Friday, May 26, 2006

Memorial Day

Monday is Memorial Day – a day when we pay tribute to the brave men and women in uniform who have died serving our country in times of peace and in times of war. I hope we will remember to give thanks for their lives which have secured the rights and privileges we all enjoy as Americans.

Because of the Memorial Day holiday, the House will hold a short “skeleton” session on Monday night with no votes, and we’ll be back in full session again on Tuesday.

Please feel free to contact me about issues that concern you.



Visitors This Week At The Legislature

On Tuesday, folks from the N.C. Child Care Coalition visited my office during the Smart Start Annual Advocacy Day. Smart Start is designed to provide quality child care, child health care, and family support services for all children from birth to kindergarten to make sure that every child arrives at school healthy and ready to learn. North Carolina has one of the fastest growing populations of children age birth to five, so it is crucial to expand Smart Start Funding.

In addition to appeals for increased funding for Smart Start, the group also advocated for increasing funding for the Child Care Subsidy, T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Scholarships, and many other local projects throughout the state.

Tuesday was also the first “People of Color Justice and Unity Legislative Day” at the General Assembly. The coalition includes the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southerners for Economic Justice and the Triangle Urban League. The purpose of their advocacy day was to bring attention to the group’s goals which include raising the state’s minimum wage, help for small businesses, increased funding for the state Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, a two-year moratorium on the death penalty, and stiffer penalties for sex offenders.

On Wednesday, about 150 state employees converged on the General Assembly, seeking to end disparities in pay raises between rank-and-file workers, public school teachers, and others. Governor Mike Easley offered a 4 percent increase for most state employees, while the state Senate recommended 5 percent. But both Governor Easley and the Senate want public school teachers to have an 8 percent increase. State employees are backing a House bill that would increase all state employee salaries — including teachers — by 7 percent.

Wednesday was also Clean Water Lobby Day, and advocates from across the state lobbied lawmakers on issues ranging from well water protection and better management of our stormwater to better coastal management.

Push To Increase North Carolina's Minimum Wage Continues

The House gave its initial approval to legislation on Thursday that would increase the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour. House Bill 2174, which is sponsored by Reps. Alma Adams (D-Guilford), Jim Harrell (D-Surry), and Earl Jones (D-Guilford), was approved by a vote of 68 to 39. During Thursday’s debate on the bill, supporters also expressed the need to help small businesses across North Carolina grow and prosper, which could include providing a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees. Final passage of the minimum wage increase is expected on Tuesday.

Over half the states in the nation, including North Carolina, abide by the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, which was last increased in 1997. Workers making $5.15 an hour earn about $800 a month or $10,700 a year. An extra dollar an hour would add up to an extra $2,000 a year.

About 100,000 workers in North Carolina — 3 percent of the workforce — make less than $6 an hour. Minimum wage earners bring in about $893 each month. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have now raised the minimum wage above the federal level. Recently, Arkansas raised its minimum wage more than a dollar to $6.25 an hour.

Gas Tax Cap & Consumer Protections Against

House Representatives Lorene Coates (D-Rowan), Pryor Gibson (D-Anson), Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe), Alice Graham Underhill (D-Craven), and other House members held a press conference on Tuesday to announce the introduction of legislation that would cap the state’s gas tax at its current rate and provide additional consumer protections against price gouging. House Bill 2384 will be debated by the House Finance Committee in coming weeks.

Currently, the motor fuels tax in North Carolina has two parts: a flat tax and a variable tax that is adjusted two times a year based on the average wholesale price of gas. Since 1992, North Carolina law automatically increases the state’s gas tax when there is a substantial increase in the cost of fuel. With this proposed legislative cap, the rate could decrease but it will not go above current levels.

The bill also would expand the attorney general’s authority to examine whether a gas station has intentionally charged high prices. Current law allows those probes in times of disaster. The proposed change would make it easier to examine price gouging when the economic well-being of the public is being affected.

Other Bills I Have Introduced

HB 2389, AIDS Drug Assistance Program (with Reps Insko (D-Orange), Wright (D-New Hanover), and Glazier (D-Cumberland). This bill would provide $5million in funding for low income folks with AIDS and increase the eligibility requirement to 300% of the federal poverty level. Currently, if you make more than $11,800 a year, you cannot qualify for assistance for drugs that cost more than $13,000 a year, the lowest eligibility requirement in the nation. This bill would bring us up to the level of our neighboring states and provide the money for the additional recipients.

HB 2386, Public Health Integrated Automation Funds. At the request of our county health departments, Rep.Verla Insko (D-Orange) and I filed this bill to provide matching funds to our county health departments to upgrade their IT systems.

HB 2697, Increase Compulsory Education Age (with Reps. Fisher (D-Buncombe), Parmon (D-Forsyth), and Womble (D-Forsyth ), which would raise the compulsory age of education from 16-18. Our dropout rate is well above the average, and this bill would help address that issue.

HB 2499, Coltrane Music Hall Funds (I have signed on as a primary sponsor)

HB 2677, Freedom Monument to be constructed near the Capitol to memorializing the civil rights struggle (I have signed on as a primary sponsor).

Enviornmental Bills I Introduced This Week

HB 2493, (with Reps. Hill (D-Columbus), Brubaker (R-Randolph), and Underhill (D-Craven), and 83 cosponsors), will provide funding for the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. We are losing farmland faster than 46 others states, and this bill would make it easier for farmers to stay in the business of farming, by increasing the opportunities for conservation easements, the transfer of development rights, promoting sustainable farming practices, and other options.

HB 2676, (with Reps. Tucker (D-Duplin) and Wright (D-New Hanover) and HB 2784 (with Reps. Justice (R-Pender) and Wright (D-New Hanover), both of which are intended to phase out hog lagoons, an unhealthy and environmentally destructive way of handling hog waste. We have superior and healthier technologies to the current systems, and we must convert to them. HB2676 would also impose a 6 year moratorium on new hog farms.

HB 2812, the Energy Future Act (with Reps. Luebke (D-Durham), Insko (D-Orange), and Fisher (D-Buncombe). This bill, which would require the state to study a more sustainable energy future, would also take into account considerations of public health and environmental impacts as well as demand reduction through energy efficiencies and renewables.

HB 2814, Shellfish Protection Programs (with Reps. Underhill (D-Craven), Wainwright (D-Craven), and Justice (R-Pender), and similar to HB1569 filed last year). This bill would provide funding and several additional positions at the Division of Marine Fisheries and Sea Grant to continue our progress at bringing back our shellfish industry. Oyster production has plummeted in the past century, but we have turned a corner, and are more strategic about protecting sensitive and productive areas.

HB 2185, CAMA Civil Penalties (with Reps. Wilkins (D-Person), Luebke (D-Durham), and Justice (R-Pender). This bill would raise the cap on fines associated with violations of the Coastal Management Act from $250 to $2000 for a minor incident, and from $2,500 to $20,000 for major development violations. This has been a priority of the Coastal Resources Commission (on which I sat) for years. It is now much cheaper to violate the rules than comply with them..

HB 2624, Underground Storage Tank Program Funds, (with Reps. Gibson (D-Anson), Owens (D-Pasquotank), and Warren (D-Pitt).This bill appropriates $15,000,000 from the General Fund to the Commercial Leaking Petroleum Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund (Commercial Fund) to help cover the shortfall in funding for cleanups of UST sites in the State and to facilitate the transition to reliance on private insurance. In addition, the bill appropriates $100,000 from the Commercial Fund to DENR to cover increased program operating costs and the cost of any legislative salary increases for UST Section personnel. I have been contacted by several constituents with tanks needing removal, but there has been a shortfall of funding and consequently a backlog for years.

HB 2322, Fund Stream Mapping, (with Reps. Gibson (D-Anson), Justice (R-Pender), and Warren (D-Pitt). This bill appropriates $16,236,500 from the General Fund to DENR to implement the plan developed by the Geographic Information Coordinating Council to update and improve the maps for streams and surface waters in the State.

Protecting Our Enviornment

Reps. Lucy Allen (D-Franklin), Joe Hackney (D-Orange), William Wainwright (D-Craven), and Danny McComas (R-New Hanover) have sponsored a bill that seeks to place a bond referendum on the November 2006 ballot to provide for $1 billion for Land and Water Conservation Bonds to protect the state’s land, water, and special places before they are irreversibly lost. Proponents of House Bill 2827 say that money from the bonds could go to protect 60,000 miles of stream banks and flood plains, 50,000 acres of productive farmland, 25,000 acres of working forests, 35,000 acres of local parks and trails, 60,000 acres of state parks and trails, 150,000 acres of game lands, 350 historic landmarks, 3,000 acres with archeological interest, and 50,000 acres of land visible from scenic highways as well as trees in many urban areas.

State Budget Update: Senate Passes Budget

The Senate approved its $18.8 billion spending plan for next year on Wednesday and Thursday. All Senate Democrats and six Republicans backed a budget that would cut the state’s sales and income taxes while offering the largest raises for state employees and teachers in years. Senators spent most of this year’s budget surplus on education, mental health reforms, reserve funds for building repairs and natural disasters, salary increases for teachers and state employees, while phasing out a pair of “temporary” taxes that began during the recession several years ago. The budget also increases the state’s minimum wage by a dollar, caps the gasoline tax, beefs up the court system, and provides $105 million to improve mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services as a reform effort continues to treat more patients in their own communities. Democrats and Republicans also approved floor amendments to the budget bill that would require tougher rules on how mental health money is spent. In addition, an amendment to the budget bill would require the first government performance audit since 1992.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee have been working on the House version of the budget during the past several weeks and this work will pick up speed next week. House members hope to pass a budget during the third week of June.

Greetings From Raleigh 5-26-06

Members of the House Appropriations Committee continued working this week on its budget proposals for the new fiscal year, while members of the Senate gave final approval to their plan. In coming days, the House will step up its budget work so the differences between the two versions can be worked out and the budget passed by July 1st. In addition, legislators were busy again this week drafting and introducing new legislation on topics including education, improving and protecting our environment, capping the state’s gas tax, and many others.

Friday, May 19, 2006

County Commissioners Visit Legislature

On Wednesday, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners had their annual County Assembly Day at the legislature, and I was glad to see Commissioner Bruce Davis and County Manager Willie Best.

County commissioners continue to ask the state to provide Medicaid relief to the counties, which have seen dramatic increases in Medicaid recipients and resulting budget problems in recent years. Specifically, their goal is to cap county Medicaid costs at current levels, target additional relief to counties disproportionately affected by Medicaid costs, and to eventually permanently phase out counties in Medicaid participation. Several bills, which I support, have already been filed this session in the House to provide Medicaid relief.

I hope you find this information useful and that you’ll contact me about your views.



Legislative Initiatives

I introduced the following bills this week:

HB2185 Low-Emission Vehicles: This bill would require that cars sold in North Carolina have lower emissions of harmful pollutants than currently required. Cars contribute up to 30% of North Carolina’s smog forming pollution and up to 60% of airborne carcinogens. Eleven other states have adopted similar requirements.

HB2186 Private Drinking Water Wells/Local Well Programs: This bill would provide funding for testing and clean up of wells around known groundwater contamination hot spots. More than 2 million North Carolinians get their drinking water from small private wells.

HB2163 Underground Storage Tank Amendments: This bill would begin the process of transitioning the State from providing financial assurance for owners and operators of underground storage tanks to requiring owners and operators to obtain private financial assurance.

HB2166 Stormwater Management 2006: This bill would attempt to address pollution from stormwater runoff, which has become a major water quality problem in North Carolina, particularly in the rapidly developing areas of the State. The Environmental Management Commission has adopted several versions of stormwater management rules, which have been opposed by the development community. This bill proposes a negotiated settlement to the controversies surrounding stormwater management.

HB2187 Child Lead Poisoning/DENR Authority: This bill would clarify the authority of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources to protect children from exposure to dangerous levels of lead.

HB2192 Amend Solid Waste Franchise Statutes: This bill would require that local governments provide adequate public notice of award or renewal of franchise agreements governing proposed landfills. Proposals to construct and operate a number of large landfills in the State are pending. If these proposed landfills are permitted, the State could become a net importer of trash.

HB2125 Extend Climate Change Commission: This bill would extend the deadline for the Global Warming/Climate Change Commission’s report to the Legislature. The Commission has been working hard to tackle this enormous task and will need more time to develop its findings and recommendations.

HB2127 State Parks System Additions: This bill would authorize the addition of two new State parks to the State Parks System. One of the new additions would be located in Avery County; the other would be located along the border of Pender and Onslow Counties.

HB2072 and HB2073 would provide special license plates for EMTs and the NC Chapter of the American Lung Association, both of which were requested by constituents.

HB2212 Lottery Oversight Committee (referenced above)

I have also filed bills requesting funding for the following:

The Music Academy (H1918), Civil Rights Museum (H1946), Charlotte Hawkins Brown (H1947), Guilford Tech Classroom Construction (H1948), Land Loss Prevention Project (H2071), Community Based Correction (H2246)

Push To Control North Carolina's Minimum Wage Continues

On Monday afternoon, I attended a rally led by Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford), former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, and State Treasurer Richard Moore to promote an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour. Rep. Adams has advocated a minimum-wage increase for years and achieved success last year when the House passed legislation to increase the wage to $6 per hour.

Over half the states in the nation, including North Carolina, abide by the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. The national rate was last increased in 1997. Workers making $5.15 an hour earn about $800 a month or $10,700 a year. An extra dollar an hour would add up to an extra $2,000 a year.

About 100,000 workers in North Carolina — 3 percent of the workforce — make less than $6 an hour, according to State Treasurer Richard Moore. Minimum wage earners bring in about $893 each month. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have now raised the minimum wage above the federal level. Recently, Arkansas raised its minimum wage more than a dollar to $6.25 an hour.

Ensuring ALL Lottery Proceeds Go To Education

I joined 20 House Democrats at a news conference on Wednesday morning to discuss two bills they say will ensure that schools get as much money as possible from the new North Carolina Education Lottery. One proposal (HB 2212, Lottery Oversight Committee) would create a new lottery oversight board made up of legislators, educators and other public citizens to ensure that all lottery proceeds are used for education. I sponsored this bill along with Reps. Bernard Allen (D-Wake), Hugh Holliman (D-Davidson), and Bill Owens (D-Pasquotank). This oversight board will keep a close eye on education spending and will ensure that all lottery proceeds are dedicated to early childhood education, reducing class size, school construction, and college scholarships as the Legislature intended.

Another proposal (HB 1991, Tax on Lottery Winnings/Community College Equipment) would use the 7 percent withheld for state taxes from lottery winnings of $600 or more to buy equipment for community colleges. This would be keeping with the Legislature’s promise that all revenue from the lottery will go towards education. Bill sponsors Reps. Doug Yongue (D-Scotland), Joe Tolson (D-Edgecombe) and Maggie Jeffus (D-Guilford) said those withholdings could reach $15 million to $25 million annually.

Strengthening Legislative and Executive Branch Ethics

House members approved legislation this week that strengthen the ethics laws that legislators, the Governor, Council of State members, other executive branch officials, leaders of the University of North Carolina system and community colleges, and all voting members of all state boards and commissions must follow. The House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, on which I sit, recommended these changes to improve our state’s ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance laws. The measure would bar lawmakers and executive branch officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists and their principals, make it a felony to lie on their economic disclosure statements, and require ethics training for General Assembly members when they take office.

The two pieces of legislation now go to the Senate for consideration. The House Judiciary Committee, on which I sit, continues to make progress on eight other pieces of legislation dealing with these issues that will be before the full House for debate in the coming weeks.

Greetings From Raleigh 5-19-06

This second week of the session has been busy on numerous fronts. House members continued to work on legislation to bring more openness and transparency to our state government by reforming and strengthening our state’s ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance laws. Members of the House Appropriations Committee continued working on the state budget as senators worked to finalize their spending plan, possibly next week. We drafted and introduced new legislation on topics including the lottery, increasing the minimum wage, increasing competition among cable providers, economic development programs, health care and the state’s nursing shortage, and many others. I have also introduced legislation that will provide funding to a number of local efforts, as well as several bills relating to the environment and public health.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Legislative Work Ahead

Although we’ve only been in Raleigh for a few days, legislators already have a long “to-do” list – and it keeps growing by the day. As always during the short session, our biggest task will be passing the budget for the coming year. There are several stages in the budget process that will play out between now and the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. The Governor announced his budget plan on Tuesday, the Senate is expected to pass its spending plan prior to Memorial Day, and then the House will pass its version. After that, members of the House and Senate will work out the differences between the two spending plans and we will pass a final budget that sets funding levels for our schools, law enforcement, local and state governments, salaries for teachers and state employees, land and water conservation, etc.

Legislators received some good news recently – we won’t have to deal with a budget shortfall for the first time since the late 1990s; however, we still have enormous demands to meet and we will be faced with some difficult choices. We will have to find the resources to deal with the approximately 30,000 new students at our schools and the desperate need for thousands of new teachers, more cars on our roads, and soaring health care costs. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming weeks as we make progress on the budget.

We will also introduce legislation based on the work of the many study committees that have been meeting since last fall. The House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, on which I serve, has proposed at least ten bills which would strengthen ethics oversight of legislators, executive branch employees, and lobbyists. We are also proposing several reforms to campaign finance laws. In addition, The House Select Committee on Health Care has produced numerous pieces of legislation that will help reduce the number of uninsured people in our state, offer a tax credit to small businesses that offer health insurance to employees, and reform North Carolina’s mental health system.

I also plan to support legislation to increase our state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour; give our hard working teachers and state employees a seven percent pay raise; protect our children from child predators; reform our campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics laws; and continue to pursue a more sustainable state energy policy.

Representative Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) and members of the House Select Committee on Sex Offender Registration Laws filed a bill that would establish the North Carolina Sex Offender Watch Program. If voted into law, this bill would allow citizens to sign up to be notified by email if a sex offender moves into their neighborhood. The program would also provide a way for users to enter any address in the state and view a map of all adult sex offenders who live within a mile of that address. Committee members introduced another bill requiring GPS monitoring of those sex offenders who require the highest level of probation as part of their sentence – such as those convicted of offenses involving a minor. Several other important provisions comprise the bill and I will be glad to furnish additional information if you wish.

We have a lot of work ahead of us and I hope you will continue to tell me about the issues that matter most to you and your family, as well as your suggestions on how we can better prepare our state for the future.

I hope you find this information useful and that you'll contact me about your views.



Agenda For A Short Session

My colleagues in the House Democratic Caucus and I held a press conference Tuesday morning to announce our agenda for the short session. Our five-part Plan for a Secure Future calls on the Legislature to:

1. Provide the opportunity of a lifetime – a quality education;

2. Create jobs that foster strong, healthy, and more prosperous families;

3. Ensure our future by promoting the good health and safety of our citizens;

4. Take action when the federal government hasn’t; and

5. Inspire confidence in a state government that works for them.

I believe that investing in education is the most important thing we can do for our people and our economy, and that remains my #1 priority. I will work to substantially increase teacher pay, provide more money for education than ever before, and make sure lottery proceeds are only spent on education.

I believe our workers must make good wages and have health care benefits, and I will work to increase the state’s minimum wage and give state employees a long-deserved pay raise. And, I believe we should cap our state’s gas tax to give consumers some relief at the pump. We must demand that the President and Congress take action to rein in the billions of dollars in profits that the big oil and gas companies continue to rake in at our expense. And, we must pursue a course of a more sustainable energy policy.

Greetings From Raleigh 5-12-06

I realize it has been some time since I have sent out my legislative update or posted to my blog . Our long session adjourned in early September and in the interim, I was appointed to and served on the following study and standing committees: House Select Study Committee on Capital Punishment; House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform; Ethics Subcommittee on Campaign Finance/Reporting & Election Laws; House Select Committee on Complementary and Alternative Medicine; Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change; and The Environmental Review Commission. All except for the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform will continue their work after the short session adjourns.

The 2006 short session of the N.C. General Assembly began on Tuesday at noon and legislators hit the ground running. It is my hope that we can work together in a bipartisan way in order to get the people's business done in a timely manner, and if that happens, I believe we can adjourn for the year in early to mid-July.