This week in Raleigh proved to be another busy one on numerous fronts.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee are continuing their work on the state budget. The Senate gave final approval to its budget plan on Thursday and the House will step up its work in the coming days. Legislators were busy again this week drafting and introducing new legislation on topics including education, capping the state’s gas tax, improving and protecting our environment and increasing Internet access in our schools.
State Budget Update: Senate Passes Budget
The Senate approved its $18.8 billion spending plan for next year on Wednesday and Thursday. All Senate Democrats and six Republicans backed a budget that would cut the state’s sales and income taxes while offering the largest raises for state employees and teachers in years. Senators spent most of this year’s budget surplus on education, mental health reforms, reserve funds for building repairs and natural disasters, pay raises for teachers and state employees while phasing out a pair of “temporary” taxes that began during the recession several years ago. The budget also increases the state’s minimum wage by a dollar and caps the gasoline tax while beefing up our court system and providing $105 million to improve mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services as a reform effort continues to treat more patients in their own communities. Democrats and Republicans also approved floor amendments to the budget bill that would require the first government performance audit for the first time since 1992 and tougher rules on how mental health money is spent.
I introduced the below legislation:
HB-1912 Domestic Violence Offender Program Funds
HB-1936 Halifax-Northampton Airport Funds
HB-2002 Advanced Vehicle Research Center
HB-2191 Henderson-Vance Cleanup Funds
HB-2262 Northampton Cty Commerce Funds
HB-2263 Northampton Cty Education Funds
HB-2310 Warren County Victim Witness Assistant Funds
HB-2514 Funds/Faison Senior Center
HB-2705 Vance Public School Foundation Funds
HB-2706 Northampton Cty Wellness Cultural Ctr Funds
HB-2707 Community Development Funds
HB-2708 Funds/Warren Education Fund
HB-2709 Warrenton Rural VF Association Funds
HB-2710 Warren National Guard Armory Funds
HB-2711 Gateway Comm. Dev. Corp. Funds
HB-2712 Warren Animal Protection Funds
HB-2713 Vance Cty Economic Development Funds
Members of the House Appropriations Committee have been working on our version of the budget during the past several weeks, and work will pick up speed starting next week. House leaders hope to pass a budget during the third week of June.
Gas Tax Cap & Consumer Protections Against
N.C. Reps. Lorene Coates (D-Rowan), Pryor Gibson (D-Anson), Bruce Goforth (D-Buncombe), Alice Graham Underhill (D-Craven) and other House members held a press conference on Tuesday to announce the introduction of legislation that would cap the state’s gas tax at its current rate and provide additional consumer protections against price gouging. I co-sponsored House Bill 2384, and it will be debated by the House Finance Committee in the coming weeks.
Currently, the motor fuels tax in North Carolina has two parts: a flat tax and a variable tax that is adjusted two times a year based on the average wholesale price of gas. Since 1992, North Carolina law automatically increases the state’s gas tax when there is a substantial increase in the cost of fuel. With this proposed legislative cap, the rate could decrease but it will not go above current levels. The state gas tax is set to be re-adjusted on July 1, 2006.
The bill also would expand the times in which the attorney general could examine whether a gas station was intentionally charging high prices. The current law allows those probes in times of disaster. The bill would make it easier to examine price gouging when a person’s economic well-being is being affected.
Push to increase North Carolina’s minimum wage continues
The House gave its initial approval to legislation on Thursday that would increase the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour. House Bill 2174, which is sponsored by Reps. Alma Adams (D-Guilford), Jim Harrell (D-Surry) and Earl Jones (D-Guilford), was approved by a vote of 68 to 39. During Thursday’s debate on the bill, supporters also expressed the need to help small businesses across North Carolina grow and prosper, which could include providing a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance to employees. Final passage of the minimum wage increase is expected on Tuesday.
Over half the states in the nation, including North Carolina, abide by the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. The national rate was last increased in 1997. Workers making $5.15 an hour earn about $800 a month or $10,700 a year. An extra dollar an hour would add up to an extra $2,000 a year.
About 100,000 workers in North Carolina – 3 percent of the workforce – make less than $6 an hour. Minimum wage earners bring in about $893 each month. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have now raised the minimum wage above the federal level. Recently, Arkansas raised its minimum wage more than a dollar to $6.25 an hour.
Last year, the House approved legislation that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $6 per hour in combination with a tax credit for small businesses that offer health insurance to employees. The Senate has not considered the House bill.
Protecting Our Environment
A bill sponsored by Reps. Lucy Allen (D-Franklin), Joe Hackney (D-Orange), William Wainwright (D-Craven), and Danny McComas (R-New Hanover) seeks to place a bond referendum on the November 2006 ballot to provide for $1 billion for Land and Water Conservation Bonds to protect the state’s land, water, and special places before they are irreversibly lost. Proponents of House Bill 2827 say that money from the bonds could go to protect 60,000 miles of stream banks and flood plains, 50,000 acres of productive farmland, 25,000 acres of working forests, 35,000 acres of local parks and trails, 60,000 acres of state parks and trails, 150,000 acres of game lands, 350 historic landmarks, 3,000 acres with archeological interest, and 50,000 acres of land visible from scenic highways as well as trees in many urban areas.
A coalition calling itself “Land for Tomorrow” has a proposal: spend $200 million a year for the next five years to make the dream of preserving a million acres come true. The organization has brought together such well-regarded groups as the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Preservation North Carolina. Their goal is for the state to make the kind of investment in our natural heritage that can draw the line against development pressure.
Visitors This Week at the Legislature
On Tuesday, folks from the N.C. Child Care Coalition visited the Legislature. As many as 1,000 people were at the Legislature for the annual advocacy day for Smart Start. Smart Start is designed to provide quality child care, child health care, and family support services for all children from birth to kindergarten to make sure that every child arrives at school healthy and ready to learn. North Carolina has one of the fastest growing populations of children age birth to five, and with an increase of over 50,000 children in this age group over the last three years, it is crucial to expand Smart Start Funding.
In addition for increasing funding for Smart Start, the group also advocated for increasing funding for the Child Care Subsidy, T.E.A.C.H., Early Childhood Scholarships, and many other local projects throughout the state.
Tuesday was also the first “People of Color Justice and Unity Legislative Day” at the General Assembly. The coalition includes the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southerners for Economic Justice and the Triangle Urban League. The purpose of their advocacy day was to bring attention to the group’s goals which include raising the state’s minimum wage, help for small businesses, increased funding for the state Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, a two-year moratorium on the death penalty, and stiffer penalties for sex offenders.
On Wednesday, about 150 state employees converged on the General Assembly, demanding an end to disparities in pay raises between rank-and-file workers, public school teachers and others. Gov. Mike Easley offered a 4 percent increase for most state employees, while the state Senate recommended a 5 percent jump. But both want public school teachers to have an 8 percent increase. State employees are backing a House bill that would increase all state employee salaries – including teachers – by 7 percent.
Memorial Day Activities
Monday is Memorial Day — a day when we pay tribute to the brave men and women in uniform who serve in the armed forces. Please take time to remember them and their families in your thoughts and prayers and give thanks for the men and women who gave their lives in return for the rights and privileges we all enjoy as Americans.
Due to the Memorial Day holiday, the House will hold a short “skeleton” session on Monday night with no votes, and we’ll be back in full session again on Tuesday.
As I’ve said many times before, I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues that are being debated by the North Carolina Legislature and the challenges you and your family are facing each day.
By working together, we can make Northampton, Vance and Warren Counties and all regions of North Carolina a better place to live, work and raise a family.