My colleagues and I were busy on numerous fronts this week. Members of the House and Senate started negotiations on the budget on Tuesday and their work will continue through next week as we try to reach an agreement on the spending plan for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. We passed legislation on important "non-budget" 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.Please remember that you can listen to each day’s session, committee meetings and press conferences on the General Assembly’s website at www.ncleg.net
. Once on the site, select "audio," and then make your selection – i.e. House Chamber, Senate Chamber, Appropriations Committee Room or Press Conference Room.
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 as a conferee to the subcommittee on Education.
Negotiators from the House and Senate appear to have reached a compromise 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, but the Senate had none. The Senate offered a compromise Wednesday in which it would agree to pay $20 million. Negotiators of the roughly $19 billion budget also haven’t finalized how to spend money toward a special fund for 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 in 2001 during the recession 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, when the current fiscal year ends.
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 that were 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.
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: www.firstgov.gov/veteransinfo.shtml.
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 due to several former legislators who spent donations on personal uses, including Rep. Joni Bowie (R-Guilford) who spent more than $16,000 on a car and computer after losing re-election in 2004.
North Carolina is one of only about 10 states that doesn’t limit how politicians spend campaign funds while running for office or after they leave office, said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, one of the bill’s sponsors. The bill is one of 10 recommendations from the House Select Committee on Ethics and Governmental Reform, which met prior to the start of this year's short session.
The bill would take effect on October 1, 2006. Bob Hall, research director for Democracy North Carolina, a campaign finance watchdog, supports the ban, but said starting the ban during an election season – i.e. on October 1, 2006 – and before campaign treasurers are required to get training, creates a situation where someone could unknowingly violate a law that carries a misdemeanor penalty. An amendment, supported by Hall and sponsored by Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, to change the effective date to January 1, 2007 failed by a vote of 44-70.
The House gave initial approval of the bill on Wednesday by a vote of 107-8 and final approval on Thursday, 104-5. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Assistance for Law Enforcement 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 and the League of Municipalities as well as the Association of County Commissioners.
General Assembly Honors Carolina Hurricanes and Olympic Gold Medalist Joey Cheek
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.
On Thursday, legislators 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. Cheek has traveled the world, including Darfur, to promote the "Right to Play" charity, which helps children in disadvantaged nations grow and develop through sports. He donated his winnings from the Olympics to the charity.
Women’s Advocacy DayOn 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, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, along with several House members and N.C. Women United leaders, advocated for women's and family issues. 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. One provision, dealing with the percentage of a tract of land that may be developed without installing engineered stormwater controls. The NCAR contends this legislation would be economically devastating to development in coastal areas.
The Apartment Association of North Carolina 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. The AANC promotes the interests of persons, firms, and corporations who develop, own, or manage multi-family residential housing.
The House will be back in session on Monday night at 6 pm.
As I’ve said many times before, I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues that are being debated by the North Carolina Legislature and the challenges you and your family are facing each day.
By working together, we can make Buncombe and all regions of North Carolina a better place to live, work and raise a family.