This is from Rep. Susan Fisher:
The House moved several significant pieces of legislation this week, approving measures to improve confidence in the workings of the legislative branch and our courts. My colleagues and I also gave our approval to proposals that would return scheduling flexibility to school systems and made progress toward our promise to try to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens can receive affordable health care. Thanks as always for giving me a chance to share this update and I look forward to hearing your thoughts as the important work of this session continues.
Please remember that you can listen to each day’s session, committee meetings and press conferences on the General Assembly’s website at http://www.ncleg.net/. Once on the site, select “audio,” and then make your selection – House Chamber, Senate Chamber, Appropriations Committee Room or Press Conference Room.
_ Members of the House have repealed a law that allowed chiropractors to charge patients the same co-payments as doctors. North Carolina is the only state with such a law, and while many of my colleagues didn’t disagree with the policy, they felt obliged to throw out the law because of its link to illegal payments made to former House Speaker Jim Black. Black acknowledged in state and federal court that he took $29,000 in illegal cash payments from three chiropractors who sought the change. He had it inserted as a special provision to a budget corrections bill in 2005.
_ A House judiciary committee has agreed that the state Supreme Court should examine not just death penalty cases but also cases that result in life in prison when it’s trying to determine whether sentences are consistent. So-called proportionality reviews allow courts to compare cases as they try to determine whether someone deserved the death penalty. Existing law only requires justices to review death penalty cases. The change would provide a check on “aberrant” juries, said bill co-sponsor Rep. Rick Glazier. The bill now goes to the full House for consideration. Some opponents argue the bill will only prevent the executions of people lawfully convicted of murder.
_ A University of North Carolina study commission has recommended that the system not convert private North Carolina Wesleyan College into the state’s 17th public university. The study found that such a conversion would probably cost $207 million over seven years. UNC President Erskine Bowles also said members of the study commission worried that it may be difficult to attract students and faculty members to the school. N.C. Wesleyan has 900 students on its main campus in Rocky Mount and 1,300 enrolled in satellite programs in Morrisville and Goldsboro. The commission believes the school would need at least 2,500 students to be a viable public university. The commission did recommend investments in the Rocky Mount area, such as learning centers and visiting professor programs.
_ The House has agreed to push back the cutoff date for children to enter kindergarten by 2 1/2 months. The existing law allows children who turn 5 years old by Oct. 16 to enter kindergarten that same year. The provision would set the cut off at Aug. 31 starting with the 2009-10 school year. The adjustment would delay the start of school for 15,360 children in the first year, legislative researchers said. Only seven states had cutoff entrance dates later than North Carolina, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The North Carolina Association of Educators, N.C. School Boards Association and N.C. Association of School Administrators all support the bill.
_ The House Education Committee approved a bill Thursday that would give school systems more flexibility with their calendars. The state’s school administrators support the bill, but the tourism industry opposes the change since it would practically reverse a law passed in 2004. That law bars schools from opening before Aug. 25 unless they get waivers for educational purposes or to allow them to plan for time that would be missed because of bad weather. The new proposal would allow entire school districts to start before Aug. 25 for educational purposes. During a nearly three-hour hearing at the Legislature on Wednesday, parents, teachers, students and others spoke out about the proposal. Some argue that the calendar requirements make it difficult for high school students to take community college courses. Others contend students need time off in late August to work and to take family vacations. Robert Logan and Cliff Dodson, City and County Superintendents attended and spoke in favor of local flexibility at the Public Hearing
_ Tourism revenue in North Carolina continues to grow, with more than 45 million visitors spending more than $15 billion last year. The 8.3 percent increase in spending from 2005 is the largest such increase since 1990. Tourism in North Carolina generated about $1.3 billion in state and local tax dollars in 2006, up from about $1.2 billion in 2005. The travel and tourism industry employs more than 187,000 North Carolinians. The data is from a preliminary annual study by the Travel Industry Association of America.
_ The House Finance Committee has passed legislation that would require the state treasure to sell off investments in companies linked to genocide in Sudan. State Treasurer Richard Moore already has already sold holdings in nine companies said to have provided money or military support to the Sudanese government, but some supporters of the bill say the state’s $70 billion pension fund may still have investments in other companies that benefit from the conflict. If the bill becomes law, North Carolina would become the first state in the Southeast to require divestiture of companies doing business in Sudan.
_ The North Carolina Association of Realtors has started a statewide campaign to fight any legislation that would impose a real estate transfer taxes or impact fee. The group said in a news release that it will use direct mail, radio and television ads in the campaign and that it has also established a Web site. Local bills allowing transfer taxes in five counties have already been filed in the General Assembly this year. Four of the bills would require advisory referendums before they would go into place. No such referendum would be required in Hoke County. House and Senate bills that would tax mortgages have also been filed.
_ The state’s hog lagoon moratorium is set to expire in September and lawmakers already have three bills to consider as they try to determine how to handle the potentially toxic pits.
A bill filed by Sen. Charlie Albertson would bar new lagoons and sprayfields that fail to meet environmental performance standards. A second, sponsored by Rep. Dewey Hill, would extend the moratorium for another three years. The moratorium has already been extended four times. Reps. Carolyn Justice and Marvin Lucas are among the sponsors of legislation that would effectively block most new lagoons, but also help swine farmers willing to experiment with other ways to treat hog waste pay for the new technology. The bill would create a five-year, $50 million program to help an estimated 100 hog farms.
_ The House Finance committee has approved a measure that would extend affordable insurance to high-risk people who may not otherwise be able to afford coverage. Anyone who has been refused coverage for health reasons by an insurer or who has been offered limited or exceedingly expensive insurance for the person’s high-risk medical condition would be eligible for the plan. Premiums for the insurance would be capped at 175 percent of the standard policy cost through a private provider. Establishing the pool is a priority for House Democrats, who say they want to improve access to health care and lower costs. I served on the Interim House Study Commission that developed this and other recommendations.
_ A vote on a bill to ban smoking in public places and businesses has been delayed until next week. House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman said many House members remain undecided on whether to back the bill. A judiciary committee last week agreed to the measure, which would ban smoking in most restaurants, bars, offices and factories. Holliman says many lawmakers are weighing health interests versus the rights of businesses to decide what people can do on their premises.
_ El Pueblo, an advocacy group for Hispanics, and the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People shared their hopes for this legislative session with my colleagues and me this week. The NAACP brought its 14-point plant to the Legislature on Wednesday as part of its People of Color Justice & Unity Legislative Day. Jean Larsen, William Lettman, and Avram Friedman visited the office representing Asheville NAACP. The group’s agenda calls for greater equality in education, abolition of the death penalty, abolition of mandatory minimum sentencing, support of collective bargaining for public employees, an end to the war in Iraq and support for community development corporations. Latino advocates say they will lobby lawmakers for in-state college tuition and wage enforcement for undocumented immigrants. El Pueblo’s top legislative priority is a special driver’s license for illegal immigrants.
Other legislative highlights
- House Bill 1020 would provide voter registration help for former felons whose citizenship rights have been restored.
- House Bill 1021 would appropriate $12 million over the next two years for operations and maintenance funding assistance to small, rural hospitals.
- House Bill 1026 would raise the cigarette tax from 35 cents per pack to 40 cents, with the additional money going to build a new cancer hospital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- House Bill 1044 would create an income tax credit for companies that hire certain low-income workers.
- House Bill 1076 would waive fees at UNC campuses and community colleges for up to six hours in course credit for state residents who are 65 and older.
- House Bill 1107 would increase district court judges’ terms from four to eight years.
- House Bill 1140 would shift the entire nonfederal share of Medicaid from counties to the state.
- Senate Bill 1492 would create an act to recommend changes to how landfills in the state are operated and licensed.
- Senate Bill 1543 would allow government workers to collectively bargain.
- Senate Bill 1553 would make computer manufacturers responsible for recycling discarded equipment