At noon on May 12, 2010 the 170 members of the General Assembly will reconvene for the “Short Session” of the two-year legislative cycle. The focus of the even-year session is usually the budget, and this year is no exception. However, don’t expect Jones Street to be all quiet backroom number crunching this summer. Political chatter has focused on more ethics reforms, changes to the state’s 75-year-old Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) System, gambling, and school calendars as possible topics to be addressed. Pro-family legislators also plan to continue to pursue issues like the Marriage Protection Amendment, “Choose Life” specialty license plate, and education vouchers or tax credits.
The interim has also seen a shake-up in the faces that will be seen in the hallways of the legislative building. Most notably, Sen. Tony Rand (D–Cumberland), the Senate Majority leader, Rules Committee chairman, and right-hand for President Pro-Tempore Marc Basnight (D–Dare), resigned his powerful post in December 2009, after 27 years in the chamber. The hole he leaves will be noticeable on the floor, in the Democrat caucus, in budget negotiations, and in the very workings of North Carolina’s legislative process. Sen. David Weinstein (D–Robeson) also resigned last fall after serving 13 years in the State Senate.
Additionally, four other notable Democrat senators have opted to forego reelection bids. They are Sens. Charles Albertson (D–Duplin), Julia Boseman (D–New Hanover), David Hoyle (D–Gaston), and R.C. Soles (D–Columbus). Soles is the longest-serving member of the legislature. Hoyle was ranked the most business-friendly member of the General Assembly in 2009 by the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation. Such volatility in the make-up of the chamber could make for some interesting dynamics in the legislature as the build-up continues leading up to the 2010 mid-term elections.
It was a long and arduous process to write and pass a balanced budget, as mandated by the State Constitution, in 2009. Ensuring that the budget remains balanced will not be any easier this year, as legislative leaders are already estimating at least a $500 million revenue shortfall by the end of June. Much will depend on tax revenue collections in April. Still, North Carolina’s higher than average unemployment rate—over 11 percent in January—likely means lower than expected tax revenue, since there are fewer paychecks upon which to levy an income tax.
The budget is hardly the only difficult piece of legislation expected to be tackled during the 2010 session. An ongoing series of indictments against former government officials, members of their staffs, and friends have resulted in renewed calls for more ethics reforms. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, possible reforms include requiring disclosures from “‘bundlers,’ people who raise money for campaigns,” in an attempt to unveil “key money people” within campaigns. Limitations on contributions between candidates, campaign contribution and fundraising reporting requirements for members of major state boards and commissions, and a ban on all gift-giving to public employees and officials are also among the possible changes.
Substantial attention has been given to the goings-on within the state’s many local Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) boards from exorbitant salaries to posh parties and gourmet meals on the dime of liquor suppliers. Both the legislature and the governor have convened committees to look at reforming and possibly overhauling the system with the new ABC Board Chairman in favor of privatization. Any fundamental change to North Carolina’s ABC System, which reflects a nearly 150-year history of controlling the availability, distribution, and sale of hard liquor at the local level in the state is unlikely in the “Short Session,” especially since a recent legislative report found that North Carolina boasts the lowest per capita consumption and higher revenue per gallon of any control state in the country. Still, lawmakers have intimated a desire to at least begin to implement some reforms to limit the possibility of corruption and discrepancies between the autonomous local boards. The Joint Study Commission on Alcohol Beverage Control will present a report with legislative recommendations to the General Assembly by May 12—in time for any reform bills to be taken up during the “Short Session.”
The battle to rid the state of video gambling outside the state-run lottery or the gambling operations allowed on the Cherokee reservation in the western part of the state continues to morph as operators find ever more elusive ways of trying to work around the state’s ban. Our Feature article on page 22 highlights the most pervasive evasion tactic—hiding gambling behind a façade of so-called “sweepstakes” and “phone cards.” As more and more local governments are taking action to shut down and prohibit these gambling parlors in their areas, members of the Legislature are taking note, and many expect them to try to take up the issue this year.
Additionally, in an interesting turn of events, the Legislative Black Caucus and the State Employees Association of North Carolina joined the gambling industry last year in endorsing the legalization of video poker, allegedly to increase tax revenue through regulation and taxation of the industry. Despite supporting the state lottery, the leadership in the Legislature has consistently opposed efforts to legalize gambling, especially video poker, in the state, and the current prohibitions passed nearly unanimously just four years ago. The pressures of a growing budget deficit, recent state court rulings regarding the legality of the video poker ban, and the ever-changing face of gambling, juxtaposed with state and local government and citizen aversion to the legalization of gambling, suggests it could potentially be an item of hot debate come May.
One of the most concerning pieces of legislation that is nearly guaranteed to come up when legislators reconvene is HB 1463—Expand Access/Confidential Intermediaries. See the Briefs section on page 33 for more analysis of this bill. While it seemed to be going nowhere at the conclusion of the 2009 session, HB 1463 was placed on the Senate’s calendar for consideration on May 19, 2010. Since that time, Margaret Dickson (D–Cumberland), the House member who has consistently sponsored and pushed this legislation was chosen to replace the retired Sen. Tony Rand (D–Cumberland), meaning the bill is guaranteed to have a strong and vocal advocate in the Senate. If the Senate were to pass the bill without amending it, it would go to Governor Perdue for her signature, since it already passed the House of Representatives last year.
The amount of snow seen in the western part of the state has given new life to the debate over public school calendars. Since 2004, public schools have been required to schedule both 180 days and 1,000 hours of instruction between August 25 and June 10 each school year. The measure was promoted as a safety net for the state’s tourist industry, which relies heavily on family vacations during the summer months. However, more snow days this year means more school districts are scrambling to make up days on weekends and by shortening Spring Break to make the June 10 cut-off, if they are able to make it at all. Watch for an attempt at compromise that still includes a statewide requirement on the amount of instruction, but may offer leeway on the number of days or the exact start and end dates.
For the sixth year in a row, the leadership on Jones Street put a stranglehold on a Marriage Protection Amendment in 2009. Look for the bill—which would give North Carolina voters the opportunity to decide whether to include the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman in the State Constitution—to be reintroduced for a seventh year in May. See page 29 for an update of the national scene and the risk to North Carolina’s marriage laws.
This is the eighth year that legislators and citizens have worked to get a fair hearing for “Choose Life” to be approved as one of the more than 120 specialty license plates approved for motorists. As of yet, HB 168 and SB 210, both entitled “Choose Life” Special Plate have not moved from their original assignments to the House Committee on Rules and the Senate Finance Committee. However, because the bills deal with a budgetary issue—namely, that the funds raised by sale of the plate would be appropriated to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship (CPCF), a statewide network of pregnancy resource centers, which will distribute the funds “annually to nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies that provide pregnancy services that are limited to counseling and/or meeting the physical needs of pregnant women”—they remain eligible for consideration in the “Short Session.” A coalition of pro-life organizations and citizens has planned a May 25 rally to ask legislative leaders why North Carolinians are the only citizens in the Southeast who have consistently been denied their free speech right to declare their support for life, while other citizens declare their support for kids, pets, sea turtles, shag dancing, and more with their license plates.
Although not likely to be considered, various bills that would establish a tax credit or voucher system for parents who choose or need to educate their children in a non-public school setting remain eligible in the “Short Session” without having to be reintroduced because, once again, they deal with budgetary issues. Analysis by legislative staff and independent organizations consistently finds that such programs actually save the government money by letting more efficient organizations educate students. In a tough budget year, such money-saving measures seem even more compelling, but the institutional bias against competitors for student dollars and minds has a strong grip down on Jones Street.
One thing is for certain—there will be no shortage of activity in the General Assembly come May. Legislators will have their hands full tightening the state’s budget in light of anemic revenue numbers. Ongoing investigations into former government officials and employees will keep the pressure up for enhanced reforms to ethics protocols. And in the midst of all the work to be done, mid-term elections of the once-in-a-generation level will be looming large. Many legislators will be going back to work mere days after having learned the results of their primary election, for which they are currently campaigning, just to earn a spot on the November ballot to keep their seat next year. And yet, most legislators will be trying to delicately balance their time as members of a part-time citizen legislature between conducting the difficult business of the state as representatives of the people and campaigning to keep their jobs.