My colleagues and I concluded a very busy few weeks in the General Assembly by reviewing and debating dozens of bills over the past few days.
We spent hours in committee meetings and on the floor considering these proposed laws in hopes of getting them approved (or rejected) before the “crossover” deadline Thursday. Bills that wouldn’t require money to be spent or that wouldn’t result in money being raised have to be approved in their originating chamber by the deadline or there is little chance of getting them heard for the rest of the two-year session. The bills we have approved in the past few days pave the way for great improvements in our state. We cleared the way for a constitutional amendment to preserve property rights, agreed to reform our death penalty and medical malpractice laws, reaffirmed our commitment to strong ethics, proposed tougher penalties for driver’s license fraud, moved to protect bullied children and made a step toward expanded insurance benefits for people who suffer from mental illness. These proposals reflect the values of many of you whom I serve, and I’m proud to have been your voice in Raleigh.
We will now move on to consideration of bills sent to us by the Senate and to the consideration of bills with a financial impact. I hope to build on the strong body of work we have already built this session.
As always, thank you for the opportunity to share this information with you. Please let me know if I can be of any service to you.
The House set the stage this week for a possible constitutional amendment to appear on the ballot next year. The proposed amendment would prevent governments from using their power of eminent domain to take private property for commercial purposes. It would go before voters in November and change the state constitution to say, “private property shall not be taken except for public use.” The bill (H878) comes two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be used for economic development purposes. Government could still buy property to use for industrial parks or other economic development projects, but it could not force the owners to sell.
Lawmakers who establish legal defense funds may now have to report donations to those accounts. A bill (H1737) approved by the House would also require reporting of expenses each quarter and make the reporting requirements similar to those for campaign accounts. That means that donations would be capped at $4,000 and corporations and unions, among others, would be barred from contributing. The chamber rejected a separate bill (H1662) that would have lowered the threshold for reporting donations from $100 to $50. Existing law, approved last year, requires political candidates to report the name, address and profession of anyone who donates $50 or more to a campaign.
The House approved two measures that would reform the death penalty in North Carolina. One proposal would allow convicted killers sentenced to death to challenge the penalty if there was evidence of racial discrimination. The bill (H1291) would require the defendant to prove that race was a factor in the sentencing and could include evidence that people of some races are sentenced to death more often than people of other races. Another bill would require the state Supreme Court to review some life imprisonment sentences when conducting a “proportionality” review to determine whether a death sentence is warranted. If the justices determine the penalty was too severe when compared to cases with similar circumstances, they can reduce the penalty to life in prison. The review does not allow them to reverse the conviction.
A bill that would change the way medical malpractice lawsuits are handled in North Carolina passed the House on Monday and will go on to the Senate. The bill (H1671) would automatically send malpractice cases to an arbiter unless there is an objection by one of the parties. The arbiter would be able to award damages no higher than $1 million. The goal of the bill is to reduce insurance costs for physicians. Costs recently have risen to levels that some say discourage people from practicing medicine in the state. Insurers, knowing there is a limit to damages in many cases, may lower their insurance fees. The bill is based on one that passed in the state of Washington last year and is the result of a compromise between the N.C. Medical Society and the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers, two groups that have long fought over medical malpractice suits. Advocates of the bill hope it will help facilitate cooperation between the two groups.
Drivers from other states who come to North Carolina to get drivers licenses and lower insurance premiums will be committing a felony under a bill approved this week in the House. The House passed the measure unanimously Monday, and it will now go to the Senate for consideration. The bill (H729), supported by the state Department of Insurance, is designed to minimize fraudulent insurance filings with the state. Drivers from out of state often come to North Carolina, fraudulently claiming to be residents, and then securing automobile insurance here. When these people have accidents, it can raise rates for other people insured in North Carolina. North Carolina has one of the lowest auto insurance rates in the nation. The bill also requires insurers to try to verify if an applicant is being truthful about their residence.
The House passed a bill Monday that would allow authorities to take driver’s licenses from adults who give underage children alcohol. The penalty would be in addition to the misdemeanor charge already in place. The charge is currently punishable by a fine and community service. The bill (H1277) passed 106-6, and it will now go to the Senate for consideration.
School children will be better protected from bullies under a bill approved in the state House. The bill (H1366) includes a list of students who are likely to be targets of bullies. Some opponents argued that the list creates two classes of victims by listing race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, gender identity or expression, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, or sensory disability as possible reasons why students may be bullied. The bill sponsor said states that incorporated similar lists into their anti-bullying laws have noticed a sharper decrease in instances of bullying. People who are not on the list are not excluded as potential victims of bullying. A proposed amendment that would have removed the list failed by a vote of 59-58, with Speaker Joe Hackney voting on the prevailing side. In a separate vote, the House defeated a bill (H853) that would have banned corporal punishment in the school systems. Opponents of the ban argued that it stripped local school boards of their authority to set policy in their systems.
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors has long reserved a seat for a student but never allowed the student to vote. A bill approved in the state House is trying to change that. The bill approved Tuesday would allow the student member to vote on matters that come before the board. Proponents of the bill argue the student member is generally well informed enough about the issues to vote. Opponents say students don’t have enough time during their one-year tenure to become knowledgeable about the needs of the 16-campus public university system. The bill (H893) now goes to the Senate.
North Carolina took a step this week toward giving those who suffer from mental illness the same level of insurance coverage available for physical illnesses. The bill (H973) would bring North Carolina in line with many other states in the region. It exempts companies with 25 or fewer employees from the expanded requirement and many companies with 100 or more employees would be exempt because they are self-insured. That means the change will apply initially only to about one in six workers in the state. Thirty-four states already have mental-health parity. The bill now goes to the Senate. Senate leader Marc Basnight says members of his chamber support expanding private mental health coverage.
The House agreed Thursday to establish the Joint Legislative Budget Oversight Committee as a way to continually examine and oversee the state budget. The committee would review agency expenditures and collections of receipts, agency compliance with state laws and compliance with legislative policies and intent, among other things. The committee would have 20 members — 10 members of the House appointed by the Speaker of the House and 10 senators appointed by the Senate President Pro Tempore. At least two of the members from each chamber would have to be members of the minority party. Each member of the committee would serve two-year terms. The bill (H716) now goes to the Senate.
In anticipation of Memorial Day, lawmakers honored the state’s veterans on Wednesday. Veterans who work in and around the General Assembly were invited to wear their service decorations on that day and others decorated their doors with flags or photos of loved ones in the military. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and other groups visited the Legislative Building to meet with lawmakers, and members of both chambers passed resolutions honoring North Carolina’s troops and veterans, especially those who have died in the line of duty.
The House and the Senate met jointly Wednesday to honor 2006 Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and NASCAR. Johnson, who lives near Charlotte, said the recognition was a “huge honor.” Rick Hendrick, the owner of his No. 48 Chevrolet, was also honored.
Please remember that you can listen to each day’s session, committee meetings and press conferences on the General Assembly’s website. Once on the site, select “audio,” and then make your selection — House Chamber, Senate Chamber, Appropriations Committee Room or Press Conference Room.
The following people visited my office:
* Dr. Dan Bernstein, Henderson
* Sallie P. Surface, CADA, Rich Square
* Shewanda Edwards, CADA, Rich Square
The House will return to session Monday at 7 p.m.
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.