Senator Doug Berger message

Unemployment Benefits Update

Many of you have contacted my office asking about the status of the bill that would extend benefits for long-term unemployed residents of the state. Approximately 37,000 North Carolinians who have been unemployed longer than 79 weeks lost their benefits on April 16.

Senate Bill 584, a bipartisan measure that would allow federal funding to provide 20 more weeks of benefits, has languished in the Finance Committee since April 14. This bill deserves immediate action because people who have been a year and a half without a job are desperate. Many are barely getting by, and the loss of benefits means they could lose their homes, their means of transportation and their ability to even pay their electric bill or buy food.

The economy is making a slow rebound, and some of the unemployed are beginning to hear back from employers for job interviews. This could be good news, but not if their car has been repossessed, or they’ve lost their automobile insurance coverage, or they can’t even afford gas money to get there.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbit announced this week that a discharge petition for Senate Bill 584 will be circulated. If 34 senators sign it, it will force the bill onto the Senate floor for a vote. I have signed the petition and am urging my fellow senators to join me. As of yesterday, all of the Senate’s 19 Democrats had signed it.

Click here for WRAL coverage of Sen. Nesbit’s efforts to push the discharge petition forward.

House Passes Austere Budget

After two days of debate, the House this week approved a $19.3 billion budget plan for the next two years that will put thousands and thousands of teachers, teacher assistants, and other state workers on the unemployment line. Here’s a more detailed version of the budget.

Five Democrats joined the new majority in passing the bill: Reps. William Brisson of Bladen County, Jim Crawford of Granville County, Dewey Hill of Columbus County, Bill Owens of Pasquotank County, and Timothy Spear of Chowan County. This is problematic because it could make the bill veto proof. The House needs four Democratic votes to override the Governor’s veto.

Under the GOP bill, the state’s operating funds would total about 7 percent less than Gov. Perdue recommended budget plan – a difference of about $1.52 billion. Most of that cut comes out of education, which would take a hit of $1.3 billion.

The House budget calls for an 8.8 percent cut in public education spending that equals a loss of 18,000 jobs. The university system would see a cut of about 3,000 jobs and community colleges a loss of 1,400 jobs. Other state agencies would see jobs slashed as well.

The job cuts could be avoided if the state simply maintains a 1-cent sales tax that is set to expire July 1. Gov. Perdue recommended in her budget that three-quarters of the tax be retained in order to raise $827 million. Retention of the entire 1-cent tax would mean more than $1 billion in revenue for education.

A recent poll by Public Opinion Strategies of Virginia indicates that 86 percent of voters don’t want to see decreases in K-12 spending and 71 percent support leaving the tax in place. POS is a market research company specializing in corporate and public policy research. The company successfully advised many winning GOP candidates in 2008, 2009 and 2010 elections.

Click here for WRAL coverage of passage of the budget.

Right to Counsel in Jeopardy for Indigents?

John Adams is known to most of you as one of our founding fathers in leading the American Revolution in 1776 and having served as the second president of the United States from 1796-1800.   Many of you may not know that he was a practicing attorney. He put his private practice at risk when he agreed to represent British soldiers accused of killing Americans during the Boston Massacre in 1770, six years before the Declaration of Independence.  Despite his contempt for the British government, he believed that all individuals had a right to a fair trial and that in order to have a fair trial, the criminally accused must have access to competent counsel. His belief in individual freedom led him to provide a defense to unpopular British soldiers accused of crimes against his fellow Americans.  Six of the soldiers he represented were acquitted. For more information on the Boston Massacre, click here.

In 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright that state courts are required under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys.  When I taught United States History at Kinston High School, I would have my students watch Gideon’s Trumpet, a movie based upon a book written on this landmark case.  We would watch scenes from the first trial and discuss why the evidence was convincing as to Mr. Gideon’s guilt when he was tried without an attorney.  We would then watch the rest of the film and discuss why the second trial of Mr. Gideon resulted in an acquittal when he had competent counsel to represent him.

During my third year of law school at UNC- Chapel Hill, I obtained a paid internship in the public defender’s office under Kirk Osborn in Orange County.  Some of you might recognize Kirk Osborn’s name as a result of his successful representation of the Duke lacrosse student who was photographed at an ATM machine at about the same time that the rape had allegedly occurred.  I did legal research and also investigated cases for Mr. Osborn in the public defenders’ office.  I even testified as an investigator in a case that Mr. Osborn successfully defended where a jury found an indigent facing a first degree burglary charge not guilty.

Upon graduation from law school in 1989, my experience in the public defender’s office enabled me to secure employment as a criminal prosecutor in my hometown of Smithfield.  In 1991, I had the good fortune to be hired by one of the top District Attorneys in the state, David Waters, which resulted in moving my family to Franklin County.  I prosecuted for almost four years in the four counties that I currently serve as a state Senator.  As a prosecutor, I faced many top-flight attorneys who would later go on to serve as our district court judges.  Judge Dan Finch. Judge Henry Banks and Judge Randolph Baskerville all served as criminal defense attorneys when I prosecuted cases.  While each of them had highly successful law practices, each of them availed themselves to be appointed to represent indigent clients, sometimes putting themselves at risk in representing unpopular defendants.  I can tell you from firsthand experience, prosecutors and law enforcement build stronger cases when they know they must face well represented defendants.

I share this history with you because I am concerned that the justice and public safety portion of the House budget passed earlier this week drastically reduces funding for the state office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS). This is the office that pays local attorneys to represent defendants who are unable to afford an attorney on their own. Most North Carolina counties do not have a public defender’s office, so the court appoints lawyers in private practice to represent people who can’t afford their own counsel. Currently, the state pays the attorneys $75 an hour to work on court appointed cases. For more complex death penalty cases, they are paid $95 an hour.

Michael Waters, president of the Vance County Bar Association and the son of retired District Attorney David Waters, said about 45 percent of clients his office serves each year are through IDS, although they account for just one-third of revenue for the firm. “It’s very important to us on a professional level to make sure (those accused of crimes) are effectively represented,” he said. “And in fairness, we have to be fairly compensated.”

The Vance County Bar Association met Friday, and a number of suggestions were made for the adoption of procedures that would more effectively manage the time of court appointed attorneys. The state should also consider a cost-benefit analysis of the prosecution of questionable cases so as not to waste the court’s time and tax payer funds, Waters said.

But those actions alone won’t fill the budget gap that is proposed.  The budget passed by the House would cut more than $11 million that IDS currently receives. This would mean that the hourly rate would likely decrease greatly, possibly to as low as $50 an hour. According to studies done by lawyers’ groups, the average cost of operating a practice in the state is $57-58 an hour, and many attorneys are declining to serve as court appointed counsel because they simply cannot afford to represent low-income clients.

From the Boston Massacre to the Duke Lacrosse case, we can see how important it is that persons criminally accused have access to competent counsel.

Click here for News and Observer coverage.

Town Hall Meeting

Rep. Michael Wray and I will sponsor a town hall meeting on the House budget and its effect on the district. The budget has passed the House and will go to the Senate next week.

The forum will be held 7-9 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, in the old courthouse in Henderson, 122 Young St.

The program will consist of four speakers talking for approximately 15 minutes each followed by a question-and-answer period from the audience.

Speakers will be:

  • · Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Partnership for Children (Smart Start).
  • · Dr. Timothy Farley, superintendent of Granville County Schools (public schools).
  • · Cindy Bostic, assistant district attorney, Oxford (criminal justice system).

· Valerie Hennicke, director of Five County Mental Health Authority (mental health system).