Voice Your Opinion
Gov. Beverly Perdue has vetoed House Bill 383 which ties the extension of unemployment benefits to 37,000 North Carolinians to negotiations over the 2011-12 budget. The bill would have limited her ability to bargain effectively over the budget plan with the new majority. Other bills have been introduced to separate the two issues so that extended unemployment benefits might be provided, free of any budget talks and at an accelerated pace so that families won’t have to suffer unnecessarily, but those efforts have died in committee.
If you’d like to express your views on the extension of unemployment benefits, a public hearing will be held Wednesday, April 27, at 2 p.m. in Room 1124 of the Legislative Building. The building is located at 16 West Jones St., Raleigh.
A Second Chance for Youthful Offenders
Last week the Senate passed Bill 397 that would allow for the expunction of non-violent crimes from the records of youthful offenders. I co-sponsored the bill with Democrat Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham and Republican Sen. Warren Daniel, a Morganton attorney who practices juvenile justice law.
North Carolina is one of only a few states in the nation who treat 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the criminal justice system, no matter what the charge. This bill will allow someone who received a conviction of a non-violent crime to have a one-time conviction expunged from their record. A series of non-violent crimes resulting in a 1 time conviction date would also be covered under this bill. The petitioner seeking an expunction would have to have a record free of previous felonies and perform 100 hours of community service, among other things, to receive the expunction. The merits of this bill, which I have worked for four years to pass, is that a person can get a fresh start in life if they have not committed a serious felony. The bill will not allow the expunction of many drug-related crimes, and the record will still be available to law enforcement in the event the person applies for work in the law enforcement sector.
Debra Crank of Raleigh has been watching the movement of this bill—and its predecessors—for some time. Her son was the driver for a group of 15 year olds who broke into a commercial building and stole computer equipment eight years ago. While the minors were reprimanded, he (then 16 years old) was charged with felony breaking and entering, paid $9,000 in restitution and performed 50 hours of community service. But his debt to society has not stopped there. He’s been denied admission to college, the ability to rent apartments, refused jobs and tossed out of jobs he was able to get because employers discovered his record. He is trying to start his own landscaping business, but he cannot secure the necessary bond.. “He should get a second chance,” Crank said. “He’s not been in trouble since, and just wants an opportunity to prove he made a stupid mistake and can serve as a good citizen now and in the future.” The bill now goes before the House.
This is my third bill that has passed the Senate by partnering with a Republican in the Senate. While the daily media highlights stories of gridlock in the General Assembly, there are many instances in which legislators work on a bipartisan basis.
Cuts Go Too Far
My office has received emails from dozens of constituents expressing concern and opposition to cuts to the education budget. The most concern is emanates over Smart Start and More at Four, which provide pre-kindergarten learning opportunities for children, mostly from working families. While some may think these programs just provide babysitting services, studies have shown that children who attend Smart Start and More at Four have better reading and math skills later in school than those who do not attend. These are children from two- and one-parent homes where the parents work, often in two or more jobs, and some of these parents do not have the proper education to help their children progress educationally. Do we punish the children because of this?
Many parents and grandparents have written to me, exclaiming the virtues of the programs in helping their developmentally disabled children get a head start. One 87-year-old grandmother wrote that her grandson in Moore at Four was having trouble learning. Testing was offered, and the child was determined to be autistic. Now in the third grade, her grandchild is doing well.
Smart Start, which is funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, will be cut 20 percent under the proposed House budget plan, while axing More at Four by 20 percent as well. Some House Republican leaders continue to threaten to cut More at Four completely from the education budget and combine it with Smart Start at DHHS at reduced funding levels.
The public and educators are also expressing concerns that the academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) program currently is slated for a more than 10 percent cut under the House plan. The Governor’s budget funds the program at current levels.
The Teacher Academy would be eliminated under the House budget. The Governor’s plan would reduce funding by 5 percent. The academy provides training and professional development assistance to the State’s educators. N.C. teachers are required to have 150 hours of professional development during every licensure period, but there are limited providers of this service statewide. A total funding cut would mean the loss of 14 state-funded jobs.
According to the N.C. Association of Educators, the proposed House budget represents cuts of 21,000 educators and support staff jobs in K-12, while Gov. Perdue’s budget would not eliminate a single job for teachers and teacher’s assistants. The difference is that the Governor’s budget included the retention of three-quarters of a 1-cent sales tax that was instituted two years ago. The tax is set to expire July 1, but would raise nearly $827 million per year if the three-quarters of 1-cent tax is retained.
The most troublesome aspect of the Republican cuts stems from their lack of focus to address any specific perceived inefficiencies or alleged waste in the public education system. The cuts appear to conform to preconceived ideas of what public education entails, in spite of all the studies demonstrating the successes of Smart Start and More at Four. As noted in a previous newsletter, Smart Start has been a model for education programs across the United States.
I believe that the policy choices in relation to public education are simple and clear. Teachers, Smart Start and More at Four can be saved from budget cuts if North Carolinians agree to continue to pay less than one cent in sales tax. Extending the small increase in sales tax will preserve the future of hundreds of thousands of our children. I believe that the vast majority of North Carolinians, most of whom owe their success to public education, will make the small sacrifice. The Governor’s budget is simply a better plan for accomplishing this.
As always I welcome your comments on this newsletter or anything else that concerns you. My office is here to help in whatever manner we can. It is an honor to serve as your Senator, and I will do everything in my power to live up to that honor.