And want to know anything that's going on at the legislature--from sending comments to your representatives to checking issues being addressed? Just go to the General Assembly's homepage www.ncga.state.nc.us/homepage.pl. Paying just a little bit of attention can go a long way toward making sure this critical session isn't just about numbers, but is about us.
Julia Boseman: Trail blazer
When the General Assembly convened on Jan. 26, Sen. Julia Boseman became the first openly gay legislator in North Carolina. Her Senate campaign focused on her accomplishments while serving a four-year term on New Hanover's County Board of Commissioners. She pinpointed traffic and growth, education, a lottery, and economic development as her primary concerns--not her sexual orientation.
"I don't think (my sexual orientation) will affect my work," she says. "I plan to focus on constituent issues, not on my personal life."
However, Boseman's path to Raleigh was marred by the Republican Party's anti-gay campaign in support of her opponent, incumbent Woody White. The ads, which claimed she would pursue "a liberal, activist homosexual agenda," caused The Star-News in Wilmington to revoke its endorsement of White.
"She stood up to bigotry, she stood up to personal attacks and she stood up to meanness," Brian Lewis, director of development and public policy for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, said in introducing Boseman at a recent Planned Parenthood event that honored the 32nd anniversary of Roe v Wade.
Boseman, who was openly pro-choice in her run for Senate, said a woman's right to choose was important to the heath and well-being of women across the state and nation.
"While I support a woman's right to choose," she told the audience, "I also support making abortion more rare."
Boseman said she plans to concentrate on issues important to her constituents. One of her primary concerns is working to secure Department of Transportation funding for local highway projects, such as completing the Wilmington bypass. Boseman said she will try to get a seat on the Transportation Oversight Committee to ensure her projects are considered.
Retaining and attracting jobs to her district is also a top priority for her freshman term, Boseman said. As a member of the county board of commissioners she worked to bring filming of the TV series One Tree Hill as well as GE Nuclear headquarters and Verizon Wireless to New Hanover county.
"So many people have had to move and lost their jobs because the film industry has had to move," Boseman said. "We have been lacking in local projects for over a decade with past senators who haven't been bringing home the bacon."
Boseman says she supports a lottery as a means of attracting capital to her district. Boseman believes a lottery would keep North Carolinians from spending millions of dollars in neighboring states and could help support education initiatives, such as smaller class sizes, and a prescription drug fund for seniors.
"I take it very seriously what my constituents have sent me to do," Boseman said. "Keeping my promises is most important. I guess that's also my greatest fear."
Beverly Earle: Black Caucus leader, yellow-dog Democrat
There are a lot of Democrats in North Carolina who don't sound like Democrats. Rep. Beverly Earle of Charlotte does sound like a Democrat. When she discusses her personal goals for this legislative session--a death penalty moratorium, improving education for minority and low-income children, strengthening Medicaid, reforming the foster care system--her colors shine through. "I am what they call a yellow dog Democrat," she laughs, "and I value the issues that Democrats stand for."
Earle enters her sixth term in the legislature as the first woman to chair the legislative Black Caucus. She says the group's concerns are her own, especially the moratorium and educational issues such as examining alternative schools and considering the real impact of No Child Left Behind on minority and low-income children. The caucus will meet this week to formalize and prioritize its goals.
Often described as soft-spoken, Earle enters this session in a strong position to help set the agenda: She's co-chair of the appropriations committee, which puts together the budget. Earle says she will push for a proposed increase in the cigarette tax. "I think the time has come for us to certainly look at that as far as bringing in new revenue," she says. Ameliorating the budget shortfall is only one benefit. "I think it would really help deter young people from smoking." And what about Gov. Easley's pet revenue project? "I'm not sure where I am on the lottery right now," Earle says.
In dealing with harsh budget realities, Earle says she is trying to find a balance between the needs of children and the elderly. "I'm very concerned about child abuse and neglect, and how do we deal with this in the foster care system," she says. She's also concerned about the survival of Medicaid, which already takes up 15 percent of the state's budget while costs are expected to rise by $210 million next year. "I've been involved with Health and Human Services for most of my 10 years, so I'm very concerned about trying to control costs but also provide services."
Bill Faison: "Now's not the time for tobacco tax"
Bill Faison is a new face in the legislature. A Democrat representing Caswell and northern Orange counties in House District 50, Faison is a medical malpractice attorney who beat Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs in a rough race that showed the power of the rural vote: While Jacobs swept Orange, Caswell voters responded to Faison's outreach to farm families and his pledge to oppose any increase in the cigarette tax. He says his top priorities are jobs, education and health care--the kinds of meat-and-potatoes economic issues that his rural constituency cares about.
Some opposition to the cigarette tax increase may be waning now that the tobacco buyout has been accomplished, but Faison's position hasn't changed. "We all know cigarettes are not good for you," Faison says. "All you have to do is read the side of the package and it'll tell you so. But there are still farm families out there trying to figure out how they're going to make it."
The buyout happens over time and won't be much relief for now, he says. "I really don't think the tobacco tax is about taxes so much as it is about stopping smoking," he adds. "Now is not the time to do this. Perhaps in the future, but not now."
Besides, he says, there are a lot of things worse for your health than smoking. "Did you know that there are more people killed each year in automobile accidents than in the entire Vietnam conflict? And the number of people killed or maimed due to medical mistakes is double that." Faison says his top priority is jobs. He doesn't believe in handing out huge incentives to out-of-state companies like Dell. "We all know that the bulk of the jobs in this state are created by small businesses," Faison says. "We ought to look at incentives for businesses that are already here ... to help them create more and better jobs." He says education is a crucial aspect of job growth and supports what he says is a long overdue increase in pay for teachers and teachers' aides.
Perhaps underscoring Faison's tobacco-country appeal is his position on issues relating to gay and lesbian rights. "As a general proposition, I think the concept of gay rights is a misnomer," he says. "It's not about rights at all. It's about public visibility, people wanting to make a statement. Rights are legal things and can generally be accorded without involvement of the state." When asked where he would stand on legislation banning the legal recognition of any same-sex relationships, including domestic partnerships, a bill gay rights groups fear will be introduced soon, Faison responds, "I would not support legislation to treat same-gender relationships as if they were a husband and wife."
Clark Jenkins: Down East 'bidnessman'
Uh, oh. Did some of our environmentalist friends campaign for Sen. Clark Jenkins' opponent last year in the Democratic primary? Did they fail to dislodge him? (Close only makes it worse.) Were a number of these anti-Jenkins folks from the Triangle and parts west, while Jenkins is the quintessential Down East conservative bidnessman? Yes, yes, and he sure 'nuf is.
Now Jenkins, who was never much for urban amenities to begin with (his business is owning W.S. Clark Farms in Tarboro, and when he was on the state Board of Transportation he had a fondness , we're told, for the wide-open road) is the new chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, replacing the Triangle's own Wib Gulley. Gulley resigned his Durham-based Senate seat when he became counsel to the Triangle Transit Authority (TTA).
Is it just a coincidence that, all of a sudden, the state Department of Transportation says the urban areas are getting too much highway money, and henceforth we gotta be fair to all parts of the state? (But, would half an inch of snow gridlock Tarboro?) And with federal funding for the TTA's commuter-rail system under close scrutiny in Washington, to say the least, it would sure help if the state offered to pay more of the tab.
Used to be, TTA wanted 50 percent from the feds, with the rest state-and-local; now, it's asking for 61 percent from the state. That's money only the General Assembly can supply, either directly or by authorizing the Triangle to create some new local tax for transportation.
Jenkins was targeted by environmental groups over his fealty to the views of the N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry (NCCBI), in deference to such things as air and water quality. He's considered no friend to public transit. Nonetheless, when we sought comment on his new post, the conservationists weren't talking on the record anymore, except perhaps to mention the need for some "fence-mending." Is anyone afraid that the senator might exact some revenge for his political troubles? In a word, and only on background, yes.
Still, growth in the Triangle means more car traffic, more need for transit--and, by the way, more tax revenues for the state from more businesses. Sen. Jenkins, no hard feelings?
Carolyn Justice: Thinking outside the partisan box
State Rep. Carolyn Justice is one of a growing number of North Carolina lawmakers who want to raise the state's basement-level cigarette tax. Last year, she was a primary sponsor of a bill to hike the tax from 5 cents to 75 cents--the amount prevention advocates say is needed to make a real dent in teen smoking.
Justice says she'll push for the same thing this session. The fact that she's from Eastern North Carolina makes her support for a cigarette tax increase notable. The fact that she's a Republican makes it even more so.
"Is a cigarette tax a hard sell in my district? No. A survey by the [Wilmington] Star News found 71 percent were in favor of it," Justice says. "Is it a hard sell for me as a Republican talking about raising any tax? Yeah, it is."
Justice views the cigarette tax issue through a health care lens, not a budgetary one. And from that vantage point, she says, it makes good conservative sense: "If we can stop people from smoking on the front end, then we'll have fewer people on Medicaid at the other."
Justice has applied the same pragmatic thinking to the environment, winning praise from advocacy groups for her support for conservation tax credits and more funds for parks and green space. Last session, she backed tougher storm water pollution rules--regulations state Republican leaders were not enthusiastic about and that ultimately failed to pass.
Says Brownie Newman, director of political outreach and education for the N.C. Conservation Council, "Carolyn has showed a willingness to be a voice within her caucus for stronger environmental standards. It's fair to say that she is not only one of the best Republican legislators on the environment, but one of the best legislators period."
Voters appear to support her approach. Justice defeated a Republican challenger in the primary and won a second term in November. (The Conservation Council was among the groups that endorsed her).
That's not to say that the former Pender County commissioner, who works as business manager for Condo & Patio Associates, is liberal on all fronts. Equality North Carolina, a statewide gay and lesbian lobbying group, lists Justice as among those candidates who opposed gay-friendly legislation in 2004.
For her part, Justice sees no contradiction between her support for issues like environmental protection and her own conservative values. "I think saving our children and the environment are conservative issues," she says.
Nor does she consider herself a maverick in her party. "I don't look at it as bucking my party," Justice says. "There are a whole lot of different animals under this tent."
Still, her take on issues is far from lock step, which is why she's won the respect of so many advocates for liberal legislative causes. Look to hear her voice on important health and environmental bills this session.
Edd Nye: at the center of the medicaid debate
Alarm bells are sounding everywhere about Medicaid, the state and federally funded health-care program for the poor. But the nature of the crisis looks different from different ends of the political spectrum.
Conservatives are worried about spiraling costs. Medicaid has grown from about 8 percent of the state budget in 1993 to 15 percent this year. North Carolina's share of the program is now $2.4 billion, a figure that's expected to rise by another $210 million next year.
Advocates for the poor and the disabled, on the other hand, are worried about cutbacks. The Bush Administration is considering shifting more of Medicaid's costs to the states at a time when more people depend on the program for basic health coverage. Groups like the North Carolina Health Access Coalition argue that Medicaid spending is actually rising more slowly than private health insurance costs, and that cutting benefits will lead to more state spending down the road if needy children, seniors and disabled citizens are bumped from the rolls.
State Rep. Edd Nye is likely to be at the center of any Medicaid debate in the General Assembly. He was co-chair of a special legislative commission created in 2003 to come up with ways to limit spending on the program. (Sen. William Purcell, D-Anson, is the other chair.)
The commission didn't go the route of cutting benefits or eligibility, focusing instead on making Medicaid more efficient and cutting costs to the counties. But some worry that with new federal and state budget pressures looming, preserving benefits will be a hard road this session. Governors in several other states have recommended huge reductions in Medicaid.
Nye, a veteran of 29 years in the General Assembly, doesn't expect that will happen in North Carolina, though he does warn that benefits won't be expanding anytime soon.
"Health costs are escalating throughout the system," says Nye, who has co-chaired the Health and Human Services budget committee for the last 17 years on the House side. "Medicaid is probably doing as good a job as anybody at managing them."
One of the aims of the blue ribbon commission was to determine how to "maximize federal participation" in Medicaid. With the Bush Administration's plans for the program uncertain, that goal seems a lot farther away.
The Health Access Coalition is hosting a meeting on potential federal Medicaid cutbacks on Feb. 3 from 3 to 4 p.m. at the N.C. Child Advocacy Institute in Raleigh. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Bob Phillips: Election and lobbying reform champion
Each year Common Cause North Carolina, a non-partisan citizen's lobbying group, compiles a list of priorities for the upcoming legislative session by soliciting feedback from its 25,000 members, looking to examples from other states, holding internal meetings and working with the national office. The group is looking for specific ways to hold power accountable to North Carolina citizens, says Bob Phillips the state group's executive director.
In the wake of November's balloting, election reform will be topping Common Cause N.C.'s list this year, Phillips says. For starters, he will be working to ensure that the General Assembly provides sustained funding for statewide judicial elections. For the first time, candidates in the 2004 appellate court elections, which include the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, were not allowed to solicit contributions like their political counterparts. The model is the first of its kind in the U.S.
"This is important because statewide judicial candidates have a conflict, it seems, of soliciting money from people who may appear before them in court," Phillips says.
The Public Campaign Financing Fund gives candidates most of the funds needed to run their campaigns. Phillips says he will be working to expand this program and include more funding for voter guides, which provide citizens with objective information about each candidate. Last year, about 3 million guides were distributed in North Carolina with information about the judicial races.
Lobbying for more comprehensive voter reform will also be a priority, Phillips says, since changes were more difficult to achieve leading up to the presidential election last year. Topping the list are same-day voter registration, voter-verified paper trail, uniformity in voting equipment across the state, and requiring the release of information about computer systems that run voting machines.
Common Cause N.C. is a registered lobbying group, and Phillips says working for comprehensive lobbying reform is another primary goal this session.
"There needs to be tightening up of rules to get big special money out of the lobbying process," he says. "There is no place, in our minds, for money and gifts and perks that go along with the lobbying that takes place at the General Assembly."
Currently, lobbyists can legally give legislators gifts, meals and free trips as long as specific legislation is not discussed. However, Phillips proposes a ban on all gifts except those that cost $25 or less and are given to every member of the legislature as a way of making the legislative process more transparent. Phillips says many legislators recognize the problems in the current lobbying law and will be willing to help him achieve change.
"Our goal is to build a grassroots campaign and educate the public about this," Phillips says. "Our challenge and goal is to make sure (legislators) hear it from the home front."
Deborah Ross: A voice for housing and historic preservation
Deborah Ross is entering only her second term and already she has a reputation to live up to. Last year, Ross was ranked as one of the most effective legislators by a North Carolina Center for Public Policy survey of legislators, lobbyists and reporters. In her freshman term, she worked to pass legislation that helped struggling schools learn from the examples of more successful schools. In addition, she helped pass a bill to spur economic development in Raleigh's Blount Street Historic District. That legislation will allow the state to sell property, including historic buildings, in an effort to preserve the area.
This session, Ross once again has her goals set on development issues, specifically increasing funding for the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund. The fund, which provides capital for low-income housing, aids first-time home buyers and funds repairs and upgrades to low-income housing, currently has a budget of $3 million. Ross wants to increase its funding to $50 million. At that level, the Campaign for Housing Carolina estimates that 6,000 households spanning all of North Carolina's 100 counties could get help.
"People lose property because they can't afford to repair it," Ross says. "We don't have the money to meet housing needs, and housing needs are becoming more acute."
Ross is also focusing on development as a part of the Dorothea Dix advisory committee. The committee is charged with creating a master plan that evaluates the state's options when the Dix campus closes in 2007. While mental health, environmental, citizen and business concerns are all being considered, Ross says evaluating the cost of each potential decision is her primary goal.
"If we sold a lot of that property, the state would get the responsibility of relocating upwards of 1,000 employees and their parking spaces," she says. "I don't want that benefit to be considered without the cost. If you get rid of open space, what is the cost of that? I want all of that quantified."
Also in step with Ross's priorities from her freshman term is her focus on education. She says she is interested in making sure the state complies with guidelines set forth in the Leandro decision. The verdict of the landmark educational court case was handed down by the N.C. Supreme Court in July 2004 and establishes guidelines for equity in poor school systems where revenue from property tax is low. Ross says she will be focused on making sure changes are made in her district.
Other projects include funding for family courts in Wake County, a voter registration bill, tax credits for small businesses, a moratorium on the death penalty, and state employee pay and benefit increases.
The laundry list of bills and projects will challenge Ross's effective leadership. Last session she was ranked the 41 out of 120.
"I hope I'll be even more effective this session," she says.
Paul Stam Jr.: Turning the mainstream to the right
When he served in the N.C. Legislature the first time, from 1989-90, Apex Republican Paul Stam Jr. occupied a slot on the political spectrum that fell pretty far right of right.
In 2002, voters in Wake County's 37th district sent him back to Raleigh for a second term, and he won re-election easily last fall. His public stances really haven't changed that much--he's still crusading against abortion at every opportunity, and last spring asked his colleagues in the legislature to sign onto a resolution urging Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
It says a lot about N.C. politics that Stam--an attorney who uses the nickname "Skip"--seems to be assuming the mantle of a mainstream conservative leader.
"His emergence as a voice of leadership in the legislature is an interesting commentary on how right the legislature has gone," says Chris Fitzsimon, of N.C. Policy Watch.
Stam, 54, is a graduate of UNC's law school and a former Marine corporal. In his private law practice he has represented prominent anti-abortion and Christian groups in a variety of matters. He also handled several high profile cases involving municipal law in the Triangle, including a challenge to Durham's stormwater fees by four churches in the late 1990s and a suit brought by Cary residents who complained their town's public financing of campaigns was illegal.
In recent years, though, Stam has been gaining power in the halls of the statehouse, winning points with supporters and critics alike for his intelligence and financial acumen. "He has a very strong grasp of the law and the legislative process, and he's willing to hear input from everyone," says John Rustin, the lobbyist for the N.C. Family Policy Council, who has worked with Stam on many common agenda items. "He's a strong coalition builder."
That's not too surprising a compliment from a lobbyist who's likely to find Stam a friendly ear on most policy matters. But Stam's leadership has also garnered notice from some quarters you might not expect. Leaders of Coalition 2001, an umbrella group of 50 non-profits from around the state, have found him helpful in their quest for maximizing federal Medicaid dollars for services.
"It's a real pleasure to have someone who thinks creatively like he does," says Robin Huffman, the executive director of the N.C. Psychiatric Association and past president of Coalition 2001, which lobbies for mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse programs. "He's asking really good questions."
Jennifer Weiss: Fighting the good fight on taxes
Not for the first time will Rep. Jennifer Weiss be chief sponsor of a bill to increase the state's cigarette tax. She's been charging up that hill--well, trudging--virtually since she took her seat on the House Finance Committee five years ago. The difference this year is, success is in sight.
Now that Congress has enacted the tobacco buyout legislation, with its $10 billion payment to tobacco quota-holders (about $4 billion of which will land in North Carolina), the General Assembly is finally ready to add to our state's low, low tax of 5 cents per cigarette pack. It's the second-lowest butt tax in the country. (Kentucky's is 3 cents.) Even Virginia, home of Philip Morris, increased its cigarette tax to 20 cents a year ago--and it goes to 30 cents starting this summer.
Weiss's bill calls for a 75-cent tax hike, which would raise North Carolina almost to the national average. It may not go up that much, she acknowledges. "But I'm really going to be pushing for a high number--50 cents or above, at least," she says.
The main reason: higher taxes discourage smoking and save lives, she says. The state's health advocates estimate that a 75-cent increase would reduce the number of young smokers in North Carolina by 17 percent--translating eventually into 8,200 children who don't die from tobacco-related illnesses as adults.
Every penny added to the cigarette tax will yield about $7 million for the state.
The second reason, Weiss says, is to raise money for important human-services programs. Every year they get cut, she complains, and every year their waiting lists grow. "I'm going to be their advocate," she promises. Top priorities: the Health Choice program, which provides health insurance for children of working-class families; early-intervention help for kids up to 3 years old with developmental disabilities; the child-abuse prevention programs; and, of special interest to Wake County, money for mental-health services in Raleigh to make up for the planned closing of Dorothea Dix Hospital.
The state Supreme Court's ruling in the Leandro case also requires the state to find as much as $200 million more a year for the public schools in low-income counties to assure that every child in the state gets the good educational opportunity guaranteed by the state constitution. That's got to be a priority too, Weiss says.
As she begins her fourth term in the House, Weiss is emerging as one of its progressive leaders--and leaders, period. (She and Republican Sen. Richard Stevens were named co-chairs of the Wake delegation, for example.) For one thing, she says what she thinks. Calmly. She also does her homework, and her constituent work--to the point that, even though her Raleigh-western Wake district is one of the few that's considered competitive politically, no Republican ran against her last year.
In that vein, she knows that cigarette taxes are regressive--that is, the folks who smoke tend, on average, to be lower-income. The biggest tax issue in the General Assembly this year will probably be whether to let the "temporary" surcharges on the state income tax and sales tax expire, which would cost the state upwards of $500 million in annual revenue. Oh, and whether to have a state lottery and extract another $350 million or so from the working classes.
Of this lot, only the surcharge on the income tax is progressive--it applies just to those in the highest income bracket.
Weiss is anti-lottery. Otherwise, she' says it's too early to stake out specific positions on all the various tax proposals. But look for her to be a progressive voice--and leader--when the time comes.