The House and the Senate moved nearer to a final budget deal this week, with members of both chambers agreeing to take over the full cost of the non-federal share of Medicaid.
The takeover is intended to relieve counties from the rapid growth in costs and free up more local money for school construction and other costs. The counties’ share of Medicaid is more than half a billion dollars this year and expected to continue to grow. Negotiators continue to differ over the best way to phase in the plan, but they have been meeting several times a day to reach a compromise.
We also took steps this week to continue to tighten the state’s ethics laws and improve education by moving the cutoff date for children to enter kindergarten. We made state and university buildings safer for visitors and workers by allowing smoking bans and approved a stricter law for monitoring hazardous waste storage facilities following an explosion at one such company in Apex.
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The governor could immediately remove a disbarred judge or district attorney under a bill that received final approval this week in the General Assembly. Gov. Mike Easley says he will sign the measure into law. The bill (S118) will also allow for the suspension of the disbarred lawyer’s pay. It would be reinstated if the disbarment was reversed. The law will probably not come into play in the case of former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong. Nifong was recently disbarred for his handling of the cases of three former Duke Lacrosse players accused of rape. He has already been suspended from office by a judge and has said he will leave office next month. Existing state law requires judges and DA’s to be members of the bar in good standing, but doesn’t provide for their removal. The bill came after a district court judge who lost his law license refused to leave his job, even though he was suspended from acting as a judge.
The House approved a bill (S659) Thursday that would take away the pensions of state or local elected officials convicted of public corruption or election fraud. It now returns to the Senate for concurrence.
The Senate has approved a House bill that would move the cutoff date for children to enroll in kindergarten. Under the proposal, children would have to turn 5 by August 31 to be eligible to enroll in kindergarten. The current cutoff date is October 16. The bill (H150) is expected to help ensure that all children start school with the skills they need. The bill must still be signed by the governor before it becomes law. It would take effect in the 2009-10 school year.
Two bills to restrict smoking moved through the General Assembly this week, with one heading to Gov. Mike Easley and the other to the Senate floor. One measure (S862) would allow smoking to be banned inside and within 100 feet of any building in the University of North Carolina system. The UNC Health Care system and the medical buildings of East Carolina University would have discretion over the policies of their buildings and grounds. The Senate concurred this week with changes made in the House and the bill now goes to the governor for his signature. The second bill would prohibit smoking in any state government buildings and allow local governments to do the same on their property. A Senate committee gave its approval to a bill (H24) that would bar smoking in all buildings owned, leased or occupied by state government. The House approved the bill earlier this session and it now goes to the Senate floor.
A House bill that cleared the Senate this week is expected to increase voter turnout by allowing people to register and vote on the same day in the final 2Â½ weeks before an election. Existing law cuts off voter registration 25 days before an election. The bill (H91) now returns to the House for concurrence on changes made in the Senate.
As the cost of statewide campaigns balloons, a House committee has approved a bill that would provide public financing for three Council of State jobs. The bill was endorsed by Insurance Commissioner Jim Long and state schools Superintendent June Atkinson. Their races and that of State Auditor Les Merritt would be eligible for public money if the bill becomes law. Candidates would have to receive at least 750 contributions of $10 to $200 to be eligible for public financing. The bill (H1517) now goes to the Appropriations Committee.
The General Assembly approved a pair of bills this week to protect cemeteries. One bill (H105) would make vandalism of a grave marker or any other cemetery monument a felony instead of a misdemeanor and desecration of human remains would become a higher grade felony. Under existing law, vandalism that results in damage of less than $1,000 is a misdemeanor. The other bill (H107) better defines abandoned and public cemeteries and attempts to make it easier for groups to set up trusts to pay for the cemeteries’ upkeep. The bills have been sent to Gov. Mike Easley for his approval.
Convicted drunken drivers would be allowed to wear alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelets instead of serving jail time under a bill (S1290) approved in the House this week. The bracelets would cost $12 a day, some of which would be paid by the convicted drivers. Some representatives questioned whether it was fair to adopt use of the devices, since some people could not afford their use. Supporters argued that counties may be willing to bear the cost since the bracelets would keep drunken drivers off the road and be less expensive than jail.
The House unanimously approved minor changes made in the Senate to a bill that would require hazardous waste storage companies to tell their neighbors and emergency response officials more about the materials they store. The bill (H36) would also subject such companies to more inspections. The legislation follows an explosion and fire at EQ Industrial Services in Apex on October 9 that resulted in the evacuation of roughly 17,000 people. Emergency responders had little information about what the company had stored at the site, limiting their ability to extinguish the blaze. North Carolina has 10 remaining commercial hazardous waste storage warehouses that receive chemicals and other materials from manufacturers and laboratories. The waste is consolidated and then shipped to incinerators, landfills and recyclers in other states.
The House and Senate met jointly Wednesday to confirm the appointments of Kevin D. Howell and Eulada P. Watt to the State Board of Education. Howell is assistant to the chancellor for external affairs for North Carolina State University. Watt is a special assistant to the vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and also worked in the U.S. Department of Education. Their appointments run through March 2015.
I attended the following events:
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 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.