Happy New Year to you and your family!
Work at the General Assembly has been extremely busy this past month as we try to wrap up our work on the interim study committees before the start of the new legislative session, which is just a few weeks away and approaching quickly
As I’ve said many times before, I’m extremely proud of the progress we made on education, health care, our economy and reducing crime during the short time we were in Raleigh this summer. Several of the new laws that we approved during this year’s session will go into effect on January 1st, which are detailed below.
The General Assembly will reconvene on Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at noon. During the interim, you can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling my Raleigh office at (919) 733-5662 or in Gaston at (252) 536-8013. My legislative office in Raleigh is staffed on a part-time basis by Mary Capps, my Legislative Assistant. You can also find additional information on the General Assembly at www.ncleg.net.
NC Seniors: Sign Up for Prescription Drug Assistance Before Dec. 31st
All North Carolina seniors are encouraged to sign up for Medicare prescription drug coverage programs before the December 31 deadline. Seniors can call the North Carolina Rx toll-free hotline at 1-888-488-NCRX (6279) before the deadline for help in choosing which Medicare Part D prescription drug plan is right for them. Low income seniors can also sign up for the North Carolina Rx program, which provides $18 per month to qualifying seniors to help pay the monthly premiums for their drug plans.
Seniors can call the hotline or visit www.ncrx.gov to get information on the federal prescription drug plans and state assistance. The staff at the toll-free phone line will help seniors navigate the 51 federal Medicare Part D prescription drug plans offered and assist in filling out the paperwork. These plans cost from $17.80 to $85.90 per month, and seniors must sign up by Dec. 31, 2006 for their coverage to begin on Jan. 1, 2007.
North Carolina Rx helps low-income North Carolina seniors who do not qualify for federal assistance to pay for Medicare Part D coverage. NCRx will help pay premiums for seniors with incomes up to $17,150 and married couples up to $23,100. The plan also increases the amount of assets seniors may have and still qualify for assistance ($20,000 for an individual and $30,000 for married couples). Approximately 50,000 North Carolina low-income seniors are expected to sign up for this benefit during the next three years.
Updates from the Interim Legislative Study Committees…
Over two dozen different study and legislative oversight committees have been meeting since the General Assembly adjourned in July. These committees, which have looked at issues ranging from high school graduation rates, improving access to quality health care, toughening our state’s sex offender laws regarding the Internet, improving the economies of rural areas and updating our state’s tax structure, are now in the process of wrapping up their work in order to make legislative recommendations to the entire House beginning on January 24.
The House Select Committee on Health Care, which is one of the largest study committees, recently announced its recommendations, which included calling on the General Assembly to appropriate $15 million to various community health clinics that provide primary and preventative medical services to uninsured or medically indigent patients; implementing a high-risk insurance pool, which will provide coverage to many of the 1.3 million uninsured North Carolinians; enacting legislation that would ensure health insurance coverage for all children birth to age 18; providing additional assistance to counties with high Medicaid expenses; increasing the number of school nurses; and addressing the shortage of mental health professionals and nurses across the state.
Below is a list of new laws that take effect on January 1, 2007, which will increase our state’s minimum wage by $1, better protect our children and families and make our neighborhoods safer, help parents save for their children’s college education, reform our state’s ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws, and provide tax relief to our valuable small businesses.
Feel free to contact me if you would like additional information on these issues or any others that are being considered by the General Assembly.
Minimum Wage Increase: Approximately 139,000 North Carolinians will see their paychecks increase in the New Year due to an increase in the state’s minimum wage. The state’s minimum wage will increase from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour starting on January 1, 2007. The increase, which was passed by the Legislature last summer, also ties North Carolina’s minimum wage to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. If the federal minimum wage is raised, which is one of the top agenda items for Congressional Democrats in Washington in the coming year, employees in North Carolina will receive which ever wage is higher. The federal minimum wage is currently $5.15 an hour and has not been raised in nine years by the Republican-led U.S. Congress. (S.L. 2006-114, HB 2174)
College Savings Tax Credit: Taxpayers will now receive a tax deduction when saving for a child’s college education if they invest in North Carolina’s “529” college savings plan. Beginning January 1, 2007, an individual taxpayer is allowed to deduct from their taxable income a maximum of $2,000 ($4,000 for a married couple filing jointly), which is contributed by the taxpayer to an account in the Parental Savings Trust Fund. The plan lets investors set aside money that can grow tax-deferred. The funds can be withdrawn free from federal tax if used to pay for college. Other states also provide state income tax benefits, but North Carolina previously did not. The new law is effective for taxable years beginning on or after January 1, 2006. (S.L. 2006-66, SB 1741, Sec. 24-12)
Assistance for Small Businesses: Approximately 30,000 small businesses across North Carolina will receive a tax cut starting January 1, 2007, which will result in approximately $28.7 million in tax relief over the next seven months. The assistance for our state’s valuable small businesses is due to a reduction in the income tax bracket from 8.25 percent to 8 percent. (S.L. 2006-66, SB 1741, Sec. 24.2)
Small business owners who provide health insurance to employees will also receive a tax credit starting in the New Year. Following several years of work by the House, legislators approved a new tax credit for small businesses, which will ensure more workers have access to needed health care. Businesses with fewer than 25 employees will get a $250 credit for every employee who earns less than $40,000 and has employer-sponsored insurance. (S.L. 2006-66, SB 1741, Sec. 24.4)
Increasing Cable Competition, Lowering Bills for Consumers: In an effort to increase new cable programming choices and lower rates, legislators approved the Video Service Competition Act, which deregulates cable television service by replacing the current regulation of cable television service by local franchise agreements with a statewide system. Beginning Jan. 1, 2007, the measure will phase out local franchise agreements between cable providers and city and county governments and open up service areas to competing companies that apply to the state for coverage areas. Any company that wants to provide pay television service over phone lines or broadband Internet can register with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Supporters of the legislation say that it will help consumers by increasing competition among various cable providers. The new law also ensures municipalities at least two public access channels to air local or government programming, and money to help with operating costs. The state Attorney General’s Office will investigate complaints about video programming under the statewide franchise bill. About half a dozen states are considering replacing local cable franchising with state licensing, and a few, including South Carolina, approved such proposals this year. (S.L. 2006-151, HB 2047)
Protecting Children from Sex Offenders: Sex offenders in North Carolina now face much stricter registration regulations due to a new law that took effect on December 1, 2006. Starting January 1, 2007, the State takes another step forward as it launches a new Global Positioning System (GPS) Monitoring program, which will track some of the state’s worst predators by using a collection of satellites owned by the United State Government that provide highly accurate worldwide positioning and navigation information 24 hours a day.
All offenders must comply with tougher registration requirements, which will give authorities more chances to update addresses and photographs. The new law also prohibits a sex offender from living within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare center and bars offenders from working or volunteering in a position where they would interact with minors.
Legislators also included $1.5 million in the budget to upgrade the state’s sex offender registry, which will be unveiled in early 2007, implement the global positioning system (GPS), and establish an email notification program so citizens can be notified when a registered sex offender moves into their neighborhood. (S.L. 2006-247, HB 1896)
8-Year Driver’s License Renewal: Drivers who are at least 18 years old and younger than 54 years old will now be able to renew their driver’s license every eight years. Licenses issued to those 54 and older will expire five years after the date of issuance. Full provisional licenses issued to drivers younger than 18 will expire on the individual’s 21st birthday. A driver’s license issued to a person who holds a visa of limited duration will be issued for the duration of the visa only. The new law will not only be more convenient and efficient for drivers, but will also centralize license production and improve the security of the state’s driver’s licenses by giving DMV officials more time to verify applicants’ identification information.
Starting July 1, 2008, the Division of Motor Vehicles will issue a driving certificate, valid for 20 days, to driver’s license renewal applicants instead of a new driver’s license right away. The temporary driving certificate is not valid for identification purposes. The new license will be mailed to allow officials more time to verify identification information. Those in the military service and stationed outside the state or those who are living outside North Carolina for more than 30 days can renew their licenses by mail. Information about license renewals and other DMV services is available online at www.ncdot.org/dmv or by calling 1-877-DOT-4YOU (368-4968). (S.L. 2006-257, HB 267)
New Crime Fighting Positions: This year’s budget included much-needed funding to reduce crime in our communities and hire additional staff for our courts system. Starting in January, our state’s 41 prosecutorial districts will have additional full-time assistant district attorneys, increasing from four to five in District 6B (Bertie, Hertford and Northampton) and from eleven to twelve in District 9 (Franklin, Granville, Vance and Warren). And, beginning on January 15, there will be 17 additional district court judges in designated districts across the state. Governor Mike Easley will appoint the new judges, and those judges’ successors will be elected in the 2008 election for 4-year terms beginning on January 1, 2009. (S.L. 2006-66, Sec. 14.3 and 14.4, SB 1741)
New Campaign Finance and Election Laws: Legislators passed numerous campaign finance and election law reforms during this year’s session, which take effect on January 1, 2007. Candidates will now be required to report all contributions over $50 (previously $100) and will only be allowed to receive $50 or less in cash contributions (previously $100), contribution checks must be completely filled out, and all campaign treasurers will now have to go through more frequent training. (S.L. 2006-195, HB 1846)
Several election law changes are also taking effect, including: allowing county boards of elections to begin, but not complete, the process of counting mailed absentee ballots before Election Day; a voter needing to change their voter registration because of a move is not required to provide the date of the move, but only attest that the move occurred at least 30 days before the next election; and except for the envelop, provisional ballots shall not be marked to be identifiable to a voter. (S.L. 2006-262, HB 128)
Instant Runoffs Coming to North Carolina: North Carolina will take part in a pilot program for instant runoff elections in 2007 and 2008, which is expected to increase turnout and save counties money by not having to hold a second runoff election following a primary. The State Board of Elections will select up to 10 cities for the 2007 elections and ten counties for the 2008 elections to participate in an instant runoff pilot program. No county will be forced to participate. In an instant runoff, voters would be allowed to rank their order of preference among the candidates running in a primary election. The first choices of voters initially would be tallied. If the leading candidate failed to win more than 40 percent, the top two candidates would advance to the “instant” runoff. Election officials would then examine the ballots of voters whose preferred candidate was eliminated. The remaining candidates would get votes for being the highest-ranked alternative choice. Those votes would be added to their original tally and the candidate with the most total votes would win.
Second primaries will now be held seven weeks, instead of four, after the first primary. The new law also establishes procedures for candidates in plurality elections to participate in the NC Public Campaign Fund, and clarifies that if the Fund is insufficient to fully fund all certified candidates, a candidate may make up the difference through private contributions in an amount up to the candidate’s Fund eligibility amount. (S.L. 2006-192, HB 1024)
Stronger Lobbying and Ethics Laws: During the last two years, legislators have reformed and strengthened our state’s lobbying and ethics laws in an effort to require greater disclosure of lobbying activities, ban gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists, and establish the State Ethics Act and State Ethics Commission. During the 2005 session, lawmakers passed SB 612 (S.L. 2005-456), which requires lobbyists to file monthly disclosure reports during sessions of the General Assembly and quarterly thereafter, beginning on January 1, 2007.
In 2006, lawmakers passed additional reform measures as part of the State Government Ethics Act (S.L. 2006-201, HB 1843), which was the largest, most comprehensive lobbying and ethics bill passed by the N.C. General Assembly in 30 years and one of the toughest in the nation. The new law strengthens ethics regulations and establishes high ethical standards for elected and appointed officials in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government, along with boards and commissions. In addition to the new ban on gifts and campaign contributions given by a lobbyist, there is a new six month “cooling off” period, which was instituted for legislators, members of the Council of State, and State department heads who want to become a lobbyist after leaving office.
A new independent, eight-member State Ethics Commission was established on October 1, 2006 and will officially begin its work on January 1, 2007. The group will receive and evaluate financial disclosure forms, investigate complaints, provide advisory opinions and make recommendations of sanctions to appropriate authorities. The commission has the authority to investigate complaints regarding legislators and may issue advisory opinions, and when appropriate, will refer the matters to the Legislative Ethics Committee for final action. Similarly, the commission has the authority to receive complaints regarding judges and can begin initial investigations, and where probable cause exists refer the matter to the Judicial Standards Commission.
I hope you will continue to let me know how you feel about the issues that were 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.