Every other summer, lawmakers at the General Assembly hope to get in, get the budget done and get out of Raleigh. But with the governor's race wide open and the state strapped by a recession, the budget will get plenty of political tinkering. Meanwhile, progressives and conservatives alike hope to push forward a handful of other bills. Here's the political climate and progressive agenda for the short session 2008.
You've already heard about the "sin taxes" in outgoing Gov. Mike Easley's $21.5 billion budget proposal. An increase in taxes on cigarettes and alcohol would help pay for a 7 percent raise for teachers and a 1.5 percent raise, plus a one-time $1,000 bonus for state employees. But lawmakers aren't likely to go for either the tax increases, or for the governor's $400 million in cuts—unlike Easley, they're all up for re-election this fall. Nor do they like the discrepancy between the teachers' and state employees' raises. Instead, House budget leaders have proposed something closer to a 3 percent pay raise for both teachers and state employees.
But there's not a lot of wiggle room to pay for that, either. Last year, the legislature approved an income tax cut for the state's highest earners by eliminating the top tax bracket, reducing state revenue by about the same amount the new taxes would generate. Luckily, North Carolina is one of the few states not facing a budget shortfall this year. But money's tight—there's a $13 million increase just to cover gas price increases for public school buses.
Other politically urgent aspects of the governor's budget have more support, however:
The short session will also consider bills that made "crossover" last spring—that is, passed either the House or Senate—as well as recommendations from study committees and bills that require appropriations and therefore affect the budget.
A few items on progressive lawmakers' agenda:
Republicans announced their agenda on opening day, May 13, when House Republican Leader Paul "Skip" Stam stood beside Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger (Guilford, Rockingham) and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the GOP nominee for governor. They want to stop any new taxes, repeal the land transfer tax approved last year (but voted down by 20 local governments thus far) and lift the de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Also on the agenda is their perennial favorite, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
A political tussle has already begun over undocumented immigrants attending community colleges and public universities. State Attorney General Roy Cooper issued a letter to the state's public colleges and universities earlier this month advising them to ban undocumented students from their campuses. The community college system says it will comply with Cooper's opinion, but the University of North Carolina system has said it will not.
McCrory has been beating the anti-immigration drum throughout his run for governor, and so have other Republicans, including state Rep. George Cleveland (R-Jacksonville) who introduced a bill May 19 that would make Cooper's opinion state law.
To counter, Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) has introduced a bill that would prohibit public colleges and universities from asking about the immigration status of prospective students. —Fiona Morgan
A bond issue is considered a long shot in the short session, despite the recommendations of the legislature's 21st Century Transportation Committee. Funding to build the Triangle Expressway as a toll road in Research Triangle Park and western Wake County is a better bet.
"I've been opposed to a toll from the word 'Go,'" says state Rep. Ty Harrell (D-Wake), who adds that transportation is the Wake delegation's biggest concern this year. "Unfortunately, right now it seems to be the only viable way to get this road completed."
The 21st Century committee, a mix of influential lawmakers and private members, recommended last week that the General Assembly add money to the '08-'09 budget for road construction. Its suggestion is to phase out the longstanding practice of transferring funds—currently $172 million a year—from the Highway Trust Fund to the General Fund. Reducing that amount by $45 million this year and another $30 million next year would yield enough revenue to complete financing for the Triangle Expressway and two other planned toll roads in the Charlotte and Gastonia areas.
The committee also recommended that the General Assembly send a bond issue to voters this November of up to $1.5 billion, with most of the money for roads and an unspecified amount for public transit projects. Nina Szlosberg, a member of the state Board of Transportation and president of the N.C. Conservation Council, dissented because the transit funding was so unspecific. The prioritization of roads "made no sense to me when we're talking about creating transportation for the 21st century," Szlosberg said.
Szlosberg said she's hopeful, however, that the legislature will enact legislation permitting counties in the Triangle, Triad and Wilmington to vote on a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit projects and establishing a state matching fund of up to 25 percent of their project costs. "At least let's get the bank account open," she said, "and the state can put money into it in future years." The goal established by the 21st Century group is $2 billion in state funding for transit by 2020, Szlosberg added. —Bob Geary
The progressive social coalition known as "HK on J" is pushing several bills says Jarvis Hall, political action director of the N.C. NAACP, which heads the coalition.
"HK on J" is short for Historic K (Thousands) on Jones Street—an annual march and day of lobbying at the General Assembly for a 14-Point People's Agenda.
"We are particularly interested in issues related to funding for low-wealth schools," Hall says. "We want $50 million for the Housing Trust Fund. And we are really going to be pushing bills that address some of the injustices in how the death penalty is administered."
Al Ripley, staff lawyer with the N.C. Justice Center, is pushing lawmakers to fund several housing initiatives. He wants money for housing counselors who provide foreclosure counseling, and for legal service providers who represent homeowners in foreclosure hearings. The Justice Center is also advocating an expansion of the Home Protection Pilot Program, an initiative in 61 counties that provides loans to workers who have lost their jobs due to changing economic conditions.
Other bills on the agenda include House Bill 1583, which would allow public service employees from entering into collective bargaining agreements. Another top priority is the Racial Justice Act, which seeks to end racial disparities in the state's capital punishment system by allowing defendants to present evidence that a prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty was based on race. The bill would give judges the power to commute death sentences to sentences of life without the possibility of parole. —Mosi Secret
Got a gripe? A compliment? Here is a list of Triangle lawmakers and their legislative and personal phone numbers. To e-mail a legislator, type the first name[no space]initial of the last name @ncleg.net.
The General Assembly home page is www.ncga.state.nc.us, where you can find a list of bills under consideration and a calendar of legislative meetings. You can also listen to the House and Senate sessions and some committee hearings.