Friday, June 23, 2006

Visitors At The Legislature This Week 6-23-06

On Tuesday, more than a hundred women participated in Women’s Advocacy Day, an annual event hosted by North Carolina Women United. At a morning news conference, the speakers urged lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, increase health care access for families, provide adequate funding for rape crisis centers, and pass lobbying reform. They also encouraged more women to become engaged in the political process. N.C. Women United is a nonprofit coalition of more than 40 organizations working to achieve equality for women in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Association of Realtors, Inc. visited the General Assembly on Wednesday to advocate for a strong real estate industry through an increase in the N.C. Housing Trust Fund and to oppose some provisions of the Senate stormwater management bill, meant to protect sensitive coastal waters. This will prove to be a major sticking point in the bill’s consideration.

The Apartment Association of North Carolina (pdf) came to discuss methamphetamine labs in rental housing and why legislation should be passed to prosecute the perpetrator in these crimes rather than any “responsible party” including the owner.

Joek Cheek Honored

While somewhat more subdued, but even more impressive, legislators on Thursday honored Greensboro native and Olympic medalist Joey Cheek, who won a gold medal in the 500 meter race and silver medal in the 1,000 meter race during the 2006 Winter Olympics. He won his first medal during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City by capturing the bronze for his third-place finish in the 1,000 meter event. Mr. Cheek became an international hero when he used his time before the world press after winning the gold medal to announce he would donate his winnings to help children in the war ravaged region of Darfur. He has traveled the world, to promote the “Right to Play” charity, which helps children in disadvantaged nations grow and develop through sports. Mr. Cheek inspired the chamber with a heartfelt speech.

General Assembly Honors Carrolina Hurricanes

The Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes were honored at the General Assembly on Wednesday by members of the House and Senate during a special joint session. Close to 30 Hurricanes players and Coach Peter Laviolette came into the House chamber to raucous applause following their second victory parade in as many days. Defenseman Bret Hedican got the biggest cheers — and a lot of camera flashes — when he raised the Stanley Cup over his head and placed it on the House dais beside of Speaker Jim Black. Carolina won the NHL title Monday night by beating the Edmonton Oilers 3-1 in the final game of a seven-game series, bringing the first big-league professional sports championship to North Carolina.

Enviornmental Issues

There hasn’t been much activity on the many environmental bills proposed this session and I fear that we are running out of time to take on any of these initiatives. The House Environment Committee did approve extending the deadline for a report and recommendations from the Global Climate Change Commission by 18 months. The committee also approved the addition of two new state parks, but no funding. A bill I had worked on with Reps. Joe Hackney (D-Orange), Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg), and Martha Alexander (D-Mecklenburg), to require cleaner cars in North Carolina (based on legislation passed by 11 other states) is strongly opposed by car dealers and manufacturers and may not get a hearing this session. The landfill proposals appear to be in trouble as well, opposed by both the waste haulers and the counties who are attracted to the revenue of operating mega-dumps. Support for the proposed Land for Tomorrow bond issue appears to be faltering as some legislators and the Governor appear to be concerned about the state taking on more debt. On the off-shore oil drilling issue, it appears that Congress may leave the decision up to the states to decide whether or not to permit such activity. The General Assembly must be ever vigilant on this issue; some coastal communities have been enticed by the prospect of using the royalty revenues from off-shore oil drilling to pay for beach re-nourishment.

Assistance For Law Officers

House Bill 447, Law Enforcement Officers Creditable Service/Workers’ Compensation, passed the House on Thursday and will now be sent to the Governor for signature into law. This bill, long sought by law enforcement groups, provides that any officer injured by the criminal act of a third party and forced out of work because of that injury for a period of time, will now have that time out on workers’ compensation count towards his or her retirement. This eliminates the double penalty that had existed for injured local officers who were out of work and also losing time towards their retirement when seriously hurt by a criminal. The bill was supported by the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, other law enforcement groups, the League of Municipalities, and the Association of County Commissioners.

House Passes Campaign Finance Bill

Members of the House approved legislation (HB 1845) that provides additional requirements on how campaign funds may be used, including barring political candidates from using campaign contributions for personal use. The measure would limit a candidate or campaign committee to spending in seven specific areas including running for and holding public office, gifts to charities, contributions to other campaigns, and paying penalties for election law violations. The bill was recommended after press scrutiny revealed that several former legislators had spent campaign contributions on personal uses, including a former representative from Guilford County who spent more than $16,000 on a car and a computer after losing re-election in 2004.

North Carolina is one of only about 10 states that do not limit how politicians spend campaign funds while running for office or after they leave office. The bill is one of 10 recommendations from the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, of which I was a member.

The bill would take effect on October 1, 2006. That way, voters will know if their representative converted campaign contributions to personal use prior to the election. Several efforts to amend the date to January 1, 2007 failed in committee and on the House floor. The bill has moved to the Senate for consideration.

Advocates on the ethics and campaign finance reform issues are concerned that the legislature will run out of time before enacting serious reform. The House has been meeting diligently and we have sent six of the ten recommendations to the Senate, which has not acted on any of the proposals. The House has still to consider tightening up lobbying reform, a public financing pilot project for legislative races, and revamping the regulation of 527s.

Protecting Veterans Against Identity Theft

The House approved legislation on Thursday (HB 2883) that would protect veterans, active duty military and members of the National Guard against identity theft. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Bruce Goforth, D-Buncombe, in response to the news of a recent theft of a federal government database in Washington, D.C. that included the names, Social Security numbers and birthdates of 26.5 million veterans across the nation.

Under existing North Carolina law, any victim of identity theft can get a free credit freeze, which prohibits access to that person’s account history. Some states allow consumers to pay for a credit freeze before encountering fraud, but haven’t committed to offering any similar services for free. North Carolina veterans would have until the end of the year to initiate the service and could keep it at no charge for up to a year. The bill was unanimously approved on Thursday.

North Carolina is home to more than 770,000 veterans and 90,000 active duty members of the military. Surviving spouses of military personnel can also get a credit freeze under the proposal, and family members can act on behalf of active-duty personnel overseas.

Veterans who suspect identity theft should call (800) FED-INFO or (800) 333-4636 or go to:

House Cracks Down On Sex Offenders

House members unanimously approved legislation (HB 1896) on Tuesday that would prohibit sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, day care center, or public swimming pool. The bill would require sex offenders to register in person with the sheriff of the county, give annual verification of address, and notification of changes in address. Further, if a convicted sex offender works or attends school in another county, they must also register with that second county’s sheriff.

The bill adds to the list of offenses that require sex offender registration by including statutory rape of a person who is 13, 14, or 15 years old by a person who is at least six years older than the victim. Other provisions make it a felony for someone to knowingly harbor an unregistered sexual offender, and authorize sheriff’s deputies to obtain updated photographs when they believe an offender’s appearance has changed. The state Department of Motor Vehicles would conduct background checks on new residents before issuing a driver’s license.

The legislation, which now goes to the Senate for consideration, is one of several sex offender enforcement bills recommended by the House Select Committee on Sex Offender Registration Laws which met prior to the start of the short session. The House budget included $1.5 million to upgrade the state’s sex offender registry, implement a global positioning system to monitor the most serious convicted sex offenders, and to establish an email notification program so citizens can be notified when a registered sex offender moves into their neighborhood.

Budget Update 6-23-06

Budget conferees were named by Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, on Monday night, which officially started negotiations between the two chambers on a final budget. I was appointed to the NER (Natural and Economic Resources) Subcommittee, which will recommend funding levels for the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce (including Furniture Market Funding), Environment and Natural Resources, and Labor.

With regard to NER-related items, funding for the Furniture Market has been proposed at $1,250,000, which is a compromise between the Senate and House positions. It may change when the Appropriations Chairs (which includes Senator Kay Hagan) negotiate a final compromise. I am pleased that the Emergency Drinking Water Fund, which I proposed, survived subcommittee scrutiny and is still proposed at $500,000. This is a new program to provide testing of wells near known contaminated hot spots and emergency drinking water supplies for those impacted by contaminated water. Over 2 million North Carolinians drink water from private wells and no testing program is in place for those near contaminated hot spots.

House and Senate negotiators seem to have compromised on many differences in their respective budget bills during negotiations this week, but relief for counties with high Medicaid expenses, salary increases, education funding, tax cuts, and whether non-budget policy provisions should stay in the final budget bill all remain on the table. The House budget set aside $53 million for counties to pay their Medicaid expenses, while the Senate offered a compromise Wednesday in which it would agree to pay $20 million. Also, negotiators of the roughly $19 billion budget haven’t finalized how to fund a special effort to help at-risk students and poor school districts.

House and Senate finance leaders still must work out the scope of the reductions in two “temporary” tax increases passed during the recession in 2001 that are set to expire next year. The two chambers agreed in their budgets to reduce the state sales tax by a quarter cent, but they differ on how far the individual income tax should decrease for top wage earners. The House wants to provide a tax credit to small businesses that offer health insurance to employees; the Senate did not include this credit in their budget. The two sides also differ on whether most state employees should receive a $300 bonus to go with a permanent 5 percent raise. Legislative leaders want to reach a final agreement before next Tuesday so that it can be voted on and sent to Governor Easley for his signature by June 30, 2006, when the current fiscal year ends.

Greeting From Raleigh 6-23-06

My colleagues and I in the House and Senate started negotiations on the budget Tuesday and our work will continue until we reach an agreement on the state’s spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2006. In addition, we passed legislation on important issues such as cracking down on sex offenders, campaign finance reform, and protecting veterans and our military from identity theft. We also had a little “sports” fun on Wednesday and Thursday when we were lucky enough to have the Carolina Hurricanes and Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek of Greensboro visit the General Assembly.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Groups Visiting The Legislature This Week 6-16-06

A group representing hundreds of advocacy groups, local governments, and state notables (including several folks from the Piedmont Land Conservancy) visited the General Assembly on Wednesday in support of a proposed $1 billion bond issue this November for land preservation and park expansions. The “Land for Tomorrow” organization is backing identical pieces of legislation cosponsored by more than half of the Legislature’s 170 members. Bond proponents argue the state’s growing population will make it more difficult to preserve the state’s natural resources and historic landmarks. The measure would permit the state to issue general obligation bonds starting in 2007, phased in over at least three years. The proceeds would be given in the form of grants to four existing conservation trust funds. The group says the money would protect 740,000 acres, protect 6,000 miles of rivers and streams and restore 350 historic landmarks. Bond proponents include former Governors, Jim Hunt, Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser. The measure enjoys good support in the House and Senate, but is currently opposed by Governor Easley, who is troubled by the state’s incurring more debt.

More than 100 veterans met with legislators on Wednesday, which was Flag Day, and were honored during session with a resolution that expressed “profound appreciation and gratitude” to past and present service members. North Carolina is home to more than 770,000 veterans and 90,000 military on active duty, including National Guard and reserve members.

Wednesday was also lobby day for homebuilders from across the state, and Guilford County had a number of representatives.

Incentives To Save For College

The House gave its final approval to legislation (HB 770) that calls for tax deductions of up to $10,000 per person who contributes to North Carolina’s “529” college savings plan. NC now joins a majority of states that offer such state income tax benefits. The plan lets investors set aside money that can grow tax-deferred. The money can be withdrawn free from federal tax if used to pay for college. The bill would allow taxpayers to deduct from their taxable income up to $10,000 that is contributed to one of these 529 accounts, named for the section of the tax code that allows them. An amendment approved by the House would ensure that married couples filing their tax returns jointly could receive a deduction of as much as $20,000. The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Cable TV Competition Bill

Legislative committees agreed to create new rules guiding who can provide television through cable or broadband Internet. The nearly identical bills approved in House and Senate committees (HB 2047 and SB 1559) would eliminate the current system of local franchise deals that cities and counties have made for decades with cable television companies. Instead, the bill would turn over franchising authority to the Secretary of State’s Office. Critics of the bill, including the City of Greensboro, contend the statewide franchise doesn’t give local governments the same negotiating power with cable television companies to ensure customers will receive service. The House Finance Committee and Senate Commerce Committee rejected all amendments that would have made the bill more consumer friendly.

New Historic Preservation Tax Credit

Efforts to boost the renovation of hundreds of historic mill sites across North Carolina got a boost Wednesday as the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill providing for tax credits for such projects. Some state and federal credits are already available. The bill (HB 474), which passed the House last year, would expand credits from as low as 20 percent of the rehabilitation costs to as much as 40 percent. The credits vary depending on the economic conditions of the area where the mill would be located and whether the renovated mill would be revenue-producing. The credits have already been factored into the budget being considered by the House.

House Passes $18.9 Budget

Members of the State House approved our version of the state budget this week. The House gave initial approval of the budget on Wednesday afternoon by a vote of 92 to 26, after several hours of debate in committee and on the House floor, and final approval on Thursday morning, 91 to 23. The $18.9 billion spending plan was supported by all Democrats and a majority of Republicans. Members of the House and Senate are expected to begin meeting early next week to work out differences on the state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2006.

Improving and investing in education continues to be our number one priority, and this budget represents the greatest investment our state has ever made in education. The House budget provides more than $10.7 billion in resources to improve education. This total represents more than $860 million above last year’s budget and is in addition to more than $400 million in revenues from North Carolina’s Lottery.

The House budget also provides higher pay raises for teachers and state employees than proposed previously by Governor Easley and the Senate. Public school teachers, community college faculty, and professional staff would see a roughly 8 percent increase. State employees would receive a 5 percent pay raise, plus a $300 bonus. Like the Senate, the House eliminated $44.3 million in spending cuts levied on local school districts in recent years. We also allocated almost $41.9 million to low wealth school districts.

In addition to funding for education, the House budget provides resources to continue the state’s progress in economic development, health and human services, public safety programs, our environment, and our courts, while also providing tax relief to all North Carolinians.

Mental health reforms, which began in 2001, take an enormous step forward in this year’s budget due to $104.2 million dedicated to improving mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services. The House budget for the Health and Human Services also reduces a child care subsidy waiting list and expands the Smart Start early childhood initiative. It also raises the eligibility standards for the AIDS drug assistance program to 250% of federal poverty level, up from the 125% standard which was lowest in the nation. (I introduced a bill on this issue.)

Unlike the Senate and Governor, the House budget sets aside $53 million in funding to cap the counties’ share of Medicaid expenses at this year’s levels and provides additional relief to counties with the highest populations of Medicaid recipients. Under our plan, Guilford County would receive close to $1.8 million. This relief was a top priority for local elected officials and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners and I am hopeful the Senate will go along with this proposal.

The House budget provides more than $1.8 billion for justice and public safety programs to reduce crime and keep our neighborhoods safe. We dedicated close to $10 million to hire more than 200 prosecutors, judges, and court officials across the state.

The budget expands the One North Carolina Fund by $11 million and provides $5 million for Small Business Innovation Research grants for entrepreneurs to match federal monies to create new businesses. It continues the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program and provides additional support for growing industries through biotechnology programs and other incentives. Since 2001, JDIG and One North Carolina programs combined have helped created close to 30,000 new jobs across the state.

On the environmental front, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund is fully funded at $100 million. There is additional money for restoration of shellfish waters, and other fishery habitat in conjunction with our ongoing coastal habitat protection planning process. There is money to help impoverished black farmers. I was unsuccessful in my several attempts to seek funding for the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. We are losing farmland at the 4th highest rate in the US and are losing access to millions of dollars of federal matching grant money because this program has been drastically under-funded for years. I was successful in gaining funding to establish an emergency drinking water fund to help the 2 million North Carolinians who currently get their water from private drinking wells, whose water might be contaminated. This provision added to the budget is consistent with HB 2186, mentioned in previous newsletters, although the funding ($500,000) is half of that proposed in my bill. Well water has been the subject of a lot of media attention in the past several months, and I am hopeful that we will get some good legislation on this issue this session.

For Guilford County-based projects, less funding is provided for the Furniture Market, but the difference will be resolved in conference with the Senate. Repair money is included for the Charlotte Hawkins Brown site in eastern Guilford County and there is planning money for major projects at UNCG and NC A&T.

In addition to these important investments, the House budget also provides $163.9 million in tax relief to all North Carolinians. The House budget, like the Senate proposal, would cut the sales tax by a quarter-penny, but only reduces the income tax for high earners from 8.25 percent to 8.125 percent; the Senate decreased it to 8 percent. Unlike the Governor and Senate, the House provides a new tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees.

As promised by Speaker Black and other House leaders, the 122 page House budget was strictly budget items as opposed to the previously passed Senate budget, which was 167 pages and included several proposed policy changes such as a moratorium on new landfills. The landfill issue, which is quite contentious in some of the more rural counties in this state, may be dealt with in separate legislation, and I have a bill on this issue.

Greeting From Raleigh 6-16-06

My colleagues and I focused most of our time this week on finalizing and passing our version of the budget. The $18.9 billion spending plan, which was approved overwhelmingly by the House on Wednesday and Thursday, makes much needed investments in education, health and human services, our courts and public safety programs, economic development, transportation, our environment, and pay raises for teachers and state employees, while also providing more than $160 million in tax relief for all North Carolinians.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Groups Visiting The Legislature This Week 6-9-06

Nearly 1,200 mental health advocates converged on the General Assembly on Tuesday. The group, Coalition 2001, was here to urge lawmakers to fully fund programs that aid patients with mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse problems. Legislators are expected to provide a substantial amount of new funding in this year’s budget to help implement mental health reforms and improve community based programs, although it doesn’t appear that the funding will be quite as much as the advocates are requesting.

Tuesday was Equality NC’s lobby day, and I was visited by several constituents opposed to the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Wednesday was a big day for Guilford County visits. A large group was down, celebrating Public Library Day, including several members of the library board and staff from Greensboro and High Point. It was also the Greensboro Chamber’s day to visit the legislature, and more than 80 Chamber members and staff came to see us, as well as host a lunch and a reception. In addition, it was the League of Municipalities’ “Town Hall” day and several folks were down from the city council and staff.

Greensboro native and UNC system President Erskine Bowles led a contingent of university notables who sat in the gallery of the House and Senate on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the 16 chancellors including Vick Hackney from A&T and Pat Sullivan from UNCG and members of the UNC Board of Governors, including several from Greensboro, also visited the Legislative Building.

We will be back in session on Monday at 7:00 p.m.

2005 Meth Bill Reducing Crime

Legislation passed last year by the General Assembly to reduce the number of meth labs in North Carolina is already having a positive effect across our state. The new law requires anyone who buys cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, such as Sudafed, to show a photo ID at a store counter and sign a log. State authorities last month found the fewest number of meth labs since December 2003. Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation busted 11 meth labs in May, a 69 percent drop from the 35 labs discovered in May 2005, said Attorney General Roy Cooper. State officials said agents have busted 112 labs from the date the law took effect on January 15 through May 31. They found 172 labs for the same period last year.

Campaign Finance Reforms

The House agreed to place more restrictions on campaign donations made in cash and to require the disclosure of the names of some people who contribute smaller amounts. House Bill 1846, which I cosponsored, would cut by half the maximum cash contribution that a candidate can accept, from $100 to $50. Campaign treasurers also would have to disclose the identity of people who make contributions by money order of more than $50, down from the current rules of at least $100. Otherwise, identities are required when a contributor has given a cumulative $100 in any two-year election cycle. The bill was approved by an initial vote of 109-5 on Wednesday, after some not-so-pretty debate, will be up for final passage on Monday and then will be considered by the Senate. This bill is one of 10 recommended by the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, on which I sat, which met before the legislative session began last month. More proposals to come include a pilot project for publicly financed legislative races, tighter regulations of 527s, and a prohibition on the conversion of campaign funds to personal use.

Incentives To Save For College

The House gave initial approval to legislation (HB 770) sponsored by Margaret Dickson (D-Cumberland) on Wednesday that would allow contributions to North Carolina’s “529” college savings plan to be tax deductible annually up to $10,000. The plan, similar to those in other states, allows investors to set aside money that can grow tax-deferred. The money can be withdrawn free from federal tax if it’s used to pay for college. Other states also provide additional state income tax benefits, but North Carolina currently does not. The bill would allow taxpayers to deduct up to $10,000 from their taxable income if it is contributed to one of these 529 accounts, named for the section of the tax code that allows them. Final passage of the bill is expected on Monday night, and then it will move over to the Senate for consideration.

Protecting Private Property Rights: Eminent Domain

The state House unanimously approved legislation Tuesday that prohibits local governments from using condemnation procedures to take land for economic development purposes. The bill (HB 1965), which I co-sponsored, was approved 116-0 on Tuesday and would repeal at least nine limited uses of condemnation for economic development granted to local governments by previous legislatures. It would only allow eminent domain to be used under circumstances already prescribed by law – the construction of government buildings and roads, easements for railroads, creation of parks and the building of water and sewer lines. A House study committee, which was chaired by Reps. Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) and Wilma Sherrill (R-Buncombe), met earlier this year to examine the state’s eminent domain laws in response to a decision last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruling allowed the town of New London, Conn., to take property that was to be used for a hotel and convention center. The authorizing resolution now goes to the Senate for debate.

Kindergarten Start

House members voted Tuesday to consider a bill that would change the age requirement for children entering kindergarten. The House agreed to a resolution (HJR 2515) sponsored by Dale Folwell (R-Forsyth), that would allow the General Assembly to consider a bill that would require kindergartners entering school to turn 5 by August 31 instead of October 16. North Carolina has the latest cutoff date in the Southeast. Parents could still petition to have their young children accepted early. Since some parents hold children back a year from entering school, bill supporters say the current cutoff date can create situations where children from age 4 to 6 are in the same classroom. Any change would not take effect until 2008. As with other legislation which normally would not be eligible for debate during the short session, the Senate must also authorize the resolution, before the bill can be considered by either chamber.

Teenagers and Cell Phones

The Senate approved legislation this week to prohibit teenagers from using their cell phones while driving. Along with a $25 fine, the bill would extend a driver's graduated license for six months. There would be no additional insurance points for an infraction. Teenagers have an exception to use the phone in emergency situations, and lawmakers are considering relief for teens who answer calls from their parents. No exception is made for a hands-free device.

House Approves Special Education Bill

The House approved legislation (HB 1908) on Tuesday that virtually re-writes the special education laws currently addressing the education and testing of exceptional children. Reps. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), Jean Farmer-Butterfield (D-Wilson), Laura Wiley (R-Guilford), and Jean Preston (R-Carteret) sponsored the groundbreaking legislation which was created out of a necessity for state law to comply with Federal law and regulations, but went far beyond those requirements to ensure that children with special needs receive a better education. A resolution was also passed to further encourage Congress to pass the new changes to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) regulations and to give local school systems sufficient time to implement the final regulations.

North Carolina has had a statewide testing program in reading and mathematics since the 1992-93 school year. However, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the subsequent passage of the No Child Left Behind program have caused changes to occur in the statewide testing program.

Video Poker Ban Signed Into Law

Following last week’s action by the House, the Senate approved legislation on Monday night to ban video poker. The Governor signed the bill into law on Tuesday. The new law requires machine owners or businesses to downsize from the current maximum of three machines to two machines by October 1, 2006, and from two machines to one machine by March 1, 2007. A complete ban of the machines will take effect on July 1, 2007.

Budget Update 6-9-06

House budget leaders spent this week finalizing the funding levels for education, health and human services, our courts and public safety programs, transportation, the environment, and other budget items. The budget looks pretty good, although I am disappointed that there is no funding for farmland preservation or for AIDS drug assistance for low income folks, and will push for that next week. We will begin debate on the bill in committee Tuesday morning with final passage by the full House later in the week. Once we pass our version of the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2006, members of the House and Senate will begin negotiations for a final compromise.

Greetings From Raleigh 6-9-06

We have focused much of our attention this week on finalizing the budget while also moving forward on other important issues such as protecting private property rights, improving special education, saving for college, and campaign finance reform. The Senate approved legislation to ban video poker and prohibit teenagers from using a cell phone while driving.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Groups Visiting The Legislature This Week

The Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative had their legislative day at the General Assembly on Wednesday. Among the group were staff and the directors of the 29 museums in our state, including several board and staff members from Greensboro’s Natural Science Museum.

Tuesday was HIV/AIDS Advocacy Day at the Legislature, a day for North Carolinians infected and affected by HIV/AIDS to discuss several issues with their legislative members. These issues included making the AIDS Drug Assistance Program available to more low-income North Carolinians living with HIV/AIDS (I have introduced a bill which would greatly increase the funding and eligibility for this program); securing prevention funding that puts effective programs into the communities most impacted by the disease; and making harm-reduction programs available to prevent the spread of the disease. I was visited by several board and staff members from Triad Health Project, as well as Thelma Wright and her volunteers who have been tirelessly advocating for approval and funding of a needle exchange program in Guilford County.

2006 Hurricane Season Began June 1st: Be Prepared!

This year’s hurricane season officially began on Thursday, June 1. Emergency management officials say the East Coast could see six major hurricanes rated Category 3 or higher this year. The 2005 season saw seven major hurricanes, 15 smaller hurricanes, and a record 27 tropical storms. Officials are encouraging all North Carolinians and visitors to prepare for the possibility of hurricanes and damaging winds, tornados, floods, and landslides that accompany the storms that typically strike from June through November.

This week state officials launched a new website – – that includes information on emergency planning for families, seniors, disabled people, and pets. In addition, suggestions about first aid, home safety, power outages, how to evacuate and shelter-in-place, and where people can go for local assistance and volunteer opportunities are included. The site also provides information on the types of severe weather that impact North Carolina, as well as tips for dealing with terrorism, radiation, and contagious diseases. The pages include links to other sources of information at the federal, state and local levels.

Officials with the North Carolina flood plain mapping program are encouraging homeowners to find out if they live in a high-risk area, and if so, strongly consider purchasing flood insurance. All residents are encouraged to visit the state’s website to determine if your house or community is at risk:

Teenagers and Cell Phones

Teenagers would have to hang up their cell phones before they get behind the wheel in North Carolina under a bill making its way through the Senate. The measure (SB 1289), filed by Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, would levy court costs and an increased supervisory period for drivers under 18 caught talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device. A Senate judiciary panel held its second meeting on Thursday.

Drivers who use mobile phones are four times more likely to be involved in a crash that would require a hospital visit than those who don’t, according to a study in a British medical journal last year. Since the graduated licensing program was adopted in 1997, statewide crashes involving 16-year-old drivers are down 34 percent, according to the fatality task force. However, motor vehicle deaths are the leading cause of death for North Carolina teens ages 15-17. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have already banned mobile phone use for some teen drivers.

Improved Training For Campaign Treasurers

The House continued to work on legislation this week that further strengthens and improves our state’s campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying laws. On Tuesday, the House gave its final approval to legislation (HB 1847) that would require political campaign treasurers to receive regular, mandatory training in filling out finance reports. This is important as the Legislature is making a number of changes to NC’s campaign finance laws this session.

The House Judiciary Committee on which I sit continues to work on other bills, which were recommended by the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform (on which I also sat), including changes to lobbying laws (HB 1849) and restrictions on how a candidate can use campaign funds (HB 1845). Folks might remember the controversy earlier this year when it was revealed that a former legislator used her leftover campaign cash to purchase a car and a personal computer. The Committee will also be considering approving a pilot public financing project for a few legislative races.

Mental Health Reform

State mental health officials unveiled a plan on Tuesday they said would encourage more psychiatrists to treat the poor, assemble more teams available to respond in a crisis, and teach other doctors about how to provide basic care. The effort, part of the $89 million set aside in Gov. Mike Easley’s budget proposal and in much of the Senate’s spending plan last week, attempts to jump start a mental health reform effort that started in 2001.

Under the plan released by Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, the state’s mental health division would spend millions of dollars to develop mobile crisis teams which would be available when someone has a mental breakdown or to create recovery units and observation beds in community hospitals. Between $1.5 million and $3 million would be used to increase payments for psychiatrists who see patients whose only coverage is from Medicaid or state funds. New programs also would forgive school loans for psychiatrists who agree to work with subsidized patients. The Department of Health and Human Services also is seeking $4 million in outside grants to teach primary care providers how to provide basic mental health care.

1898 Wilmington Race Riots

The final report of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission was released at a press conference on Wednesday. The nearly 500-page document includes newly discovered pictures not in the December 2005 draft report. To view the entire report, go to:

The November 10,1898 attack in Wilmington, the Commission reported, was not a riot, but was a planned effort by white supremacists to overthrow government officials in New Hanover County at gunpoint — making it the only recorded government overthrow in U.S. history. Most notable among these images is a view of the mob in front of the black-owned newspaper office, which had been destroyed by fire.

The report also examined the economic impact of the riot on Wilmington’s African-American community. It reveals blacks lost positions in government, in professional arenas and as skilled artisans. Black businesses and workers suffered economic decline, though no evidence of widespread seizure of black-owned property was found.

The Commission concluded that North Carolina should provide economic and social compensation to the victims. Recommendations also include that the parties responsible for the violence atone for their own involvement and that the true story of the incident be taught in North Carolina schools.

Banning Video Poker In North Carolina

The House passed legislation on Wednesday that would ban video poker in North Carolina. The legislation was the result of several weeks of negotiations among legislators, sheriffs, and representatives of the employees and machine owners in the video poker industry. The North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association supports the compromise bill. Wednesday’s vote on the committee substitute to SB 912 was approved 114 to 1, with Rep. John Blust (R-Guilford) as the only dissenting vote. The Senate is expected to approve the bill on Monday night.

The ban of video poker would be phased in over the next year, in order to give the more than 1,700 employees in the industry enough time to find a new job. The legislation would require current machine owners or businesses to downsize from their current maximum of three machines to two machines by October 1, 2006, and from two machines to one machine by March 1, 2007. A complete ban would take effect on July 1, 2007. Repeat offenders or those caught with five or more machines would be guilty of a felony. Current machine owners must sell their machines to individuals outside of North Carolina or to the Cherokee Casino in western North Carolina.

Protecting Veterans From Identity Theft

In response to the news of a recent theft of a federal government database that included the names, social security numbers and birthdates of 26.5 million veterans across the nation, Rep. Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe) filed a bill to exempt veterans from the fee charged to place a freeze on a credit report. Approximately 800,000 of these veterans live in North Carolina. On Thursday, the House approved House Joint Resolution 2852, which will allow the legislation to be considered. A similar measure is also being considered by the Senate.

Veterans who suspect identity theft should call (800) FED-INFO or (800) 333-4636 or go to:

Last year, the General Assembly passed the Identity Theft Protection Act, which gave consumers the right to place a security “freeze” on their credit report. Placing a security freeze on your report would prohibit credit reporting agencies from releasing any information about you to new creditors without your approval, making it difficult for an identity thief to open an account or obtain credit in your name.

House Approves Minimum Wage Increase

By a vote of 72-43 on Tuesday, the House gave its final approval to Rep. Alma Adams’ (D-Guilford) $1-per-hour increase in the minimum wage to $6.15, boosting confidence for advocates that a raise will soon come to more than 100,000 North Carolina workers.

Over half the states in the nation, including North Carolina, abide by the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, which has not been increased since 1997. Workers making $5.15 an hour earn about $10,700 a year. An extra dollar an hour would add up to an extra $2,000 a year. 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.

Budget Update 6-02-06

The Senate gave final approval to its budget plan last Thursday, and turned it over to the House for review. Budget leaders hope to have a final budget document ready for debate by the full House in two weeks.

Greetings From Raleigh 6-02-06

We had another busy week in Raleigh as we continue to make progress on the budget and other pieces of legislation. House budget leaders expect to finalize our budget plan in the next two weeks and then members of the House and Senate will work together to reach a compromise on spending levels for the fiscal year beginning July 1. My colleagues and I also passed legislation on several other issues this week including increasing the state’s minimum wage, a ban on video poker machines, and improved training requirements for campaign treasurers.

Please be aware that you can listen to each day’s session, committee meetings, and press conferences on the General Assembly’s website at Once on the site, select “audio,” and then make your selection – i.e. House Chamber, Senate Chamber, Appropriations Committee Room or Press Conference Room. You can also catch a weekly wrap up of the legislature on Legislative Week in Review airing Friday evenings at 10 p.m. on WUNCTV, repeating Sundays at 1 p.m.