Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Well, pretty slow day at the legislature. Most of the talk was how bad tomorrow's storm might be and many took off for home a day early. We did hear this afternoon from Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry that the Council of State will take up the execution and doctor issue Tuesday at its regular meeting. Monday the House Select Committee on Capital Punishment also meets.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to file bills. Wednesday, several groups and lawmakers pushed for a state earned income tax credit. Interestingly newly elected House Speaker Pro Tem Representative William Wainwright spoke on behalf of Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue. Not long after, State Treasurer Richard Moore sent out his own release in support of it. Both are considered Democratic hopefuls for the Governor's mansion. Republicans also put in their two cents against the EITC shortly after. Here's all three releases sent to me.

1. From the NC Justice Center
"(RALEIGH) – State Representative Jennifer Weiss, along with several statewide advocacy organizations and other legislators, called for the creation of a North Carolina Earned Income Tax Credit to build on the successful federal EITC. Weiss also encouraged North Carolina’s working families to file for the federal EITC if they are eligible.
“Nearly 750,000 North Carolina tax filers and their families claimed the federal EITC in 2003, receiving an average of $1,800 per family,” said Weiss, a Democrat from Wake County. “It is the nation’s most effective and efficient program for helping low- and moderate-income working families. A state EITC will only add to its benefit.”
“Unfortunately, tens of thousands of eligible North Carolina families don’t file for the EITC, leaving more than $100 million unclaimed,” according to Lucy Gorham, director of EITC Carolinas, a project of MDC Inc. “In all 100 North Carolina counties, free tax services are available that can help families determine if they’re eligible for the EITC and help them file.”
An Earned Income Tax Credit is a tax reduction and a wage supplement for low- and moderate-income working families. The federal government administers the EITC through the income tax system. Because of the success of the federal EITC, 19 states and the District of Columbia have coupled a state EITC to the federal credit.
With the exception of Minnesota, the state EITCs are modeled on the federal, using the same eligibility requirements, and are set as a percentage of the federal credit. For example, a married couple with two children and an income of $17,390 would get the maximum federal EITC of $4,716. With a state EITC set at 10 percent of the federal credit, that same family would get a $472 credit on their state taxes.
The NC Budget & Tax Center issued a report at today’s event titled Making Work Pay for Low- and Moderate-Income Families: A State Earned Income Tax Credit for North Carolina. The report details the benefits and costs of implementing a North Carolina EITC, including data showing the benefit to each county.
“A state EITC would increase the impact of the federal EITC, further supplementing wages and improving tax fairness for low- and moderate -income working families,” said Meg Gray, author of the report and tax policy analyst at the NC Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.

The report finds these critical points:
· The EITC is targeted to help those who need it most. Sixty-nine percent of North Carolina families that claim the federal EITC earn less than $20,000 annually. These same families would benefit from a state EITC.
· A state EITC would further the federal EITC’s benefits. In fiscal year 2007-2008, a North Carolina EITC set at 10 percent of the federal EITC would provide close to $134 million to North Carolina working families, with an average benefit of $163.
· A state EITC would improve tax fairness by reducing the disproportionate share of income that low- and moderate-income workers pay in state and local taxes. In 2003, the bottom 20 percent of North Carolina taxpayers paid 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes while the top 1 percent of taxpayers paid only 6.3 percent.
“A North Carolina state Earned Income Tax Credit would enhance economic security and provide workers with more income to pay for basic expenses,” added Gray. “In particular, a state EITC is an effective tool to improve fairness in North Carolina’s tax system, reducing the high proportional share of state and local taxes shouldered by the lowest-paid workers. A combined federal and state EITC would make a significant difference in improving the lives of more than 800,000 low- and moderate-income workers and their families in North Carolina.”

2. From Moore's office
RALEIGH – On the eve of National EITC Day, State Treasurer Richard Moore issued the following statement in support of a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Throughout his tenure as Treasurer, Moore has been active in encouraging North Carolinians to claim their federal EITC and in publicizing the availability of free tax assistance through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and other sites.

“Now that we have raised the minimum wage, it is time to take the next step and enact a state earned income tax credit to help North Carolina’s working families,” Moore said. “One in five North Carolina tax filers received the federal EITC in 2003, showing the power of this credit to touch families across our state. With just a 10 percent match of the federal EITC, we could put an additional $136 million into working families’ pockets. This is a policy that rewards honest North Carolina values – hard work, family and doing what is right.”

3. From Republican Senator Eddie Goodall
Democrat legislators today unveiled a plan highlighting bills entitled “Rewarding Work Tax Credit,” which is touted as tax relief for working families. Both the Senate and House companion bills would allow 5% of the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for North Carolina workers, effectively creating a North Carolina version of the Federal EITC.

The Federal EITC was established in 1975 as an incentive for people to work by adding a tax break for people with lower incomes. The credit would phase out as their income increased. The credit later became refundable and has escalated to a federal maximum of $4,400. Federal credits claimed for N.C. workers totaled $1.3 billion in 2003.

With the proposed North Carolina EITC, five percent of the federal total would distribute around $65 million in state credits to North Carolinians, paid from North Carolina’s General Fund Budget and funded by taxpayers not receiving the credit.

Senator Eddie Goodall (R-District 35) made the following comments regarding the bill:

“The suggested EITC bill sounds nice, but has a serious flaw. Of the $65 million, only $6.5 million would be tax relief, while the other $58.5 million would be a cash subsidy or a welfare transfer due to a problem in the bill.

“Because this allows any excess over and above an individual’s North Carolina income tax to be refundable, it means even after a taxpayer pays no North Carolina income tax, they would get a bonus paid for by everyone else. Instead, we should take the $58,500,000 windfall and provide a true tax break to hundreds of thousands who, under the Democrats’ version, would see no tax relief at all.

“The refundable credit would cost the state $800,000 to $1.3 million annually just to manage. Spending a million dollars for another government subsidy that only supplies workers tax relief of $6.5 million is not smart.”

Goodall is offering plans to the bill’s sponsors to correct the refundable flaw in their proposal and to create a new “N.C.’s Future” child tax credit of $100 for every child in a lower income household. The Federal government already has a similar credit of $1,000 per child but North Carolina has no such tax break for families with children.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Just got off the phone with former NC Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr. He says he will likely file his papers for his campaign by the end of the week or early next week. He said he's overwhelmed by the attention he's gotten just today after word spread.

Orr told me public education will be his number one priority. In particular, he's concerned that teachers are having to play a social worker/law enforcement role in the classroom and can't simply teach and that's having an impact on all other areas of education.

To no one's surprise he also wants to change how the state lures in companies to provide jobs. He's against the state giving huge tax breaks and incentive packages to companies like Dell and Google. He thinks it's unfair to other companies and the state loses out on millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Well the state budget outlook is in and......they're not quite sure. Fiscal experts told lawmakers today they expect $285 million more in revenues than projected. Rep. Jim Crawford and others were quick to point out to reporters that doesn't mean there's a surplus. Basically that means there are still more bills to pay than money available.

It appears lawmakers will use that money to fill a gap expected in the 2007-2008 part of the upcoming two year budget. Rep. Jim Crawford expects the deficit to then be about $500 million. Other fiscal folks told us it could be anywhere from $200-500 million. While that seems like an obscene amount of money, it is just a percentage when you're talking about a $20 billion budget.

The real fear is what might happen in 2008-2009. On and off the record lawmakers are seriously worried that revenues will fall and the cost of a growing state will put the state in a massive bind. Will that mean massive cuts and job losses? Too early to tell, lawmakers say but they are clearly worried and that could have a significant impact on how the upcoming budget is put together and eventually passed.

Tomorrow, fiscal experts will brief lawmakers on Medicaid. There's a huge push to take on the county's cost.

Former NC Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr says he's running for governor. He's an interesting candidate by all accounts. Could do well with the base for the primary and has a strong background and is clean politically. It's shaping up to be an Orr-Bill Graham race. If Orr wins it will be interesting to see how he overcomes his relatively unknown status in many parts of the country.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Welcome to the new week! I spent Monday at Wake Forest University. Former North Carolina Senator, Presidential candidate, Vice Presidential candidate, and now Presidential candidate again John Edwards was a guest. It was part of the law school's conversation series. It was a question answer type situation but his handlers did not make him available to the media afterward for an interview.

While he made poverty the big issue at his announcement, he made Iraq the issue at this appearance. He criticized President Bush for his proposal to send more troops. Edwards wants to start bringing them home instead.

He also said he plans to unveil his universal health care plan soon as well. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Happy Friday! Don't forget to watch Political Connections tonight at 6:00 and again on Sunday morning at 11:00. This week we take on water supply issues related to growth across the state. Our guests are Dr. David Moreau from the Environmental Management Commission and State Senator Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange County).

It's a quiet day in state government. Lawmakers are back in their districts until late Monday afternoon.

The State Health Deparment did announce a major deal with GlaxoSmithKline today. The drug company basically agreed to give doctors and local health departments first dibs on the flu shot next fall. A lot of people don't realize that distributers give flu vaccine to the Walmarts' and CVS' of the world. It happens that way because it's a huge order and guarantees a big sale quickly. By the time doctors are able to buy the vaccine it's often the middle of November or December. GSK has agreed to give two million doses in October. Here's the full release from the state.

"North Carolina physicians will receive flu vaccine early nextseason, thanks to a groundbreaking agreement announced today. The contract, between the North Carolina Community Care Networks, Inc (NCCCN) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is designed to address the problem ofdelays that the state's doctors and local health departments have experienced during past flu seasons.Under this first of its kind agreement, GSK agrees to ship up to twomillion doses of flu vaccine to North Carolina doctors and local healthdepartments. Doctors and local health departments will have theopportunity to order vaccine through the contract for the 2007/2008 fluseason. "As a physician, I've been troubled by the delays in private providersand local health departments receiving flu vaccine," said Dr. AllenDobson, DHHS Assistant Secretary for Health Policy and MedicalAssistance. "After last fall's delay, North Carolina medical community leaders got together to figure out how we could address what seemed tobe a recurring problem. GlaxoSmithKline has risen to this occasion, ensuring that our doctors will receive vaccine early in the season whenit will make the most difference." "We're delighted to work with North Carolina Community Care Networks onthis innovative program," said Chris Viehbacher, President, US Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline. "Each year, the flu causes some 36,000 deaths in the US, so it's critical that anyone who wants a flu shotshould be able should be able to get one easily." "Since our member practices will receive priority distribution of vaccines at the same time as commercial entities, patients can bevaccinated in their medical home as part of a physician's coordinatedcare plan," said Dr. Steven E. Wegner, President of North CarolinaCommunity Care Networks Inc. The agreement also improves the vaccine distribution system by allowing direct communication with themanufacturer about supply, ensuring that physicians can provide vaccines for all of their patients. State Health Director Dr. Leah Devlin applauded the development. "Right now, we know that there are health departments with unused vaccine forthe current flu season because it arrived too late," she said. If local health departments choose to participate in this contract, then they should be able to begin vaccination clinics early in next year's season. The North Carolina Medical Society agreed. "The North Carolina MedicalSociety is pleased that Glaxo has partnered with North CarolinaCommunity Care Networks to provide flu vaccine in a timely manner tophysicians in their offices and to the local health departments," said Dr. Darlyne Menscer, who is president of the Medical Society. Physicians can be trusted to immunize our most vulnerable patients; those with asthma, diabetes, heart disease,the elderly, pregnant women and children." NCCCN is the administrative organization coordinating the development of a demonstration project to improve care for the North Carolina Medicarepopulation. It builds on the success of the 14 Community Care of NorthCarolina networks that manage quality and cost-effective care for Medicaid enrollees through evidence-based practice guidelines, and targeted care and disease management programs. NCCCN has approximately 5,000 participating physicians in 1,250 practices across the state.Physicians interested in participating in the program may contact NCCCNat, 1-800-757-6587, or 3500 Gateway Boulevard, Suite110, Morrisville, NC 27560.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

There's as much confusion at the legislature as there is in the courts over the death penalty. A Wake County judge halted executions until the Governor, Attorney General, and/or Council of State can figure out how an execution moves forward without a doctor. This comes after the state medical board approved a policy last week essentially forbidding doctors to take part in executions. Very few know how state leaders will respond to all of this. Speculation is much more prevalent than facts at this point.

Lawmakers are no less confused and vary greatly on opinions. Wednesday 30 lawmakers sent a letter to the Governor telling him to stop executions because of a question of pain during the lethal injection. None of the lawmakers believe that letter had an impact at what's happened since, but there's different motives even among lawmakers. Some want a permanent stop to executions based on the court ruling, others want to use it as a tool to pass a two year moratorium to study the issue, and others (mainly Republicans) want to amend the law to say a doctor isn't even necessary to perform an execution. Throughout all of this one key fact has been missing. What in the world does a doctor do at North Carolina executions. No has truly said what their current role is in detail and prison officials will not disclose that information.

At the least, expect a flurry of legislation and plenty of debate now in committee rooms on Jones Street.

On another note, newly elected House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman told me today he plans to file a bill to ban smoking in public places within two to three weeks. Local communities want the option to ban it, but Holliman told me he has enough votes to get the statewide ban passed (at least in the House). Bars who have less than 20% in food sales would be exempt. What a difference a couple years can make! A tobacco buyout and the report about second hand smoke last year definitely are making this possible. Stay tuned!

House members put on a good show of bi-partisanship and feel good moments Wednesday but behind the scenes many lawmakers and lobbyists are still nervous and won't truly believe it until they see it months from now. Many observers believe the love fest will continue for several weeks but the big test will be when permanent rules are put in place and budget talks begin.

Both chambers are now in recess until Monday night.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Well, it's begun! A new session, a new speaker, and new hope. Just like January 1st for everyone else, the new session is a time for resolutions for lawmakers as well. A partisan vote helped put Orange County Democrat Joe Hackney (68 to 52 vote over Wake County Republican Paul Stam) in the Speaker's chair with the gavel. Immediately, Hackney promised open and fair debate. As soon as he did that, Stam and fellow Republican, Guilford County Representative John Blust, stood up and complained about the temporary rules put in place. To be fair, they are just trying to set the tone and let Democrats know they want changes and they want a fair shake. Hackney set the tone himself in his speech. Unlike many prior speakers who use the speech to outline policy priorities, Hackney spent most of his time setting the tone for a fair, ethical, open government. As the first day ended, most lawmakers on both sides of the aisle felt the tone was right and will begin the healing process the House needs after a year of controversy surrounding now former speaker Jim Black. Other say proof is in the pudding and will wait to see it for themselves.

Part of this blog I hope to provide is more "stuff" than we can show you in a minute and a half television story. In the spirit of this blog, I turn it over to Speaker Hackney. Below is a copy of his entire speech Wednesday and you can judge for yourself.

"I am truly grateful and honored that you the members of this House have elected me to be your Speaker.
I have many, many "Thank you's"
To Betsy, for her love and support during my legislative service and always;
To Dan and Will, who never have experienced their father not serving in this House;
To the citizens and voters of Chatham, Orange, and now more recently Moore County, for allowing me to serve them;
To the folks at Epting & Hackney, and especially my law partner of 33 years, Robert Epting, for making it possible for me to serve here;
To my seat mates over the years, Patricia Love, Anne Barnes, and Verla Insko, for their support and collegial working relationships;
To many mentors over the years, including Ike Andrews, Edward Holmes, Liston Ramsey, George Miller, Allen Adams, and Jack Hunt;
And to my staff over many years, especially Lucille Thompson, Emily Reynolds Freeman, and Laura DeVivo.
I do not come to this position as a neophyte. It took a while. In contrast, Sam Rayburn became Speaker in Texas in his third term. The current Speaker in California was elected in his second. I am no flash in the pan. I know a thing or two about this institution and its customs and procedures.
Nonetheless, I am acutely aware that I will need the support and cooperation and advice of all of you if we are to have a successful two years for the citizens of North Carolina. I most humbly ask for that support, cooperation, and especially your advice.
The position of Speaker of the House dates from the beginning of our General Assembly, more than three centuries ago. The speakership is not a command position. The Speaker is the elected leader of the House, whose powers are formally defined in the Rules of the House, and whose effectiveness depends upon the support and cooperation of this body.
The Speaker's main task is to help House members identify, address, and decide upon the issues that come before us in an orderly, thorough, and responsible manner.
Having served here for 26 years, more than half my adult life, during the tenure of a variety of Speakers, I am aware of the limitations of this office.
Perhaps the good will I feel in this room today will ease the way for a constructive legislative session. It is my modest hope that we might find it easier to reach common understandings of problems and issues, and to design mutually acceptable solutions to them.
I come here today with the greatest respect for this North Carolina House of Representatives, and the people who come here to serve in it:
There is no place in this State where public servants are more in tune with the citizens of North Carolina, than in this chamber.
There is no place in this State where the issues of government and politics are better or more fully debated, than in this chamber.
There is no place in this State where the interests of the less fortunate of our citizens are better represented, than in this chamber.
There is no place in this State where those who debate and decide civic issues have more good will, altruism, or intent to serve all for the common good.
And there is great collective wisdom in this body.
Wisdom is the specific Quality of the Legislature. Benjamin Franklin said that in 1789. He was the elder statesman of the new republic, the conscience of the experiment in self government and liberty that was to become the United States of America.
That wisdom, he said, grows out of the Number of the Body,120 of us in this House,and is made up of the Portions of Sense and Knowledge which each Member brings to it.
The knowledge is easy to identify. We are farmers who hold within our hearts the cycle of the seasons and the needs of the land; we are businessmen who have learned to make useful goods and deliver quality services to customers at a fair price; we are teachers who have mastered difficult subjects and excited the next generation; we are lawyers who understand the letter of the law, and practice to honor it and spread its cloak of justice and fairness over all our citizens; we are skilled physicians, experienced craftsmen, accountants, realtors, managers, administrators; we are parents who have struggled with teenagers and we are children who have tended to our own aging parents; some of us have, through the course of our lives, marked achievement upon achievement; most of us have failed and picked ourselves up and tried again. The knowledge that we as individuals bring is, therefore, easy to identify.
But Franklin also spoke of the "Portions of Sense and Knowledge which each member brings."
The people of North Carolina look to us, above all, to exercise, as my mother would have said it, good sense. The folks in your district believe you have it. They would not have elected you otherwise. But they are afraid, ladies and gentlemen, that the rest of us up here do not.
Well, we do. The task for us, in this session of this honorable body, is to arrange our work, to structure our relationships, to focus our minds, and to open our ears in ways that will let good sense prevail.
How do we do that?
First, we do it by humbling ourselves to the task. We are the representatives of more than eight million people. We are the inheritors of a great historic tradition. We are not here for ourselves.
Second, we carefully think about the mechanics of our tasks how shall our committees work, how shall candid and full debate be preserved, how are the rights of the minority to be protected? On these questions I pledge to you my fullest attention and effort. Specifically, I pledge that I will work to allow ample time for the study of legislation before we vote. I will try to keep substantive unrelated legislation out of the appropriations bill, as Speaker Black did last time. I will try to assure orderly and sensible movement of bills to the floor. And I will try to assure fair debate.
Third, and most importantly, we must each of us pledge ourselves to civility. I am reminded of the advice that Rep. Lucas' pastor gave those of us assembled at a recent Martin Luther King Jr. Day address at a small church in Chatham County. He said: "My mother told me, Good manners will take you where education won." My mother would have agreed as well. And so I renew my commitment to civil discourse. It is how we will get the business of the people of this State done. Our Majority Leader and our Minority Leader, I am confident, will be two of the best examples to follow in this regard.
Franklin, in his same writing, said that each legislature must prepare for itself a "Barrier against the Impulses of Passion, the Combinations of Interest, the Intrigues of Faction, [and] the Haste of Folly."
We can, we have the wisdom, and we will, with humility, with effort and thought, and with civility.
We shall do so because the citizens of North Carolina deserve no less than the power of the combination of all of our ideas and opinions, because democracy demands the opportunity for competition among ideas, and thrives only when what we produce has been tested and digested by survival in free and open debate.
Yet it is sure, even as we act with civility and accumulated wisdom, that sometimes our intentions will be called into question. Last session, this House led our State- in fact, led the nation- in raising the standards of legislative and executive ethics.
The people of North Carolina want us to continue to focus on our ethical obligations, to enforce the new standards, and to strive to improve them, and we will do so.
Our 2006 ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance reforms are recognized as among the nation's most far-reaching. Other States will now use them as models. Recent congressional reforms do not match their vigor.
We are making great progress in implementing these new standards.
Over the next several weeks, our legislative ethics staff, in conjunction with the State Ethics Commission and the Secretary of State's office, will provide training to all legislators and legislative staff. Perhaps eight hundred people in all will participate. About 150 already have done so. I have requested that our staff have such opportunities available every legislative day for the first part of our session.
Likewise, we have made sure that campaign treasurers will receive training, in order to improve compliance with campaign finance laws and for more accurate reporting.
We all - members of this House and our staff - want to abide by these new laws and standards, and to show to the people of North Carolina that we are doing so, and I am dedicated to making sure that all have the information needed.
In one of his most successful and familiar speeches, Abraham Lincoln began as follows: "The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of them." So it is here today.
What is new is also old and familiar: the challenge to keep our State's finances and economy strong, the demands of education, jobs and health care, and hundreds of other vital concerns that make up our session's work. It has been such since I first came here.
You who have served in this House can take pride in the financial integrity of our State. North Carolina, as we recently heard, is one of only seven states that have earned the Triple A bond rating from all three rating agencies. To you who are new, I say: We must preserve that integrity. For the next two years, we are the stewards of a tradition of responsibility.
We must look hard for efficiencies and redundancies in our budget. Some programs have outlived their usefulness. And, we will cut them.
All North Carolinians are proud of our beautiful beaches, our majestic mountains, our countryside, our vibrant cities. Here is one more point of pride: Unlike many States, we have not borrowed heavily to finance current expenses. We balance our budget every year. Our State Constitution requires it. We have more than $600 million in savings. We have a robust retirement fund. This state is in sound financial condition. And, we will keep it that way.
Education has been, and will continue to be, our first focus. We are obliged to provide to our children an excellent education in a safe environment. We have made great progress in raising teacher pay, but we must do more. Our teachers must be paid what they are worth. Our graduates must not only compete but excel in the global marketplace.
North Carolina's community colleges are the envy of the nation. We must invest in them to ensure that training, and, yes, retraining---are easily accessible to those citizens and businesses who need it.
Our public universities are world class. Our investment in them will help to prepare the thinkers and researchers of tomorrow. We must continue to be sure that all our citizens have the resources to go to college and graduate.
The people of our state must have good jobs, jobs which make possible strong, healthy, and prosperous families.
Good health care should not be a privilege for the privileged. Everyone must have access to quality health care. Let us dedicate ourselves to insuring children, to making health insurance affordable for families and businesses, and to establishing a high risk health insurance pool.
Let us not forget the natural wonder that is the Old North State. It is part of the reason that we are one of the fastest growing States. We should assure that the precious air and water resources we use in our time are protected for the vastly greater number who will depend upon them in future generations.
We must set about protecting the parkland and open space that our children will need while we can buy it today. We must prepare for the challenges and opportunities of a warming climate. North Carolina can be a leader in environmental innovation and the business opportunities it will bring.
We must become more efficient in our use of energy, both in government and in the private sector. Efficiency improvements save money for our taxpayers, save money for our businesses, save money for our utilities, and save money for our homeowners.
We must give our public safety agencies and courts the resources needed to protect our citizens from gangs and protect our children from predators. And we must assure fairness and justice in our courts, especially to those who may pay the ultimate price.
We will tackle tough issues like the cost of Medicaid to our counties, mental health reform, funding for school construction and other infrastructure, and providing for our pressing transportation needs.
And so there is much to do, and I am ready to get started.
Our Constitution declares the House of Representatives, this House, to be an equal partner in the law-making branch, equal in its legislative authority, and in its responsibility to the people of the State. We will work cooperatively with the Senate in addressing the issues that come before us, and we will consider carefully all matters brought to us by the Governor and other State officers. But then we will make our mark as law makers and appropriators of funds.
I will go back to Lincoln as I end. He said, "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
May our two years here together reflect our dedication to that principle---for North Carolina.
Thank you."
Speaker Joe Hackney's first speech to the House of Representatives on 01/24/07

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hello there and welcome to the News 14 Carolina Political Connections blog. My name is Tim Boyum, and I'm Senior Political Reporter. I also host Political Connections, which airs Friday nights at 6:00 and Sunday mornings at 11:00.

My goal for this blog is to give you a behind the scenes look at what's going on at the General Assembly and generally in state government.

Tomorrow, of course, another session begins. It gets underway in both chambers at noon. For the first time since 1999, the House will elect a new speaker. Orange County Democrat Joe Hackney is the Democratic caucus nominee and by all accounts will be elected. In the Senate, President Pro Tem Marc Basnight (D-Manteo) will be elected for another term. This first day will be largely ceremonial. Both chambers will swear in new members, elect leadership, and basically adjourn. It will likely take several weeks to shake out committee posts in the House, so expect many bills to be introduced but little action.

This is the start of a new two year budget which means there's a clean slate.

With a lottery intact, minimum wage raised, and other big issues taken care of last session, this presents an interesting time for lawmakers. Some believe there are few "sexy" issues to take up, so it could be a time to take on monumental changes that generally get pushed aside. Some lawmakers would like to give the state's tax system a major makeover to better match the 21st century needs. Others want to take on mental health, soaring health care concerns, and giving cities and counties more power to make their own decisions.

Don't get me wrong, there will be plenty of "sexy" issues. More than two dozen lawmakers have sent a letter to Governor Easley asking him to stop executions until lethal injection can be studied. With a federal study in hands, expect a big push to ban smoking in places like restaurants, bars, and places of work. At the minimum, ban supporters want to give local communities the chance to make that decision. After a huge pay raise last year, there's questions about teacher pay again this year. Will there be a blanket raise or will math and science teachers get the bigger hike? As usual, the budget will create a stir among everyone involved and the merits of an often talked about budget deficit after July 1. Or will agency cuts and better than expected revenues be enough to solve the gap?

If you could pick one theme that will center around many issues that will take center stage you could argue that theme will be growth. Transportation officials will likely ask for a large statewide bond to pave desperately needed roads. There's an estimated $65 billion dollar gap over the next 30 years. Educators want a two billion dollar bond to help counties build more schools. Statewide, there's a nearly ten billion dollar need. There's also a push for a water bond to help build water and sewer lines. There's a nearly seven billion dollar need in that category too. Will there be a bond for any or all of these? All of this money is needed as North Carolina continues to rise in population and revenues in those areas continue to fall.

With Representative Hackney as likely House Speaker environmental issues could get some action this year as well. Last week, Senator Basnight also said global warming was one of his priorities. With new ethics laws in place, there's already confusion among many lawmakers and lobbyists. Some want either clarification or more changes.

Bottom line, there are more issues than I can hit in a blog entry and keep your attention with! It's a busy year but stay tuned because while it may not seem like the sexiest news stories, what lawmakers do at the legislature affects every one of us every day. Stay tuned!