Back in January, we posited a "progressive prescription" for North Carolina's ills (see "The progressive prescription"). In the wake of the May 24 deadline for bills to remain viable by "crossing over" to the opposite chamber they started in, we take another look at key issues and where they stand heading into summer.
Health care: North Carolina's a long way from enacting universal health insurance, or even assuring "access" to same. But reformers are buoyed by House passage of two bills that are critical first steps in that direction.
One, HB 265, would create a so-called high-risk pool for health insurance, allowing some 18,000 people with serious "pre-existing" illnesses and no group coverage to purchase individual insurance plans at a rate that is, if not cheap, at least not astronomical. Rates would be capped at 175 percent of what other, "healthy" buyers are being charged, with any costs incurred beyond that to be shared by insurers and the state. (By the rest of us, in other words.) That's more than the 150-percent rate cap reformers were hoping for. Still, it's way less than what's now charged by Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C., our reluctant "insurer of last resort," as the N.C. Justice Center's Adam Searing notes. BCBSNC sometimes charges 700 percent or more of the healthy rate.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where the big question, according to Searing, isn't whether it will pass, but whether the 175-percent rate will survive or be jacked up even more to satisfy BCBSNC and the other insurers.
The second bill, HB 973, calls for "mental health parity." That is, health insurers would be required to cover physical and mental illnesses on the same basis, no longer excluding or discriminating against the latter. It passed the House easily, but not before it was stripped of a requirement that it cover substance-abuse treatment too. Also, on a 60-56 floor vote, group policies for companies with fewer than 25 employees were excluded, leaving out an estimated half of the working population. Chris Fitzsimon of N.C. Policy Watch nonetheless called passage of the bill "an important victory" after years of trying.
Sex education: HB 879, the "Modified School Health Education Act," did not even make it to the House floor by crossover, and it looks pretty dead. The House Health Committee was OK with it, sending it on to the House Education Committee; but the bill stalled there and was never brought to a vote because a majority of the education committee was opposed.
The bill would've required that public schools add accurate information about contraception methods to the currently mandated "abstinence until marriage" curriculum. It also called for sex-ed classes to be "appropriate for ... [and] not reflect or promote bias against any person on the basis of sex, ethnic group identification, race, national origin, religion, color, sexual orientation, gender identity or mental or physical disability."
The combination got conservative groups hot under the collar. They want students taught that the only way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies is with abstinence until marriage, with marriage being the traditional kind. No fooling around otherwise, and if anything's to be taught about contraception methods, they believe, it should be how easy it is to mess them up, not that they can work if used correctly.
Some school districts have opted for the more comprehensive approach on their own. But it requires going through an inevitably heated public hearing process that most districts, including Wake County, have chosen to avoid. The bill would've made the comprehensive approach the default statewide, allowing parents to opt out if they didn't want their children exposed to it.
Elections reforms: The progressive side is pushing two measures and both remain alive.
One, HB 91, calls for "same-day voter registration," meaning voters could register and cast a ballot on the same day, escaping the current requirement that every voter be registered 25 days prior to an election day. The bill, as drafted by Wake County Democrat Deborah Ross, is a go-a-little-slow approach. To overcome Republican objections about potential voter fraud, the Ross bill stops with early-voting sites, which close up two days before Election Day; and same-day registrants would cast "retrievable ballots," meaning that if the voter wasn't eligible (e.g., didn't really live in the district), the ballot could be tossed out and any fraud prosecuted. Registration on Election Day itself would not be allowed.
The point, of course, is to boost voter turnout, which was an "embarrassingly low 29 percent of the voting age population" in the 2006 elections, 47th worst of the 50 states, according to the N.C. Justice Center. It was especially bad among younger voters, who vote more often in the six states that have had same-day voter registration for a decade.
HB 91 passed the House in early April but hasn't budged since in the Senate, where Democratic leaders aren't sure they want more voters, according to what the reformers are hearing.
The other measure—and there are several bills—would create a public financing "alternative" to campaign fundraising in Council of State elections and perhaps a few "pilot" legislative districts as well.
The leading House bill would target the state auditor, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction elections in 2008. A counterpart Senate bill would establish public financing for eight Council of State offices—all but governor and lieutenant governor—but wouldn't begin until 2012.
The House bill is expected to be heard in committee soon, Democracy North Carolina's Bob Hall says. There's less urgency to get the Senate bill started. Neither was subject to crossover because each has a budgetary impact.
Halls's optimistic one or the other will be enacted this term, building on the state's current system of public financing for judicial elections.
Domestic violence: The N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence is celebrating this year, as several bills designed to curb domestic violence passed at least one chamber, and the rest are crossover exempt.
Already ratified are a bill to develop an accurate reporting system of domestic violence homicides (the same bill also adds stalking to the crimes covered by the domestic violence bond law) and a bill to make available a private waiting area in each courthouse for domestic violence victims.
Several more made the crossover deadline:
Beth Froehling, NCCADV's public policy director, says the biggest priority now is getting a bill passed that would make it a felony to violate a protective order for the second time—currently, a violator gets four strikes before the felony charge. The bill is currently waiting for review before the appropriations committee. Froehling is hopeful that the necessary funding will be provided to get this bill passed.
"There need to be meaningful consequences right away," she says. "By charging a felony on the second violation, we really believe that will save lives." Some $2 million in domestic violence appropriations in the general budget are also on the line.
Juvenile justice: The effort to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 is still going, despite the fact that HB 492 didn't make it through its second committee hearing by the crossover deadline. (Its companion, SB 1078, never made it past the first one.) A spokesperson for Rep. Alice Bordsen (D-Alamance), the bill's principal sponsor, says "the issue is alive."
Currently, North Carolina is one of only three states that tries all children aged 16 or older in the adult system, regardless of the crimes they are accused of. The N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Study Commission recommended raising the age.
Dorothea Dix: The House passed a placeholder bill, HB 1644, that calls vaguely for the state to "examine the possibility" of a park on the state-owned Dix property if and when the psychiatric hospital there is closed. Any park plan should generate "significant revenues" for mental health services statewide.
"Significant revenues"? Over to you, City of Raleigh, where thousands of residents display their "Dix 306" yard signs—the property is 306 acres—in hopes that it will become Raleigh's Central Park. But the city government has yet to make an offer. Estimates of the property's value have ranged from $40 million on the city's side to much, much more in the opinion of some state officials.
The lone dissenter on HB 1644, a Rocky Mount Republican named Bill Daughtridge, said the state should test its worth by putting it up for sale to developers, with Raleigh given the right to match any bid.
In recent weeks, parks advocates have been hearing that the city might propose some form of lease-to-own arrangement whereby Raleigh and an allied Dix Park foundation would make payments to the state over a fixed period of time rather than a single lump-sum payment. It's all very hush-hush, and the devil would still be the amount of the payment(s), up-front or not.
Should a deal be struck, HB 1644 could be amended in the Senate.