Coalitions forming across state to be heard at legislature

Left, right prepare for battles in General Assembly

jfrank@newsobserver.comJanuary 29, 2013 

— Republican leaders on Tuesday outlined a contentious plan to make fundamental changes in how children are educated, how people and corporations are taxed, and what regulations businesses must follow when lawmaking resumes Wednesday.

Emboldened by expanded majorities and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, lawmakers promise to push through changes before mid-summer.

Facing the prospect of losing what they for years have taken for granted, liberal groups are coalescing to make sure their arguments are heard. Meanwhile, groups that support the Republican agenda plan to make sure that lawmakers deliver on campaign promises.

Nonprofits from several counties belong to a new organization called Public Schools First formed to defend traditional public schools, limit charter schools, and oppose vouchers and other plans that funnel tax money to private schools. It counts Great Schools in Wake, Mecklenburg ACTS, and Action for Children North Carolina among its members.

“We’re going to be a strong voice,” said Natalie Beyer, a Durham Board of Education member and member of the Public Schools First board of directors.

In some ways, Public Schools First is already trailing the curve of public school policy. With more than 100 charter schools in the state and with organizers signaling they’ll seek permission to open more than 150 new charters, the organization’s goal of “a limited number of truly innovative charter schools” is already dust.

Groups that want more public money for charter schools and tax money to pay private school tuition begin the legislative session with a new confidence that they’ll make gains.

Lawmakers are discussing ways to improve traditional public schools, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. But there’s a greater chance that more options will be open to parents, he said.

“You have leadership that’s not averse to other school models playing a greater role in the education of our children,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”

The action is expected to move fast. House Speaker Thom Tillis told reporters Tuesday that he wants to finish work in record time, by the end of May or early June at the latest. The Cornelius Republican said a controversial voter ID measure will move quickly, despite his remarks and those from McCrory earlier this month that a compromise measure was acceptable.

“It will be a bill that ultimately requires a photo ID to be able to vote,” he said, adding that it would allow residents to get government ID card at no cost.

Another controversial bill is scheduled for a hearing on Thursday – a measure that would reduce state benefits and void an extension of federal unemployment payments to about 85,000 North Carolina workers.

It represents the beginning of a larger effort by Republicans to curtail government assistance to the state’s neediest residents, with measures to limit Medicaid eligibility and health care options also anticipated. “These are not simply questions about budgets,” said Chapel Hill economist John Quinterno. “They’re really questions about what kind of social insurance systems and structures we should have in North Carolina and this country.”

Even though the additional federal unemployment benefits come at no direct cost to the state, Tillis said “it’s not free money.” He doesn’t think Republicans will look heartless in their efforts.

“What we are doing by continuing to aid and abet the federal government’s expansion of the deficit is digging a deeper hole versus trying to come up with better solutions and more certainty,” he added.

Top Senate Republicans also have floated a plan to eliminate corporate and personal income taxes, but Tillis expressed skepticism it would pass in the House. He expects the final measure to eliminate the corporate income tax and reduce the individual income tax to a rate similar to neighboring states’ by expanding the sales tax to duty-free services, such as tax preparation and medical care.

The N. C. Justice Center, a liberal advocacy group, opposes all three efforts and has been mobilizing supporters in the past few months to oppose cuts to unemployment benefits, fight proposed changes in tax policy, and defend traditional public schools.

The Justice Center joined with more than 70 other public-interest groups, community health centers and other health organizations to ask McCrory to add low-income residents to Medicaid as encouraged by the federal health care law.

“It remains to be seen” whether opposing arguments can change the legislature’s course, said Justice Center Deputy Director Bill Wilson.

The key will be getting residents from legislators’ districts to contact them about the effect of government policies, Wilson said. “Both Democrats and Republicans are more concerned about their political party base than people at large,” he said. “I think they still listen to people who they represent.”

Dan Crawford, lobbyist for the League of Conservation Voters, said environmental groups expect to be playing a lot of defense this session. Crawford is ready to stay in “campaign mode” during the session – sending out mailers to legislators’ districts highlighting their positions.

Legislators took steps to limit environmental regulations last session and promise more action this session.

“Regardless of whether the tide has turned, I’m not going to have anybody get a free pass and let people plunder and rape our resources,” Crawford said.

While the plenty of groups want legislators to pause and reconsider their plans, others are cheering them on and asking for more.

The GOP legislative agenda largely matches the Americans for Prosperity’s legislative goals. Now the small-government, anti-tax organization will pressure Republican lawmakers to follow through on their campaign promises. AFP spent money in 15 legislative races in the 2012 election and helped elect McCrory.

“We will absolutely be there to hold their feet to the fire if we have to,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the state director for the conservative nonprofit aligned with many tea partiers.

He expects many victories on the group’s agenda – which in some cases strays beyond what legislative leaders have outlined. “I think we have a really unique opportunity,” he said.

The more likely role for the group comes after session ends in the form of a media and grassroots campaign to convince the public that Republicans efforts are good for the state. Woodhouse said he is prepared to “spend significantly to help explain (their actions) to the North Carolina public.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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