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Legislative short session kicks off
Gaming, eugenics and education on docket
 
Published Wednesday, May 23, 2012 12:03 pm
by Sommer Brokaw

State legislators returning to work had a noisy greeting. About 150 people converged on the Bicentennial Mall that morning to bang on pots nonstop for 15 minutes.


Legislators convened the short session on May 16. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said at a media briefing on May 9 that the legislature didn’t use short sessions until the 1970s.


“They were instituted for the purpose of adjusting the budget so we expect that to be the major thing that will be dealt with,” he said.
Berger said he would like to finish the session by the end of June.


A few other items he expects to come up in addition to the budget include education reform, capping the state’s gas tax, annexation, a gambling compact with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, natural gas and energy exploration, and regulatory reform.


Berger said last year’s budget is balanced with exception of the Department of Health and Human Services.


“And we have a problem there which is expected to be somewhere around $180 to $210 or $215 million,” he said. “That is something we expect to deal with earlier in the session in terms of a bill that I think will originate in the Senate.”


Still, protesters have voiced concerns ranging from gutting public education to fracking, Amendment One and voter disenfranchisement.


“But no matter what issue brought people out we were all standing together and that is a powerful message that we the people were standing together as one voice,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. AFL-CIO, which co-sponsored the “Pots and Spoons” protest at the capitol with MoveON.org, Action NC, and Triangle Jobs with Justice. The protest consisted of activists banging on pots and pans as a call for change.


Americans for Prosperity North Carolina responded by handing out earplugs to legislators.


“Today, we made it clear,” McMillan said, “that (major conservative financial donors) Art Pope, the Koch brothers, and the 1 percent can buy all the earplugs they want, but they cannot silence democracy.”


McMillan said progressive activists will urge people to call their representatives and demand they “take a balanced approach to this budget, not just a cuts-only approach,” and also “to make their voices heard in terms of unemployment benefits.”


The N.C. Chamber of Commerce recently announced that it wants legislators to reduce the maximum payment for unemployment benefits from $506 a week to $350 a week and then cut the period in North Carolina to receive benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.


“We still have far too many citizens that are out of work and not enough jobs to go around for everyone,” McMillan said.  “It is not the time to drastically cut benefits when families are depending on those benefits to put food on the table and pay the rent.”


Gov. Beverly Perdue presented a nearly $21 billion spending plan that includes a three-quarter cent increase to the state sales tax to raise $760 million to replace lost federal funding for education. However, Berger indicated it was unlikely to happen.


“We do not need to take almost a billion dollars out of the private economy at this time, and that’s in essence what we’re talking about,” he said. “Raising the sales tax takes money away from people and puts it in the hands of government. That is the solution that we saw for years from the Democrats. It is not the solution that this General Assembly will look to.”


Still, dozens of local elected officials and Together NC, a coalition of 120 nonprofit organizations, urged lawmakers to look at ideas to raise revenue.


Jordan Shaw, a spokesperson for N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said that other than balancing the budget one big issue for the speaker is the question of eugenics compensation. “It’s something he’s worked very hard on with members of both parties,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the bill will move relatively quickly through the process and will be signed by the governor during the short session.”


“The good news is that it looks as if the eugenics compensation bill will be included as part of the budget both by the Republican majority as well as the governor,” said N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “That is good news and that is promising news. The thing we don’t know is the extent to which budget cuts to education will be restored because that is absolutely critical.”


He added that they could see more election law issues coming before them like decreasing the early voting period by a week or abolishing straight-party voting, annexation issues, and an education bill which would put teachers on one-year contracts. “There is no end to the amount of bad legislation that could be proposed,” McKissick said.


While the parties seem divided on many issues, the Senate approved a gambling compact with the Cherokee tribe with bipartisan support on May 16. Berger said the agreement “would replace machines with live dealers – basically changing machines for jobs,” and that millions of dollars from that agreement would fund public education. McKissick said it would create 400 new jobs and boost tourism to the state. 


“It will be a tremendous stimulus to the local economies for those counties that are near the existing casinos. It will be a plus for education in terms of providing additional revenues for education. Overall, it is a win-win.”

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