Examining the issues

From Staff ReportsApril 14, 2013 

Education

The General Assembly wants to leave its mark on education this year, though there is no consensus among the Republican majority on how to do it.

Bills sponsored by Republicans would touch on every aspect of K-12 education. Proposals include offering vouchers for public school students to attend private school, loosening requirements for charter schools and allowing parents who home-school their children to earn tax credits.

Leading senators, including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, want to get rid of teacher tenure and adopt a grading system for schools based on test scores. A bipartisan group, with the support of House Speaker Thom Tillis, has offered a different proposal that would keep tenure and set up a school grading system that teachers and superintendents say gives schools credit for students’ year-over-year progress.

Several bills seek to help charter schools, which are supported by taxes but operate free of many regulations placed on traditional public schools.

A bill that would give oversight of charter schools to a new state board, limiting the powers of the State Board of Education, has cleared a Senate committee. Another bill would allow counties to give charters up to $250,000 a year to help with capital expenses. Currently, state money pays for charter operations but not buildings.

Economy

The “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra in the Republican legislative agenda is sidetracked for the moment.

The House and Senate moved quickly at the start of session to cut jobless benefits and reduce the cost of unemployment insurance on companies, saying it will save “job creators” money.

But the broader effort to help jolt the state’s meandering economy is tied to a major tax overhaul and an effort to streamline business regulations.

Republicans say cutting corporate and personal income taxes will help make the state more competitive, but the size of the cuts and the method of paying for them are still uncertain. A regulatory streamlining bill is expected to be heard soon.

Elections

The focus has been on a bill to require a photo ID to vote, but that’s just a piece of an overall effort to change the way people vote in North Carolina.

A plethora of bills would shorten the early voting period and eliminate Sunday voting, satellite early voting sites, voting machines, straight-ticket voting and same-day registration. Another keeps parents from claiming a personal exemption for a child on their income tax if that child is registered to vote at a different address – which would affect those whose children vote where they’re attending college.

One major bill does much of the above and also requires ex-felons to wait five years before they can restore their voting rights – and then only if their local elections board OKs them. It also restores partisan labels to the ballot for judicial candidates and repeals public financing for judicial elections.

Many of the bills have yet to be heard in committee, but there’s little doubt that voters will have to carry a photo ID to the polls in 2016. The move to shorten early voting, however, could be unpopular enough with voters in both parties to stop that effort. Last year, the majority of votes were cast during early voting.

Immigration

A major immigration bill was recently introduced in the House, but no agreement exists on how to handle the issue, making it unlikely there will be major changes this session.

The House bill would grant immigrants who entered the country illegally driving privileges but also allow police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop and detain them for 24 hours. The latter provision echoes Arizona’s controversial law and makes the bill hotly contested.

The odds are stacked against the bill. House Speaker Thom Tillis convened a special committee to consider immigration legislation last session, but it failed to issue a report with recommendations. The Senate hasn’t touched the issue in any meaningful way. And Gov. Pat McCrory said in his campaign that he didn’t think any state measures were needed to address illegal immigration.

Guns

More than three dozen gun bills have been filed so far; all but a handful would loosen restrictions on firearms and were written by Republicans.

The proposals would expand the places where concealed handgun permit-holders could bring their weapons, including restaurants that serve alcohol, school parking lots, greenways and other recreational facilities. Others would allow judges, magistrates, clerks of court, registrars of deeds and Council of State members to bring guns into currently restricted places if they have concealed-carry permits.

But only a few of the 38 bills have been taken up in committees, and none of the bills easing restrictions has gone anywhere yet. Many duplicate another bill in some form.

The ones that are moving forward would make records of handgun and concealed-carry permits secret, make it a felony to shoot inside occupied buildings, and impose a minimum 10-year sentence for second felony convictions involving the display or use of a firearm. A Democratic-sponsored bill that has cleared the Senate would make it harder for someone arrested for a gun crime to be released from custody.

Environment

Several high-profile energy bills – promoting shale gas exploration and restricting renewable energy – got off to a fast start, but both are slowing.

Early in the session, key Senate Republicans introduced legislation that would lift the state’s fracking moratorium in March 2015. The bill would also accommodate the oil and gas industry by reversing the state’s longstanding prohibition on injecting chemical wastes into deep storage wells.

That bill, controversial even among some Republicans, raced through the Senate but has since been stalled in the House for more than a month without a hearing.

Meanwhile, a House bill to put the kibosh on the state’s 2007 renewables policy – which requires the state’s electric utilities to rely more on solar, biomass and other clean energy sources – barely made it out of the first of several commitee meetings. Some key House Republicans and Gov. Pat McCrory have expressed concerns, and its future now looks uncertain.

North Carolina became the first state in the South to adopt such a renewables requirement in 2007 and since has become the nation’s fifth-largest developer of solar farms. Under the law, power companies must buy electricity generated from renewable resources, even if it costs more than conventional electricity.

Staff writers John Frank, Craig Jarvis, Lynn Bonner, John Murawski and Mary Cornatzer

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