Friday, July 21, 2006

Approved Bills Awaiting Govorner Easley's Signature

Campaign Finance Reform

The General Assembly agreed to legislation (HB 1846), which lowers the maximum amount of cash candidates can receive from an individual and requires mandatory training of campaign treasurers. The bill also requires contribution checks to be completely filled out, specifically the “payee” line. The House had previously passed separate bills that addressed these issues, but the Senate decided to combine the measures into one bill, which the House accepted on Tuesday.

Protection For Consumers Against Price Gouging
If another hurricane hundreds of miles away from North Carolina – similar to last year’s Hurricane Katrina – sends gas prices soaring here at home, the state will now be able to seek penalties against businesses for price gouging. Legislators this week approved legislation (HB 1231) that expands our price-gouging law so the Governor can declare an “abnormal market disruption” when supplies are cut off by events outside our state following an act of nature, labor strike, terrorist attack or power failure. North Carolina’s current law triggers only when the Governor declares a disaster inside the state.
The state could not use the current price-gouging law to investigate pump prices that soared more than $1 a gallon in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The August storm did not strike North Carolina, but knocked out the state’s chief source of gas after slamming into Louisiana.

Sharply rising prices after an event, however, is not an automatic violation. Investigators must take into account rising supplier and commodity costs, according to the measure. Violators could be forced to make refunds and face fines up to $5,000 for each infraction.

Officials will keep a close watch on gas prices over the next few months during the height of the hurricane season and as fighting escalates in the Middle East. It is estimated that North Carolina gas prices may soon average more than $3 a gallon, according to AAA Carolinas. The state average is currently $2.92. The bill also applies to wholesalers and distributors – not just retailers who sell directly to the public.

Protests During Funerals Outlawed
The House has given its final, unanimous approval to a bill (SB 1833) aimed at protecting families from protests at funerals. The bill originally targeted military services, but now covers all funerals beginning Dec. 1. Anyone who displays visual images, yells or uses abusive language within 300 feet of the funeral or memorial site would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The protest ban would begin one hour before the funeral and end one hour after the conclusion of the funeral. According to bill sponsors, 31 states this year have filed similar bills, with 14 signed into law. The federal law, enacted earlier this year, applies only to national cemeteries. State laws would have a broader effect.

Well Water Protections Approved
The General Assembly agreed to require all 100 counties to create testing and inspection programs for new private drinking water wells. The House voted 101-2 to accept the Senate version of the bill (HB 2873) and moved it along to Gov. Mike Easley, who is expected to sign the bill into law. About a third of the counties now have some kind of plan to oversee well construction or well testing, with only Wake County offering the kind of comprehensive program that the state wants to replicate in all counties. About 2.7 million state residents rely on well water. Each county would now have to develop a permitting, inspection, and testing program for new wells and enforce minimum standards set out in the bill and by the Environmental Management Commission. Water would be tested by the state public health lab for review of 17 different elements and compounds, as well as for bacteria and acidity. The Senate vote was 29-19. The House concurred to the minor changes, 101-2.

Protecting Citizens Against Identity Theft
Local and state governments that suffer a security breach that could lead to identity theft would have to inform citizens of the breach under legislation approved Monday by the General Assembly. The bill (HB 1248) would require governments and public agencies to follow the same requirement that businesses must alert customers when confidential information is compromised. The corporate requirement passed last year as part of a broad identity theft prevention law. The bill exempts the Secretary of State’s Office for a year from a requirement to keep personal identifying information off of its website, which currently contains an estimated 500,000 online records. During that time, the office would be required to study how to redact personal data from documents already available through its Web site.

Protecting Private Property Rights

The House and Senate both unanimously approved legislation (HB 1965) on Thursday barring local governments from using condemnation procedures to take land for economic development purposes. The bill would repeal at least nine limited uses of condemnation for economic development granted to local governments by previous legislatures. 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 the U.S. Supreme Court Kelo decision last year. The high court ruling allowed the town of New London, Conn., to take houses on property that developers wanted to use for a hotel and convention center. A number of state governments have strengthened their eminent domain laws after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While a few states have passed laws similar to the one we approved on Thursday, Michigan is the only one in the nation to change its Constitution.

Compromise Approved on Eye Exams for Kindergarteners
The General Assembly agreed Thursday to modify instead of eliminate a program that requires incoming kindergarten students to receive an eye exam to enter school. The compromise proposal (HB 2699), was sent to the Governor on Thursday. Legislators decided that only children who fail an initial vision review would be urged to get a comprehensive eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. The more thorough exams wouldn’t be mandatory, although parents would be alerted that money may be available to help pay for one. The state budget set aside $500,000 for exams of low income children.

The bill passed this week creates uniform standards for vision screenings already done as part of a child’s pre-kindergarten heath assessment. If a child fails a vision screening, the child would then be referred for a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. For parents who don’t follow through on the process, schools will send out information, including material explaining that funding is available to pay for the exams if needed. Further, if a teacher thinks that a child should get an eye exam, funding will also be made available for those exams. Those opposed to last year’s law – the NC School Boards Association, North Carolina Prevent Blindness, and the NC Medical Society – are in support of the compromise bill.

Creating Jobs, Strengthening our Economy
Legislators gave final approval this week to an expansion of the William S. Lee Act and Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program, which have helped create more than 16,000 new jobs across North Carolina during the last five years. The JDIG program will now double in size – from $15 million to $30 million in grants – as well as be extended through 2009 and allow motorsports manufacturing facilities to qualify for grants. Since JDIG’s creation in 2002, more than forty companies have been accepted for the grant program, which gives back to companies cash grants equal to up to 75 percent of state withholding taxes generated by jobs they have created. Several of us had concerns about the $2 billion of state taxpayer money committed to these programs over the next ten years.

Enviornmental Issues 7-21-06

There was a lot of activity this week on the environmental front, both good and bad. SB1564(I sponsored the House version of this), which would require public notification and identification of a proposed landfill site before a local government could award a solid waste franchise agreement, passed the House on second reading yesterday. This bill is meant to give the public more notice and more opportunity to weigh in before a new landfill is sited in their community. This is particularly important as NC is moving toward becoming a net importer of trash as it considers proposals for several mega dumps, anticipating importing at least 7 million additional tons of trash annually from all over the country. We will become the 4th largest trash importer in the US. Many are concerned about this and last week, the Senate unanimously passed HB1093, which would impose an 18 month moratorium on new landfills in NC. The measure was sent to the House Rules Committee, and while a majority or House members support the landfill moratorium, it is uncertain whether we will be able to vote on the measure, which is quite frustrating.

Another positive outcome is the passage of a provision in SB1587, which establishes an emergency drinking water supply fund, based on legislation (HB2186) which I introduced earlier this year. The money would go to provide notice and funds for emergency drinking water to residents who get drinking water from private wells (more than 2.7 million North Carolinians) near known contaminated hot spots. The bill is headed to the Governor for his signature.

SB1587 also contains a troubling provision, based on HB2884, which would exempt Duke Energy from any federal review that might require stronger pollution controls for the new boilers it intends to build at its Cliffside plant in Rutherford County. It is anticipated that, as a result, the plant might emit an additional 3000 tons of sulphur dioxide annually. This is unfortunate since North Carolina has made great strides in cleaning up our air.

Other positive legislation includes HB1523, which raises the cap on penalties for violations of the Coastal Area Management Act, passed the House on second reading on Thursday. Heretofore, it has been much cheaper to break the law than to comply with it. SB2051, The Energy Independence Act, was voted out of committee and will be on the House floor on Monday evening. This bill encourages energy efficiency in state buildings, a plan to achieve a 20% reduction in fuel usage by state fleets, a biofuels strategic plan, and energy assistance for low income households. Finally SB1566, the result of extensive stakeholder negotiation, which would requires stormwater protection in most, but not all, rapidly growing counties, passed the House on second reading Thursday.

On a less positive note, SB1862 came back to the House for concurrence in an even worse form. This bill allows developers in the nutrient sensitive river basins of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico, to build near streams if they pay for the cost of restoration and mitigation elsewhere in the river basins. The fees proposed in the bill are woefully inadequate ($11 per pound of nitrogen pollution). An EMC rule proposed setting them more in line with the true cost of restoration ($57 per pound of nitrogen, and adding a second category of $45 per tenth of a pound of phosphorus in the Tar-Pam). This bill takes both back to $11, with no relationship to the true cost of damage done to the river basin.

Finally, HB1778/SB927, a terrible bill opposed by the environmental community, public health advocates, and the Governor, relates to the cleaning up of contaminated sites. The potential loss of the groundwater resource is completely omitted in this bill, a troubling notion as the state's population continues to grow. The bill was voted out of House Environment earlier in the week, despite strong opposition, but ran into much resistance in House Finance. It may resurface this week in another form.

House Approves High-Risk Insurance Pool

On Monday night, the House gave final passage to legislation (HB 1895) that would create a health insurance instrument to assist uninsurable people in getting affordable coverage. The North Carolina Health Insurance Risk Pool would cover those who can’t afford health insurance or can’t qualify under traditional plans. The pool would guarantee coverage to patients with premiums of no more than 150 percent the rate of an individual covered by a standard health care plan. Premiums and a fee on insurers of up to $2 – phased in through 2012 – per each traditional customer it serves would go into the pool to pay the health care costs of the high-risk patients. Supporters of the bill said this was a first step toward providing affordable health care to an estimated 1.3 million North Carolinians who do not have health insurance. The House voted 95-11 in favor of sending the idea to the Senate, which has yet to take up the measure, and it appears unlikely that it will take it up, meaning we will have to wait until next year for any action on this.

Lottery Oversight Committee Goes To Conference

The Senate agreed this week to create an oversight committee (HB 2212, which I sponsored) that would ensure all lottery profits are being used for education and not replacing existing education funds. The House passed a slightly different bill two weeks ago, meaning the two chambers will have to work out differences in a conference committee, which I am a member of, before we adjourn. The House wants a 16-member panel made up of legislators, educators, school administrators, and a county commissioner. The Senate’s proposal has a nine-member committee. The lottery is expected to provide $425 million in the coming year for early childhood education, reducing class size, school construction, and college scholarships for needy students.

Legislators Still Hashing Out Differences On Lobbying,Ethics Reform Bill

Following action by the House in recent weeks on numerous ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying reform bills, the Senate approved HB 1843, which will overhaul the state’s ethics and lobbying laws by barring gifts and campaign donations from lobbyists and creating a more powerful state commission to monitor the behavior of state officials. The bill, which is slightly different than three separate bills passed earlier by the House, was not agreed to by the House on Wednesday and a conference committee, to which I was appointed, was set-up to reach a compromise.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill restrict gifts from lobbyists to legislators, more clearly define conflicts of interest and establish tougher penalties for violations. Economic disclosure statements for legislators and other government officials would also be more comprehensive. But the Senate’s version gives more power to a central state ethics board, which exists now only due to an executive order. The Senate version also bans lobbyists from contributing to state candidates, which some legal experts have argued is unconstitutional.

However, the Senate legislation offers more exemptions and loopholes regarding when lobbyists or groups interested in public policy could offer gifts, which House members have raised serious questions about. The term “gift” is more narrowly defined in the Senate bill, essentially allowing legislators to avoid reporting gifts from anyone who isn’t a lobbyist or lobbyist employer. Lobbyists could also give to legislators when the gift is received as part of a personal relationship. The Senate did decide to reinsert language making clear that legislative liaisons in state agencies also are subject to the gift giving restrictions.

House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said House and Senate negotiators have significant differences to work through in the coming days. The most difficult differences are likely to be the powers of the ethics board and how to craft no-gift ban provisions, he said. Hackney said a bill that had imperfections when it went to the Senate has even more on its return, but he promised legislators would pass a final reform bill before leaving Raleigh for the year.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-21-06

Legislators made considerable progress this week on many bills, but I believe we will be in session for at least another week as members of the House and Senate try to resolve differences over ethics and lobbying reform bills, strengthening our sex offender laws, establishing a lottery oversight committee, creating a “first-in-the-nation” innocence commission for our judicial system, strengthening our state’s DWI laws, among others. At least ten pieces of legislation were sent to conference committees this week, where small groups of House and Senate members will work through the weekend and early next week to reach agreement before sending them to Governor Easley for signature. Then we’ll be ready to close the 2006 session and adjourn.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Note On Ferry Ride

Finally, many of you have heard about legislators celebrating the Tall Ships event on a state-owned ferry. Regrettably, I was one of those legislators. I made a mistake and I have reimbursed the state for all expenses incurred on my behalf.

Enviornmental Issues 7-14-06

It continues to look gloomy in the NC House for those interested in environmental issues. We took steps toward passing several bad bills this week. One would exempt Duke Energy from complying with our state clean air rules (S.1587). (While a bit more complicated than that, that is the gist of it, and it has passed its first reading). Another, mentioned last week, SB1862, would allow developers in the nutrient sensitive Neuse and Tar Pam basins to offset their nutrient discharges for woefully inadequate fees has passed its second reading. HB 1778, weakens North Carolina’s very strong groundwater standards, and is on its way to House Finance after being approved in House Environment on Thursday. Another bill considered in House Environment, HB2886, would disapprove a Department of Labor rule which protects workers from radiation from cell and broadcast towers. When asked what the health effects of radiation are, the response was "it cooks the workers from within". Clean Cars, HB 2185, a top priority of many environmental advocacy groups, appears to be out of time, due to pressure from the automobile industry.

Things are looking better in the Senate, though, which passed a moratorium on landfills on second reading yesterday (HB1093). In addition, a bill (S1564) to strengthen public notice requirements regarding the siting of landfills moved. Also, a bill to increase CAMA fines, HB1523, passed the Senate yesterday. Those fines haven't been raised in some time and it has been much cheaper to violate the rules than comply with them.

House Approves Bill For Veterans

House members approved two pieces of legislation this week that will help North Carolina’s approximately 800,000 veterans and 90,000 active duty members of the military. The bills now headed to the Governor.

On Wednesday, we approved HB 2883, which will protect veterans, active duty military and members of the National Guard against identity theft. The bill was 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. The laptop has since been recovered, and federal investigators believe the data had not been accessed. Worried veterans, however, will not have to pay the up to $10 state law permits for credit reporting agencies to charge for the credit freeze, which prevents any credit from being taken in their name. 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:

On Thursday, the House passed a bill (SB 862) which would allow veterans who served in the Korean Conflict or the Vietnam War to be issued high school diplomas if they had not previously received them. These special diplomas are already issued to veterans of World War II. A number of other states have similar programs including Kentucky, Indiana, Colorado and Vermont.

Increasing Cable Compitition, Lowering Prices For Consumers

The House has given final approval to a bill (HB 2047) that would deregulate cable television service in a move supporters hope will lead to new programming choices and lower rates. The House voted 111-5 to approve recent changes made by the Senate. Beginning Jan. 1, 2007, the measure would phase out local franchise agreements between cable providers and city and county governments. After that, any company that wants to provide pay television service over phone lines or broadband Internet can register with the Secretary of State’s Office. Traditional phone companies such as BellSouth lobbied heavily for the bill. All attempts to protect the consumers via amendments failed. The City of Greensboro was quite troubled by the bill as well at the AARP, NAACP, the NC Justice Center, and NC Public Interest Research Group. Similar legislation is being attempted at the federal level as well, which would preempt state authority.

Teens And Cell Phones

The House has approved legislation (SB 1289) that would prohibit teenagers from talking on their cell phones while driving. Like the seat belt bill, this bill was proposed by the Child Fatality Task Force, and was passed on a vote of 89-22 on Wednesday and will now go back to the Senate for final approval. Motorists under the age of 18 caught using a cell could face a $25 fine and an extension to their graduated driving period. Like other graduated licensing rules, this law is designed more as a tool for parents than a tool for law enforcement. The bill does make exceptions for teenagers speaking with parents, law enforcement, and spouses. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among North Carolina teens, with more than 400 killed in the past five years.

Seat Belt Restrictions

All vehicle passengers, even those in the back seat, would have to buckle up in North Carolina under legislation that the General Assembly approved this week. The bill (SB 774) mandates seatbelt use for all riders in a passenger vehicle. The law would take effect on December 1, 2006 but for the first seven months – until next July – law enforcement officers would not issue tickets, only warnings. After that, the law hits back-seat passengers who are not wearing a seat belt with a $10 ticket; however, it would only be a secondary violation, meaning law enforcement cannot stop a vehicle solely for a seat belt infraction. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk for his signature.

I Pledge Allegiance...

A bill requiring schools to set aside time each day for students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance is finally headed to Gov. Mike Easley’s desk for his signature. State law already encourages schools to display the U.S. and state flag, but does not require it. The bill (SB 700) would require the flags to be displayed and school children be given the opportunity to say the pledge each day.

Safer Drinking Water For Well Users

A House bill, HB 2873, that requires North Carolina counties to inspect and test private wells passed the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday and will have a full Senate vote early next week. The bill would require counties to set up an inspection program and send test samples to the state public health lab for review for 17 different elements and compounds, as well as for bacteria and acidity. About 2.7 million state residents rely on well water, but only a third of the counties actually have some kind of plan in place to oversee well construction or well testing. The bill applies primarily to new wells. The Environmental Management Commission already inspects large wells used by community water systems that serve large housing developments and some municipalities.

The Emergency Drinking Water Fund, which I initially proposed in HB 2186, which eventually became part of the budget, but was subsequently pulled on the final vote, has been included in SB 1587,which was approved by the House on second reading yesterday. This would provide the guidelines for the money that was allocated in the budget ($300,000) for notice and funding for alternative drinking water for the 2.7 million North Carolinians drinking from well water near known contaminated hot spots.

Campaign Finance Reform Bill Goes To Governor

The House and Senate have given final approval to legislation (HB 1845) that will prohibit candidates and elected officials from converting campaign funds for personal use. The unspent campaign funds may be donated to charity, political parties, or other campaigns, or be returned to campaign donors. The legislation requires more thorough reporting of campaign expenses and prevents heirs of deceased candidates from inheriting campaign money. The measure was one of ten recommendations made earlier this summer by the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, on which I sat, and which met prior to the start of this year’s short session. The House and Senate are also trying to finalize legislation that will increase disclosure of campaign contributions, require further regulation of lobbyists, and improve the ethics laws governing the Executive and Legislative Branches.

The final very important recommendation from the Committee, HB 1851, Voter-Owned Elections, has yet to come up for a vote on the House floor, but it is hoped that will happen early next week. Now, more than ever, it is clear that we need serious campaign finance reform. We must get the influence of money out of the electoral and legislative process.

Mission Accomplished: State's Minimum Wage Will Increase

North Carolina’s minimum wage will finally increase to $6.15 per hour on January 1, 2007. Governor Mike Easley signed HB 2174 into law on Thursday, which will increase the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15. Hats off to Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford) for her hard work and tireless crusade on this issue. The bill also ties North Carolina’s minimum wage to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. If the federal minimum wage is raised, employees in North Carolina will receive whichever wage is higher. The federal minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour and has not been raised in nine years, and as a result, many states have taken it upon themselves to raise state rates. The wage increase is expected to benefit 139,000 workers in North Carolina.

Greetings From Raleigh 7-14-06

With adjournment drawing near, legislators worked hard this week to consider remaining legislative proposals. The House passed numerous bills on topics such as requiring all passengers in cars to wear seatbelts, prohibiting teenagers from talking on a cell phone while driving, and requiring better inspections of private wells. The House also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would create a high risk pool for the uninsurable.

The Senate continues to work on the various ethics, campaign finance, and lobbying reform bills, which have passed the House in recent weeks. I have been a strong and relentless advocate for these reforms and believe that we must give final approval to these bills before we adjourn. Legislative leaders remain hopeful that the House and Senate can pass the remaining bills next week and adjourn for the year by next Friday – stay tuned for further updates next week.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Enviornmental Issues

This session is not looking good for those interested in conservation and environmental protection. The Land for Tomorrow bond initiative to raise money to conserve an additional 740,000 acres in NC appears to be dead for this session. It seems there just wasn’t support with the Senate or the Governor to take on this important effort. Efforts to add additional protection appear to be floundering as well. My bill, HB 2185, to require that new cars meet the higher emissions standard established in eleven other states, and an important component of the State's effort to clean up our air, is running out of time. The landfill moratorium seems to be lacking momentum, not a surprise when you see that the "mega dump" operators have hired more than 25 lobbyists to work against the bill. Another bill, HB 2192, which I introduced, that would require better and earlier public notice for these mega dumps is also being strongly opposed by these landfill operators and their lobbyists. A bill, HB 1778, that would allow polluters to avoid any major liability for contaminating groundwater, with damages capped at $75,000 regardless of the cost of clean up, is moving right along. It is ironic that we are finally making major headway in protecting our private drinking water supplies, yet are letting polluters contaminate the groundwater resources and not adequately compensating the State for the lost resource. Another bill, H2169, Reduce Nutrient Offset Payments, pushed by the development community, cuts the newly adopted fee for developers who degrade buffer areas in the Neuse and Tar-Pam basins from $57 per pound of nitrogen pollution to an inadequate $11 per pound, and will be considered in the House on Monday.

More information on environmental legislation can be accessed through the NC Conservation Network's web site at

The House will on reconvene on Monday night at 6:00 with the prospect of finishing our work next week.

Mental Health Reform Passed

The House gave final approval to changes designed to define the responsibilities of community mental health managers and give power to the Health and Human Services secretary to take over functions that aren’t currently being performed. The measure is part of a series of changes designed to jump start mental health reforms that place more patient treatment in local communities. The measure (HB 2077) now goes to Gov. Easley for signature after the House agreed on Thursday to changes made by the Senate.

Seat Belt Restrictions

All vehicle passengers, even those in the back seat, would have to buckle up in North Carolina under legislation that the House approved on Thursday. The bill (SB 774) mandates seatbelt use for all riders in a passenger vehicle, but House members reduced the fine for violating the measure from $75 to $10 during final debate before sending it back to the Senate for concurrence. The legislation would alter current law, which says only those in the front seat – as well as children under 16 in the back – are required to wear seat belts. The bill would also bring North Carolina into accordance with federal law by requiring truck and bus drivers to buckle up. However, legislators made the seat belt measure a secondary violation, meaning law enforcement cannot stop a vehicle solely for a seat belt infraction.

Getting Tough On Sex Offenders

The House has passed additional legislation that toughens our laws on sex offenders. On Thursday, legislators approved HB 1871, which requires a person convicted in another state to also register as a sex offender in North Carolina. The bill also requires DMV to provide notice of sex offender registration requirements to applicants for a driver’s license, learner’s permit, instruction permit, or identification card and DMV workers must also search the national sex offender public registry for an applicant’s name before issuing either a driver’s license or special identification card.

The House has already passed a bill (HB 1896) that prohibits a sex offender from living within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare center, or public pool and strengthens registration requirements. The budget also 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.

New Lottery Oversight Committee Approved

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation, which I sponsored, on Thursday that would establish an oversight committee to keep an eye on the new North Carolina lottery and to ensure that all proceeds go to education. “We want to ensure the citizens from this state that the proceeds from the lottery will be used exactly for what we said it would be used for,” said Rep. Bernard Allen, D-Wake, one of the bill’s co-sponsors “There will be no supplanting of funds.” The lottery is projected to raise over $400 million for education programs this year, including early childhood education, reducing class size, school construction, and college scholarships. The House approved HB 2212 by a vote of 102-1 and sent it to the Senate for consideration.

Eye Exams For Children

On Thursday, the House passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Wake, that would revise a controversial law from last year that sought to require all kindergarteners to get a comprehensive eye exam before starting school. The law passed last year by the General Assembly has been halted by the courts amid a lawsuit brought by the NC School Boards Association, which claims that such a requirement would violate the North Carolina constitution. Critics of the law say that requiring eye exams for all children would be unnecessary since children must already undergo a vision screening. But proponents of the law argue that these vision screenings can miss serious eye problems that can only be detected by instruments used by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Nationwide studies have shown that even the best vision screenings can miss as much as 30% of treatable eye problems and these eye problems are often misdiagnosed as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder in children.

The proposed revision of the law (HB 2699), which was approved Thursday by a vote of 90-12, would create uniform standards for vision screenings already done as part of a child’s pre-kindergarten heath assessment. If a child then fails a vision screening, the child would be referred for a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. For parents who don’t follow through on the process, schools will send out information, including material explaining that funding is available to pay for the exams if needed. Further, if a teacher thinks that a child should get an eye exam, funding will also be made available for those exams. Those opposed to law year’s law – the NC School Boards Association, North Carolina Prevent Blindness, and the NC Medical Society – are in support of the bill, which now heads to the Senate for approval.

General Assembly Honors Hugh Morton

Last week, the General Assembly said goodbye to the late Hugh Morton, calling the photographer and environmental champion a true public servant committed to the interests of North Carolina and retaining the state’s beauty. Lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution honoring Morton, who died from cancer on June 1 at age 85. Morton’s camera lens captured North Carolina history and its scenery for more than a half century, especially Grandfather Mountain, which he turned into a leading tourist attraction, symbolized by its most famous resident, Mildred the Bear. Under his leadership, Morton helped bring the battleship USS North Carolina to Wilmington, helped protect the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and prevented the Blue Ridge Parkway from going over the mountain he owned. The parkway ultimately went around the mountain thanks to construction of the now-famous Linn Cove Viaduct. Mr. Morton’s widow, Julia, is a native of Greensboro and his daughter, Judy, resides here now.

General Assembly Becomes Smoke Free

The General Assembly will soon be smoke-free. The House approved a bill (HB 1133) on Friday to prohibit smoking in all parts of the North Carolina legislative buildings, even though the House and Senate chambers have been smoke-free for several years. Supporters of the bill say it is important for lawmakers to set an example for the tens of thousands of visitors, many of them students, who frequent the legislature each year or serve as pages. Earlier this week, the surgeon general released a report citing “overwhelming scientific evidence” that involuntary smoking causes heart disease, lung cancer and a list of other illnesses. The analysis also named additional health risks for children. Despite the fact that North Carolina is the nation’s largest tobacco-producing state, House members approved the smoking ban 95-14.

New Rules For Lobbyists

The House approved a bill (HB 1849) yesterday that would prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, although they could still donate to political candidates. The new rules were developed from a special House panel recommendation earlier this year. It builds upon a 2005 lobbying reform package that was approved last year by legislators that will take effect in January and was designed to make lobbying activities more transparent by adopting greater reporting requirements. Some wanted that law to go further, particularly on the issue of lobbyists’ gifts to legislators.

The lobbying bill would merge separate rules for registering legislative and executive branch lobbyists with the Secretary of State’s Office under one law. Lobbyists or their principals would be barred from giving gifts to legislators, the governor, Council of State members, and their top assistants. Exemptions would be made for meals and drinks at public events such as receptions and trinkets worth less than $10. The bill also would require each lobbyist to restrict his or her total giving to candidates to $4000 per election cycle. An earlier version would have barred all donations, but several legislators and legal experts argued that the courts could rule such a prohibition unconstitutional. The proposed restriction also deletes an earlier provision that would have barred a lobbyist from soliciting donations on behalf of a candidate.

The legislation was one of ten recommendations by the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, on which I sat. The House has now passed nine campaign finance and ethics reform bills recommended by the committee.

Legislators Approve $18.9 Billion Budget

The House and Senate gave final approval to an $18.9 billion state budget on Thursday that provides more funding than ever before for education, gives teachers and state employees substantial pay raises, provides much-needed funding for health care, including mental health reform, provides for environmental protection, and offers tax relief to all North Carolinians.

Members of the House gave initial approval of the budget on Wednesday afternoon by a vote of 82-35, and final approval on Thursday, 82-31. The Senate approved the bill on Wednesday, 32-16, and on Thursday by a vote of 31-15. No Democrats voted against the budget in either chamber. Four Senate Republicans and 22 House Republicans voted for it on Wednesday, with similar numbers on Thursday.

Improving education continues to be our number one priority. Under the proposal, more than $10.8 billion will be provided for education. This total is more than $943 million above last year’s budget, and is in addition to $425 million in expected revenues from the lottery for early childhood education, reducing class size, school construction, and college scholarships.

The budget provides an 8% pay raise for our state’s valuable teachers and a 5.5% pay raise for state employees, which is more than the 5% originally proposed by the Senate and Governor Easley. We also provide full funding of the state’s low-wealth and disadvantaged student school funds, as well as doing away with the school system discretionary cuts forced by budget deficits since 2003 – this totals more than $110 million for our children and their schools. More than $163 million is provided to K-12 schools, universities, and community colleges to help educate the more than 27,000 new students expected this fall.

The budget includes a critical investment of targeted resources into health care, including mental health and community based services, emergency planning and management, public safety programs, and our courts. It provides $27.4 million in relief to all 100 counties to freeze the counties’ portion of Medicaid expenses at this year’s level.

We also dedicated $27 million to improve our court system by establishing numerous new positions across the state, including 90 new Assistant District Attorneys, 75 Deputy Clerks, 17 District Court Judges, and 6 new magistrates, including a new judge for Guilford County. And, we place over $560 million into savings accounts and repair and renovation of state facilities.

The budget provides close to $200 million in tax relief for all North Carolinians by cutting two “temporary” ½ cent taxes early that were initiated in 2001 at the height of the recession, which were set to expire next year. The budget reduces the state’s sales tax by a quarter of a penny on December 1, 2006 – just in time for the holidays – and will reduce the top income tax bracket for individuals and approximately 30,000 businesses from 8.25% to 8% starting January 1, 2007. House budget negotiators were also successful in convincing the Senate to go along with the House-sponsored tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees making less than $40,000 a year. Legislators also capped the state’s gas tax at 29.9 cents to ensure the tax does not increase further even if oil and gas companies continue to raise prices at the pump.

This budget has been produced in record speed and is balanced. It is the result of the most open budget process in recent years, and we stuck to the position of the House that the budget should not include any policy issues or special provisions.

The complete budget (Senate Bill 1741, proposed Conference Committee Substitute) can be found on the N.C. General Assembly’s website at:

Greetings From Raleigh 7-7-06

Although this week was shortened because of the long July 4th holiday weekend, we were extremely busy on Wednesday and Thursday in numerous committee meetings and lengthy sessions. We gave final approval to an $18.9 billion state budget, which now must be signed by the Governor, and passed bills on topics such as establishing a new lottery oversight committee, lobbying reform, requiring passengers to wear seatbelts in the back seat, eye exams for kindergarteners, mental health reforms, and sex offender registrations.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Jim Black said he’s hopeful the General Assembly can adjourn by the end of next week if legislators can complete work on the remaining bills. Adjournment likely will depend on how quickly the Senate finishes its work on a minimum wage increase, numerous campaign finance, lobbying and ethics reforms, eminent domain restrictions, and several other bills that have passed the House. The House worked late on Thursday to wrap up several bills and plans to start back early on Monday. The Senate is holding another rare Friday session today and will have more work to complete next week.