homes across the state must be inspected annually.

* TEACHERS & STATE EMPLOYEES SALARIES AND BENEFITS
Public school teachers will receive an average 2.24% salary increase. The budget also sets aside additional funding that could be used by the Governor, after consultation with the Legislature, to raise teacher salaries closer to the national average. Community college faculty and professional staff would receive an additional 2% pay raise. State employees will receive a pay raise of 2% or $850, whichever is greater, and an additional week of paid vacation. Legislators also raised the minimum wage requirement for all state employees to at least $20,112.

* ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVES
The budget makes numerous investments in job creation efforts and provides much-needed funding for programs that help attract new jobs to North Carolina, including: 1) $4.5 million in additional funds for the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program, which since 2003 has helped create more than 10,000 new jobs and $1.9 billion in investment; 2) $6 million for the One North Carolina Fund, which since 2001 has helped create more than 17,000 new jobs and $2 billion in investment; and 3) $20 million for the North Carolina Rural Center, which has helped create thousands of new jobs in rural communities and update water systems.

The budget also includes $9 million for the Wilmington and Morehead City ports, $1 million in new funds for community college Small Business Centers, and $2.65 million for customized industry training, which will help employees and companies remain competitive in an ever-changing economy.

* JUSTICE AND PUBLIC SAFETY
The budget provides more than $1.7 billion in funding for public safety programs including efforts to reduce gang violence, meth labs and internet/computer security crimes across our state, and additional funding for our state's SBI crime lab's ability to effectively process DNA evidence and keep track of the evidence in the state's DNA database.

* LOTTERY
The House approved a separate lottery bill in April, which must pass the Senate in order to create the numbers game in North Carolina. The budget made several changes to the way future lottery proceeds would be used to fund education programs in our state, including:
1. 5% of revenues off the top would be placed in the "Education Lottery Reserve Fund," which could be tapped if lottery profits do not meet expectations in a bad year. The reserve would be capped at $50 million.
2. Of the remaining funds: 50% would go toward early childhood initiatives (More at Four pre-kindergarten program; class-size reduction, Leandro/low-wealth school districts); 40% would be used for public school construction; and the remaining 10% for scholarships for financially needy community college and university students. The school construction funds would be allocated in the following way - 65% according to ADM and 35% to counties that have property taxes that exceed the state average (see chart for county funding levels). Any "overage" in the expected annual lottery proceeds would be split evenly between scholarships and school construction.

With regard to the operations of a lottery, advertising would be extremely limited, with a cap on advertising of 1% or less of total proceeds, and ads could not target minors or specific groups, must include resources for responsible gaming, and must mention the odds of winning. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, North Carolina would have the strictest lottery advertising restrictions in the nation.

The Lottery Commission would also be required to provide information to the public about gambling addiction and treatment. $1 million per year for such addiction education and treatment would be available.

* REVENUE
Legislators had hoped that the economy would recover so the temporary taxes that were passed in 2001 at the height of the recession could end. However, budget writers decided this revenue is needed for the next biennium to continue the funding level for education and health care programs. The budget calls for maintaining for this biennium the current half cent sales tax, as well as the tax on the wealthiest individuals in our state who make over $120,000 per year.

The cigarette tax will increase from its current level of 5 cents per pack, which is the lowest in the nation, to 35 cents by next July. This would occur in two phases: the tax would increase by 25 cents on September 1, 2005 and by another 5 cents on July 1, 2006. This increase represents a compromise between the House and Senate budget proposals on the cigarette tax and is much less than the Governor's request for a 45-cent increase.

Candy, satellite, telephone, satellite radio, and liquor will be taxed at 7%. (Liquor is currently taxed at 6%, satellite at 5%, phone service at 6%, and candy was previously exempted.) Cable will be taxed at 7%, with a credit for local franchise tax paid (5%). The entertainment/movie tax will remain the same and not increase. The tax on HMOs will increase to 1.9% in an effort to equalize similar taxes.

The budget also includes a tax credit for film companies in an effort to increase the number of films, televisions shows and commercials shot in North Carolina.

The complete budget (Senate Bill 622, proposed Conference Committee Substitute) can be found on the N.C. General Assembly's website at: www.ncleg.net.



Guilford County Budget Items

NC A&T Matching Funds, $1,089,000
Focused Growth Campus Funds, $146,428
NC A&T Arts Center Planning Funds, $25,000
Black Child Development Institute of Greensboro, $10,000
Greensboro Lifeskills Center, $10,000
Carl Chavis YMCA of High Point, $13,000
Faith Matters, $5,000
Funds for a new Heritage Tourism Officer for the Piedmont-Triad area
United Arts Council of Greensboro, $25,000
African-American Atelier, $12,000
Guilford NAA Cultural Funds, $10,000
Triad Stage, $125,000
Greensboro Symphony Society, $50,000
ACC Hall of Champions, $2 million
Sit-in Movement - renovation funds for Museum, $500,000
Salary increases for employees of NCSU and NC A&T, $4 million
Funds to promote NC furniture industry including the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point, $750,000

Greetings From Raleigh 8-12-05

I am happy to report that we have a state budget for the 2005-07 biennium. Final approval to a $17.2 billion spending plan came after weeks of negotiations between the House and Senate. The budget bill, SB 622, provides much-needed funding for education, health care, and public safety, all of which are vitally important to improving our state's economy and creating new jobs. The House gave its initial approval of the budget on Tuesday night by a vote of 60-59 and final approval on Wednesday afternoon with a vote of 61-59. Senate approval came on Wednesday along party lines, 28-20, and on Thursday by a vote of 28-20.

The final budget agreement provides much-needed funding for our state's K-12 schools, community colleges and universities and restores Medicaid and public safety cuts that were included in the original Senate budget, which was passed in May. This week's passage of the two-year spending plan marks the end of the budget process in the legislature, which began several months ago. We must still complete work on numerous other pieces of legislation before adjourning for the year in the next week or two.

In addition to the budget, several major pieces of legislation were approved by the House yesterday. They included lobbying reform, voter verifiable paper trails, and the establishment of an Actual Innocence Commission, the first of its kind in the United States and modeled on a United Kingdom program. I will report in more detail next week on these and other items still in play.

As always, it continues to be an honor and a privilege to represent you in Raleigh.

Cheers,
Pricey

Friday, August 05, 2005

New Prescription Drug Program For The Uninsured

This week the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) kicked off its North Carolina campaign to inform citizens of the hundreds of opportunities available to them to save money on prescription drugs. PPA, an alliance of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, patient advocates and other health-care providers, was designed to help the uninsured and underinsured obtain medicine at a lower cost.

People seeking relief from the high cost of prescription drugs can call a toll-free number or visit a website and - after answering a short list of questions - find out about programs for which they are eligible. Once the inquiry has been processed, patients can begin saving money on prescription drugs in as little as two weeks.

To find out more about this program, visit the partnership's website at www.pparxnc.com or call 1-888-477-2669.

Reducing Gang Violence

State legislators, law enforcement officers and local elected officials from across the state held a press conference on Wednesday to discuss the growing problem of gang violence and possible action to take to reduce the criminal activity in our communities. I co-sponsored House Bill 50, the Street Gang Prevention Act.

Rep. Mickey Michaux (D-Durham), who chaired the House Select Committee on Gang Violence Prevention prior to the start of the 2005 General Assembly, introduced the legislation, House Bill 50, to combat gang violence by creating additional felonies and stiffer penalties for gang members. It also seeks $20 million for gang prevention initiatives and $150,000 for a statewide database of criminal gang members. The House budget provided $3 million in grants that would be provided to community organizations with prevention programs.

The Governor's Crime Commission recently released a report, which found 387 gangs in North Carolina with 8,517 members last year. This statistic 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. Federal officials also announced earlier this week that they had made 582 arrests across the nation, including 77 in North Carolina, during its "Operation Community Shield" sweep of violent gangs. North Carolina led other states in the number of arrests, including 18 in the Charlotte region, 34 in Raleigh and 25 in Winston-Salem.

Specialty Beer Coming To North Carolina

The Legislature has approved a bill to raise the maximum alcohol content of beer that could be sold in North Carolina. The bill will allow a broader ranger of specialty beers in the state and should create new jobs. The House passed the legislation (House Bill 392) in April, the Senate approved the measure on Wednesday, and it now goes to the Governor for his signature.

Currently, North Carolina is one of six states in the nation that has a low alcohol content requirement. Microbreweries and beer aficionados have lobbied for the measure, which would allow beers above the current 6 percent alcohol limit to be brewed or sold commercially in the state and could create new jobs in the specialized industry. Beers with alcohol content over 6 percent would be clearly labeled. More than a third of the world's beer types have been unavailable in North Carolina because of the limit on alcohol content.

Supporters of the legislation said that it would expand the number of specialty brews that could be sold here, not tempt problem drinkers to imbibe more powerful beer. Opponents said it would offer a stronger, more dangerous option for young people who are prone to binge drinking; however, given the unique and sometimes bitter taste of the beer, as well as the estimated $4-8 cost per beer, it is highly unlikely that young people would make this choice. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) remained neutral on the bill, which garnered bi-partisan support.

Roads and Bridges

The Legislature has given final approval to a measure that would triple the number of potential toll-road projects in North Carolina and attempt to speed up construction of two coastal bridges. The House approved Senate changes to House Bill 253, which would allow nine toll projects to be considered by the North Carolina Turnpike Authority. Also, the state could create a private toll road bridge, likely connecting mainland Currituck County to the northern Outer Banks. Another provision of the bill would accelerate construction of a replacement for the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which crosses Oregon Inlet. The measure now awaits the Governor's signature.

House Combines Car Registrations and Tax Payments

The House approved a bill on Thursday that would allow automobile owners to pay their property taxes and their license tag renewal at the same time. The bill, House Bill 1779, should result in the collection of $80 million a year in taxes that go unpaid. Currently there is a months-long lag between the tag renewal and the property tax bill. The measure would require the DMV and the N.C. Department of Revenue to develop an integrated computer system by 2009 so that vehicle property-tax bills and registration-renewal forms could be mailed as a single bill.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth), said that the bill should save cities and counties $8 million a year in postage by reducing the number of past-due notices that are mailed. Gloria Whisenhunt, Chairwoman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, told the House Finance Committee that one-third of auto owners across the state do not pay their vehicle property taxes on time. Another person stated that tax collectors statewide collect 86 percent of the property taxes due on cars.

DMV officials reported to fiscal analysts for the General Assembly that reworking the DMV's computer systems to allow for joint billing could cost as much as $304 million. However, legislative analysts noted that DMV computer software would need to be rewritten in the next few years regardless. To help pay for the new system, the bill would raise interest charges on unpaid local property-tax bills on vehicles from 2 percent to 5 percent for the first month after taxes are due. Analysts estimate that the change would raise $6.7 million a year.

Increasing Voter Turnout 8-05-05

The House gave final approval on Thursday to legislation that 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 mostly along party lines, and sent back to the Senate, which passed a somewhat different version of the measure, so a compromise will have to be reached. The Guilford County Board of Elections is interested in participating in such a pilot project and we are working to get them included in the experiment.

Smoking In Restaurants

A House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved legislation on Thursday to restrict smoking in North Carolina restaurants. Under the proposal, if a restaurant wants to provide a smoking area for its customers, it cannot exceed 25% of the dining room and must be separate and apart from the main dining area. The smoking restrictions would not apply to restaurants with a seating capacity of 50 people or less. The bill would also prohibit minors from working in the smoking areas of restaurants without signed written permission of the minor's parent or guardian.

Smoking Ban In Prisons 8-05-05

North Carolina would ban smoking inside prisons under Senate Bill 1130, which received final approval by the House on Thursday. Superintendents in at least 51 of the state's 76 prisons already bar indoor smoking by prisoners and Correction Department employees. The remaining prisons would have to prohibit smoking by Jan. 1, 2006 if the bill is signed into law. 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 to the General Assembly on how it was implemented. The officials also would tell lawmakers by early 2007 about the feasibility of banning tobacco at all prisons. The state would also provide optional programs to help staff and prisoners quit smoking. The Senate already passed a similar version.

Improve Enviornmental Enforcment

A bill that would strengthen enforcement for environmental violations passed House Finance on a very tight voice vote last Thursday. HB1283, Improve Environmental Enforcement, Bill Culpepper (D-Chowan), raises penalties for violations of the Sedimentation Pollution Control Act, Coastal Area Management Act, Solid Waste Management Act, and Wastewater Systems Act(pdf file). It also allows the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to recover investigative costs, and authorizes DENR to require violators to take environmental educational courses or perform community service in lieu of or in addition to paying fines. Additionally, the bill authorizes DENR to undertake a 4-year pilot program to retain actual costs of collection. Under the North Carolina Constitution, public schools receive all fines and penalties collected by the State, minus the department's cost of collection, which in DENR's case has been limited to10% regardless of the actual cost of enforcement, which is often higher than the payment received.

Predictably, several interests spoke against the bill. Paul Wilms, Homebuilder's Association, said developers were concerned about the steep increase in fines and the granting of authority to DENR to prescribe education or service in lieu of fines, which, he said, was a power traditionally reserved to the courts. He did acknowledge some changes to the bill which helped him "feel better about it," including limiting the number of statutes under which a developer could be fined - for instance, a developer could be fined under either the Sedimentation or Coastal statutes, but not both. Mac Boxley, NC Aggregates Association and John Long, Martin Marietta, echoed Wilms' concerns. Boxley said the bill would have a "chilling effect on efforts to attract and retain quality businesses." (Though if they're quality, they shouldn't have anything to worry about, right?) Leanne Winner, NC School Boards Association, objected to the pilot funding project, saying she has offered to work with DENR on a more limited pilot. Robin Smith, DENR, spoke for the bill, saying the pilot will enable the agency to collect more fines - 30% currently go uncollected - thus benefiting schools, and that fines need to be raised to deter violations.

Among committee member debate, Rep. Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) said the bill could bankrupt small companies and "drive up the cost of road building" - unwittingly making the argument for the bill that violations are currently commonplace. Rep. Curtis Blackwood (R-Union) complained there had been no stakeholder involvement and the bill was "unilaterally ramming something down their throats." Russell Capps (R-Wake) called the bill "extremely radical." Rep. Pryor Gibson (D-Anson) noted that stakeholders have had plenty of time to weigh in, and added, "I have no sympathy for anybody that intentionally violates environmental laws in our state." Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake) defended the bill, noting that sedimentation is the number one cause of water pollution in North Carolina, and increased penalties are needed "so it is not just the cost of doing business to violate these laws."

Health Care Tax Credit, Small Businesses/Minimum Wage Increase

The House Finance Committee passed legislation on Thursday that will provide a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees and increase the state's minimum wage. The legislation, House Bill 20, combined the two issues and the bill sponsors, Reps. Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson) and Alma Adams (D-Guilford) argued the bill would help our state's workers and small business owners, while ensuring better access to health care for more North Carolinians.

First, the bill would provide a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees, which business leaders have said is one of the biggest expenses that they struggle to meet for their employees. Representative Holliman said that we are all looking for ways to help our small businesses with less than 25 employees grow and prosper and this bill accomplishes this goal.

Secondly, the bill would increase our state's minimum wage to $6.00 per hour. The national minimum wage of $5.15 has not increased since 1997 and inflation has eroded 14 percent of its buying power since then, supporters argued. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C. now have minimum wages greater than $5.15. Florida recently raised its minimum wage to $6.15, indexed to inflation, which resulted from a 2004 ballot initiative that was approved by 71 percent and passed in every county.

The 85-cent increase is a compromise on a previous bill, which originally sought to increase the wage to $8.50 by 2007, but in June, was scaled back to $6.15 over the next year. The N.C. Budget and Tax Center said that modest increases in the minimum wage would have minimal or no impact on employment in the state despite opponents' claims stating otherwise.

There have been approximately 20 wage increases over the past 67 years and supporters argued that no evidence exists that proves an increase would lead to lost jobs. According to the census bureau, there are approximately 101,000 North Carolinians (3% of our state's total workforce) making minimum wage or approximately $10,700 per year. Roughly half of these people are family breadwinners and do not receive other state assistance such as Medicaid to help with expenses; three-fourths are 20 years and older, which includes 51.8% over 25 years old.

Budget Update 08-05-05

Legislators approved another stopgap spending measure on Thursday, which will keep state government operating for another week in lieu of a permanent budget for the next two years.

Negotiators seem to have reached agreement on the cigarette tax, pay raises for teachers and state employees, and a provision that would allow certain UNC campuses to set their own tuition rates.
The cigarette tax will increase by 25 cents a pack September 1, 2005 and another 5 cents July 1, 2006. The original House budget raised the tax 25 cents, the Senate, 35 cents. State employees will get a two percent raise or an $850 increase, whichever is greater, far less than the State Employees Association sought.

The budget will also include provisions to change the lottery bill the House passed earlier this session, removing many of the restrictions that were critical in garnering support from several House Democrats. The Senate will still have to vote on the lottery as separate legislation. Five Democrats remain opposed to the plan. Reportedly, Senate leaders have convinced one Republican to support the lottery, so it would pass even if all five Democrats voted against it.

Senate leaders decided to drop the UNC tuition provisions. The Senate had included the provision in its budget and continued to push the idea with campus trustees; however, almost all House Democrats, the UNC Board of Governors, campus chancellors, former governors, and other leaders from across the state are opposed to the idea, with many arguing that the policy change would harm the university system and governing board. Another troubling component of the proposal would have provided instate tuition for out of state scholarship recipients. The UNC campuses are heavily subsidized by North Carolina's taxpayers, hence the low tuition for in-state residents.

Other updates - Details on the revenue side of the budget are coming together and it doesn't appear as though taxes on entertainment or movies will increase. Consumers may pay slightly more for candy, liquor, and cable television. Liquor (currently taxed at 6 percent), satellite television (5 percent), and phone service (6 percent) all would increase to 7 percent as part of the agreement - thus an increase of a few cents on candy or a few dollars at most on the more expensive items. The three items were raised as part of a national agreement involving approximately 40 states to streamline or balance various taxes. The idea is to prompt Congress to pass legislation that would compel online retailers to collect sales taxes from customers in states where the retailer does not have a brick-and-mortar store - and thus allow North Carolina to collect these tax dollars to pay for items in the budget such as education or health care. Cable television also will be taxed at 7 percent, which would be the same as satellite, but cable providers would get credit for the franchise tax they pay to local governments, which is as much as 5 percent.

The two chambers have also resolved another significant problem that was discovered in the past week involving N.C. Health Choice, which is the health insurance program for families who do not qualify for Medicaid. A math error revealed that the state would run out of federal money to run the program sooner than expected, threatening the enrollment of 30,000 of the 140,000 children who receive the health insurance. Negotiators agreed to solve the problem by shifting enrolled children ages five and under to Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. The decision will save money by spending federal matching money for N.C. Health Choice more slowly and by reducing physician reimbursement rates.

I would also like to clarify some misinformation that is being spread around to educators and parents regarding teacher assistant positions. Some have stated in the past week that more than 2,000 positions could be cut, but this is inaccurate and I can assure you that we're continuing to try to put additional funding in the education budget. Furthermore, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) did not use all available funding from past budgets on these positions - more than $9.6 million in last year's budget and more than $8.1 million in the 2003-04 school year - so budget negotiators decided, based on recommendations by local superintendents, that the budget should provide adequate funding for the positions and the unnecessary funding would be shifted to other education programs. And, several superintendents across the state have been quoted in news articles saying that they were planning to hire even fewer teacher assistants than what is being proposed by the legislature.

Some critics have argued that the budget negotiations must wrap-up so the legislature can adjourn for the year, which was the reason that many Republicans voted against the extension to keep government running. The issues being discussed take time to resolve and it's better to take the time to get it right than to rush through the process. Even though North Carolina does not have session limits, as do some other states, our legislature continues to be one of the most efficient and least expensive in the nation with only six other states with lower operational expenses.

We remain committed to passing a good 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, pay raises for teachers and state employees, and adequate funding for environmental protection. We must meet the growing demands of our state and its people not balance the budget on the backs of those most in need.

Greetings From Raleigh 8-05-05

Greetings,

This was another busy legislative week in Raleigh. House and Senate members continued our work on the budget and other legislation that must pass before the end of the session. We're getting close to a final agreement on the budget and it is anticipated that we'll be able to get it wrapped up by early next week. Several other important topics were discussed in committee or on the House floor this week, including a tax credit for small businesses, an increase in the state's minimum wage, a ban on smoking in restaurants, and improved environmental enforcement.

REMINDER: SALES-TAX-FREE WEEKEND STARTS TODAY


As always, it continues to be an honor and a privilege to represent you in Raleigh

Cheers

Pricey