RALEIGH — Craig Jarvis and John Frank
The General Assembly gavels into session Wednesday with legislative leaders pledging to tackle big issues in a short time frame.
The so-called short session is designed to tweak the two-year state budget approved in 2011. But the Republican lawmakers – starting just their second term at the helm of both the House and Senate – want to do much more. On the table are a bevy of controversial issues ranging from drilling for natural gas through fracking to requiring voter identification at the polls.
At the same time, GOP leaders want to finish business by the end of June, much sooner than during recent even-year sessions.
Here’s a look at major issues on the agenda:
State budget: The state has a $19.9 billion budget for next year that legislators are returning to Raleigh to adjust. Gov. Bev Perdue has sent over a $20.9 billion proposal with a sales tax increase, but the budget legislators approve probably won’t look much like it. The state spends about half its money on education, from pre-kindergarten to state universities, so that will be the focus of some of the biggest fights.
Cherokee gambling compact: A new deal signed by the governor allows the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to introduce Las Vegas-style card games with live dealers with millions in revenue going to the state to pay for schools. The deal, however, requires lawmakers to tweak a state law, and legislative leaders are expressing concern about the 30-year gambling compact. With an odd coalition of Republicans and Democrats aligned against gambling, it’s also unclear whether there are enough votes to finalize the deal.
Education: A battle over education policy is shaping up with Perdue proposing to increase the total education budget by $785 million using mostly new tax revenue. Senate leader Phil Berger has his own education plan aimed at eliminating teacher tenure, putting more attention on early childhood literacy, and giving school districts some of the money already in the budget for teacher merit pay.
Fracking: A package of three bills – legalizing hydraulic fracturing, promoting offshore energy exploration, and creating a test program for fuel-producing grasses – will definitely be introduced and likely be approved. The legislation on fracking – hydraulic fracturing to release underground natural gas – includes creation of a powerful oil and gas board to oversee energy development in the state. It would delay any fracking until July 2014. There are concerns about pollution from the chemicals used in the process.
Regulatory reform: The Joint Legislative Regulatory Reform Committee is always looking for regulations to reform, and it has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday. Last year it accomplished a far-reaching bill that restricts state rules and regulations, and takes final decision-making authority on disputes away from state agencies. Both chambers overrode the governor’s veto of the bill. The committee has been planning to look at a massive egg farm near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which is fighting the state’s interpretation of its airborne discharges and water emissions because ammonia appears to be settling into the water from its ventilation system.
Drug liability: A Senate committee has been looking at a couple of draft bills that would give drug companies near immunity from lawsuits over any product that has been approved by the FDA. That concept was stripped out of a broader medical malpractice bill last year. This might be a dead issue for this session.
Guns: There was talk that one of the gun bills that surfaced last year would resurface. It would allow people who have permits to carry concealed weapons to take them into establishments that serve alcohol and into parks. The bill cleared the House but didn’t move out of a Senate committee, and it could very well stay there this year.
Racial Justice Act: House Speaker Thom Tillis set up a committee that was supposed to see if a compromise could be worked out on the Racial Justice Act, which allows the use of statistical evidence of bias to argue for life in prison without parole rather than death. But the committee has done nothing other than hold one meeting to rehash old arguments. Then in March a state judge re-sentenced a death-row inmate to life in prison, the first case under the law. That prompted GOP leaders in the House to say forget a compromise, they would continue to push to repeal the act. In January, the Senate overrode the governor’s veto of a repeal bill, but the House didn’t have enough votes. It could spring that bill for an override vote at any time.
Voter ID: An outstanding issue from the 2011 session is a bill to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Perdue vetoed the bill, and Republican House leaders failed to garner enough votes for an override despite much maneuvering. Democrats contend the measure is aimed at infringing on the rights of voters aligned with their party and point to a measure in South Carolina that was rejected by the U.S. Justice Department. Republicans say the voter ID bill will guarantee fair elections, citing polls showing public support for requiring identification. Watch for the GOP to attempt an override or even seek a compromise to get Democratic support in order to put a law in place before the November election.