Representative Susan Fisher
N. C. House of Representatives
Raleigh, North Carolina 27603
February 6, 2007
Representative Susan Fisher’s Report from Raleigh…
The General Assembly has been in session a little over a week and legislators wasted no time in getting to work on the state’s business. Last Tuesday morning, my colleagues and I received a briefing on our state’s economic situation, which will help us as we begin work in the coming weeks on drafting a two-year budget. Wednesday morning we received updated information on our state’s Medicaid program. Over 100 bills have been introduced so far this session in the House and Senate on a wide range of topics related to education, health care, public safety, taxes, the environment and local projects across the state.
Please remember that you can learn more about the General Assembly by visiting http://www.ncleg.net/. Our newly updated website allows citizens to listen in on each day’s legislative session, committee meetings and press conferences, learn more about introduced legislation, and view each day’s schedule and list of bills to be voted on.
The House was back in session on Monday night at 7 pm. This week, we will receive briefings on our criminal justice system and mental health issues. Also on Tuesday, we will host the Appalachian State University football team to congratulate the players and coaches on winning their second straight national championship. The Mountaineers defeated the University of Massachusetts on December 15, 2006, by a score of 28-17.
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 General Assembly and the challenges you and your family are facing each day. By working together, we can make Buncombe County and all regions of North Carolina a better place to live, work and raise a family.
Number-crunching, a long list of needs, and not enough money to cover everyone’s “wish list”; was the theme at early morning briefings last week at the General Assembly. My colleagues and I received an overview of the state’s budget and economic outlook for the coming year, which is neither “great nor grim”; as a newspaper reporter described, but somewhere in the middle. Last week’s briefings were our first in-depth look at the state’s finances and expected expenses as we begin our work to draft and approve a two-year budget during the next five months.
First the good news: At the midway point of the current budget year, the state has exceeded expectations and collected $285 million more than the $8.7 billion that state economists had predicted we would collect. However, the economy is slowing down, causing the state to collect less tax revenue than it otherwise would, and our real estate market is uncertain – all of which could result in a larger budget shortfall.
Furthermore, the number of people moving to North Carolina continues to increase at a rapid pace. As the 10th largest state in the nation now, our budget expenses such as public school enrollment, teacher pay, health care costs and road improvements also continue to increase dramatically each year. For example, we will need approximately $200 million more to educate the new students arriving at our public schools and universities this fall. Medicaid, which is the state’s health insurance program for the disabled, poor and elderly that is funded with federal, state and county money, is expected to grow by 14 percent in the coming years. The state’s share of Medicaid is currently $2.4 billion, or one-seventh of the state’s annual $19 billion budget.
Although the next budget cycle, which begins July 1, will be tight, no one is expecting anything like the “billion dollar plus”; budget shortfalls a few years ago when our state’s economy was in a recession and we lost tens of thousands of jobs. Legislators, who are expecting a budget shortfall of $200 to $500 million, will now begin the task of looking at all areas of state government and various programs to determine what can be made more efficient or cut entirely in order to meet the growing needs of our state and her citizens.
High School Graduation Rates
The State Board of Education released new high school dropout statistics on Wednesday, which were troubling and must be improved. According to the Annual Dropout Event Report for the 2005-06 school year, the state’s dropout rate increased slightly in 2005-06 and is now 5.04 percent, an increase of 6.33 percent. Overall, the state recorded 22,180 students who dropped out of school in grades 9-12.
Many parts of the state experienced a decrease in dropouts with 46 of the 115 local districts reporting decreases, including Asheville City Schools. However, five of the state’s largest school districts account for a disproportionate amount of the increase. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Cumberland and Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools accounted for 56 percent of the increase in the grade 9-12 dropouts, but only made up 30 percent of the state’s high school student membership.
Data analysis found that almost one-third (32.7 percent) of all dropouts continue to occur during the ninth grade year with 25.7 percent of students dropping out in 10th grade and 22.4 percent of students dropping out in 11th grade. Dropout rates increase in frequency as students reach 16 years of age. Seventy-nine percent of dropout events occurred between the ages of 16 and 18.
The 2005-06 school year also saw an increase in the number of male students dropping out with over twice as many more leaving school than female students. Black males accounted for a disproportionate amount of the increase in the dropout count. While the dropout rates for Hispanic and American Indian students remain high, the rate for American Indian students decreased. The rate for Hispanic students continued to rise.
State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee and State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson called on legislators to increase the legal dropout age. “We are sending students the wrong message when we tell them it’s acceptable to drop out of school at 16,”; Lee said. “At a minimum our students need a high school diploma as a stepping stone to future success.”; Currently, state law requires students to attend school between the ages of seven and 16, but the State Board of Education is seeking legislation to change the age requirement to 18.
Legislators have pushed several reform measures in recent years in an attempt to restructure high schools and increase graduation rates. Currently, 58 North Carolina high schools are involved in Learn and Earn and the New Schools Project. These new programs are expected to expand to more than 100 schools by 2008. These efforts, as well as others across the state, are helping students access rigorous curricula, participate in smaller learning environments and receive the support they need to be successful in high school.
Prior to the start of the 2007 legislative session, I participated as a member of the House Select Committee on High School Graduation and Dropout Rates. The committee held meetings across the state to examine ways to ensure students receive a quality education, graduate, and go onto college and good paying jobs. House members will continue their work on this important issue in the coming months.
To access the complete dropout report released by the State Board of Education, go to: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/newsroom/news/2006-07/20070131-01.
Legislators, groups call for tax relief for working families
I was among a group of legislators joining numerous advocacy groups and citizens from across the state last Wednesday to call for the creation of a state earned income tax credit (EITC). They urged the General Assembly to consider passing one of at least three pieces of legislation introduced so far that would provide tax relief to low-income families making less than $37,000 per year. The bills (HB 6, HB 51, SB 7) would provide tax credits equal to 5 percent or 10 percent of the federal income tax credit, which was created in 1975.
In 2003, 733,000 North Carolina families applied for the federal EITC. Approximately $1.35 billion was returned to families who qualified, with the average family receiving a tax credit of $1,842. If successful, North Carolina would join 19 other states and the District of Columbia in creating a state version of the federal EITC, which could mean anywhere from $90 to $180 in tax relief for qualifying families.
Other Legislative Highlights
Below are several bills that have been introduced in the House during the last week which I co-sponsored.:
o House Bill 9, School Capital Fund Formula/Lottery Proceeds, would change the current formula for distributing lottery funds to counties for school construction. The original lottery bill, which passed in 2005, called for an estimated $170 million each year to be divided among the state’s 100 counties based on their number of students and the county’s property tax rate. HB 9 would distribute lottery funds based solely on the number of students.
o The Joint Legislative Committee on Domestic Violence recommended several bills that would better protect domestic violence victims and increase criminal penalties for abusers, including: House Bill 44, Domestic Violence Orders/Repeat Violators; House Bill 45, DV Victims/Add Protections; House Bill 46, DV Victims/Security; and House Bill 47, Violate Order/Possess Deadly Weapon Felony.
o House Bill 23, Funds for Statewide Health Promotion, and House Bill 25, Funds for Healthy Carolinians, would raise awareness of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and obesity and discourage physical inactivity, poor nutrition and smoking at health departments across the state.
o House Bill 24 would prohibit smoking in buildings owned, leased or occupied by state government due to health risks associated with secondhand smoke. The General Assembly buildings became smoke-free last year.