State Politics

First bills of 2017 hint at legislature’s priorities in new session – including school class sizes

Under the Dome: First day of the legislative session

Political reporter Colin Campbell breaks down what happened during the first day of the legislative session and offers insight into what bills legislators are likely to introduce, including a possible repeal of HB2.
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Political reporter Colin Campbell breaks down what happened during the first day of the legislative session and offers insight into what bills legislators are likely to introduce, including a possible repeal of HB2.

Legislative leaders say that quickly fixing the “unintended consequences” of a class-size mandate the legislature created will be an early priority this year.

One of the first bills filed as the legislature began its 2017 session in earnest Wednesday addresses the required class-size reduction that school districts say could force them to cut arts and physical-education classes.

The House and Senate met briefly Wednesday as several dozen bills were filed, some of which will get committee hearings and votes next week as the legislature gets to work. Legislation introduced Wednesday would change how the state saves up for a recession or disaster, offer property-tax breaks to families of fallen first responders and restrict the use of eminent domain to seize private property.

The session – known in odd-numbered years like this one as the long session – began Jan. 11 for ceremonial and organizational purposes but then adjourned for two weeks. It will keep lawmakers in Raleigh until at least the summer months, when they’ll approve a budget.

The class-size proposal follows the legislature’s move last year to reduce maximum class sizes starting this fall in kindergarten through third grade. Under the current law, maximum individual K-3 class sizes will drop from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level, and the maximum average class sizes for school districts would be even lower.

The mandate didn’t come with additional state funding to hire more teachers, so Wake County school officials said it could cost $27 million in local money to avoid laying off arts and PE teachers.

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who leads House education committees, had admitted that the reduced class-size mandate that was included as part of last year’s state budget was “not as fully thought through with regard to unintended consequences.”

Legislative leaders are now looking to tweak the mandate and allow larger class sizes.

House Bill 13, sponsored by Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville, would cap individual K-3 class sizes at 22 to 24 students, depending on grade level. Maximum average class sizes across a school district would range from 19 to 21 students.

Leanne Winner of the N.C. School Boards Association says her organization supports McGrady’s bill.

“It’s trying to create a middle ground,” she said. “It is not a 100 percent solution for all districts. There may still need to be some adjustments at the local level.”

Winner said the adjustment needs to be made quickly. “If we don’t get this resolved by early March, (school boards) are going to be starting their budget process with their county commissions,” she said.

North Carolina doesn’t separately fund specialists such as arts and PE teachers so school districts pay for them out of state dollars for regular classroom teachers. The reduction in maximum class sizes limits the flexibility that districts have to spread money around for special classes.

In other highlights from the start of session:

Cooper, Democrats outline goals: Before lawmakers’ work began Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper released a blog post Wednesday morning reiterating his goals for the session.

Cooper’s post hits his now-familiar themes: repealing House Bill 2, expanding Medicaid, investing in education to develop a skilled workforce and rebuilding from Hurricane Matthew damage.

The new Democratic governor stresses unity in the blog post, saying past generations of leaders have put aside their differences for the benefit of the state.

“North Carolinians work hard and don’t ask for much,” Cooper says. “They don’t care if something is a Democratic idea or a Republican idea. They just want an opportunity for a good job in a place they are proud to call home.”

Democrats in the legislature offered a similar agenda in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said education was the top priority, and included teacher and administrators’ pay, textbooks and spending levels.

“If we value our people, then we need to invest in their success,” Blue said.

Paying the piggy bank: Rep. Nelson Dollar, the senior House budget writer from Cary, filed a bill to require lawmakers to set aside a specific amount of savings for the state’s “rainy day fund.”

House Bill 7 would require that 15 percent of each year’s revenue growth over the past year go into the savings account.

Dollar told reporters the measure would “put ourselves in the right financial position, so that when the next recession comes, when we have hurricanes, storms and natural disasters, we have the resources there to continue to provide top quality services ... and eliminate any need to raise taxes during those times.”

Eminent domain: House Bill 3, introduced by three House Republicans and a Democrat, would hold a ballot referendum in 2018, giving voters the option to ban government from seizing private property unless the purpose is for “public use.”

A similar measure passed the House in 2015 but never made it to the governor’s desk because the Senate tacked on unrelated provisions opposed by House leaders.

A break for families of fallen first responders: House Bill 2 – not to be confused with the controversial LGBT law from last year – was filed by four Republicans including Dollar and would expand an exemption that allows disabled veterans to avoid paying property taxes on their homes.

The property tax exemption would also be made available to surviving spouses of police, fire and other emergency responders who were killed in the line of duty.

“This legislation is a priority for the 2017 session, and I’m happy to take part in advancing the well-deserved care and support for our emergency services personnel and their families,” Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican and a sponsor, said in a written statement.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO

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