The General Assembly will consider three bills of special concern to Civitas supporters this session.
- House Bill 3– This bill would place on the ballot in fall 2018 an amendment to the state Constitution clarifying that the state’s eminent domain powers could only be used for a “public use” and that “just compensation shall be paid” to the landowner, as determined by a jury. This would be an important step in protecting property rights and protecting against the state government’s abuse of its eminent domain powers.
- House Bill 10– Along the same lines as HB 3, this bill would change the statutory law regarding the state’s eminent domain powers, changing the current power from the ability to exercise eminent domain for “public use or benefit” to just “public use.” That is an important distinction and would restrict the state’s ability to improperly use its eminent domain powers.
- House Bill 7– This bill would strengthen the state’s Rainy Day Fund (savings reserve) by limiting the amount of the savings the legislature can spend in any given year (while allowing for exceptions if a two-thirds majority approves), specify the uses of the funds, require 15 percent of each year’s year-over-year increase in tax revenue be placed in the fund, and also require any savings from refinancing state debt to be placed into the fund. This is a fiscally prudent move to better prepare the state for the inevitable cyclical nature of state revenue, so there will be no need to resort to “temporary taxes” or wild spending swings to cover for major revenue drop offs when recessions hit.
Other bills also could have wide impact.
Bill would boost rural broadband
Republican legislative leaders have announced a bill aimed at bringing broadband Internet to 85 rural counties through public-private partnerships and grants.
The bill (HB 68) is called the BRIGHT Futures Act, which is an acronym for:
- Broadband-enabled services
- Retail online services
- Internet of things
- Health Care
- Training and education
Lawmakers said the goal of the legislation is to spread high-speed broadband Internet access to the rest of the state to influence these “BRIGHT Markets.”
The bill also would direct the Rural Infrastructure Authority program within the Rural Economic Development Division to give grants for digital infrastructure, in addition to grants to construct water and wastewater facilities and other physical infrastructure needs.
However, Brian Balfour, executive vice president at the Civitas Institute, questioned the role of the government in expanding broadband to the four corners of the state.
“While the intent to provide broadband service to rural areas may be admirable, we don’t believe it is the role of government to be involved in such a service,” he said. “It is not up to the government to use taxpayer dollars to pay for people’s Internet connections.”
Rep. John Szoka (R-Cumberland) is the primary sponsor of the bill. He said the bill’s “objective is to help people in rural and low-income areas connect to the economic development opportunities arising in the fastest-growing emerging markets of the 21st century.” He went on to say that he and the bill’s co-sponsors believe the best recipe for development in rural areas is to connect people to those BRIGHT Markets through high-speed Internet.
“With 3.3 million North Carolina residents living in rural areas, we have the second largest rural population in the United States; only Texas has a larger population of rural residents. Many of these people are not currently able to connect to the same quality digital infrastructure and gigabit Internet speeds now being introduced in areas like Charlotte or Raleigh.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said, “It’s a great next step for the state of North Carolina and the people of North Carolina, and so many people have been working behind the scenes of this type of process of connecting the last mile for some time.”
Cooling-off period for ex-legislators
Former members of the North Carolina General Assembly may have to wait longer to make the big bucks if a Charlotte lawmaker has his way.
Rep. Scott Stone (R-Mecklenburg) has filed a bill (HB 48) that would increase the time that a public servant would have to wait before registering as a lobbyist in North Carolina. For some former lawmakers, this would mean six months longer before cashing in on a possibly lucrative business.
As a guest on the “What Matters in North Carolina” podcast Feb. 8., Stone said, “The bill will require members of the General Assembly and other government officials to wait 12 months after leaving office before they can register as lobbyists. Currently in North Carolina it’s only six months. It’s called the ‘cooling-off period,’ and frankly that’s on the low end of the scale for states.”
Of the states that have cooling-off periods, which is the majority, “Most of them are much longer than North Carolina’s is. Some of them are one year, some are even two years,” he said.
Basically a legislator would have to resign his or her seat 12 months ahead of time before lobbying former colleagues. Will having to wait an extra six months before registering as a lobbyist really affect anything?
Former NC House Majority Leader Mike Hager said he does not think the extra time will matter one way or the other. Hager said, “Six months, 12 months, it’s not really going to make a difference. What is important is the policy that a lobbyist is presenting. I know the guys I served with aren’t going to just take what I say and run with it if it’s bad policy. That’s not the way they work, nor should they.”
Hager did note that depending on the personal financial situation of a public official, waiting an extra six months might be challenging as they wait to get their new businesses going. In some cases, that business can be potentially very lucrative.
Consider one example. The News & Observer recently reported that former Sen. Tom Apodaca registered with the NC secretary of state’s office as a lobbyist, showing major clients such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, tobacco giant Altria, the North Carolina Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association, and IGT, the company that provides lottery equipment and technology for the N.C. Education Lottery. Apodaca, formerly chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, was considered one of the most powerful of all the state senators over the past six years.
Panel acts on class-size issue
The state House Education K-12 Committee in February unanimously approved a bill that would modify the current class-size requirements for K-3 classes – a measure some thought would be the source of friction at the legislature between Republicans and Democrats.
House Bill 13 increases the maximum amount of students allowed in a class by three students for kindergarten to third grade, raising the limits from 16 to 18 students to 19 to 21 students, depending on the grade.
Under current law approved as part of the 2016 budget adjustment, class sizes would be limited to 18 students in a kindergarten class, 16 in a first-grade class, and 17 in second- and third-grade classes, beginning in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
The bill is meant to patch an issue in the budget that laid the class-size reduction on schools without increasing funding for increased teaching staff, which could have forced the reduction of other classes such as physical education and arts classes.
HB 13 would at least temporarily ease the requirements, but legislators have vowed to find a long-term solution. Perhaps for that reason, instead of being a contentious piece of legislation the bill had the full support of the committee and many education advocacy groups.
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) is running the bill in the House, which was first brought up in special session last year. McGrady said the bill is an attempt to offer more flexibility to the school districts and that the legislature’s ultimate focus is still on reducing class sizes for students, especially in the lower grades.
“I don’t believe it’s true, really factually accurate, to say that this will increase class sizes,” McGrady said. “We are really more going back to what we have now. I think everybody, when we passed the budget, wants to move to smaller class sizes, especially in the lower grades.”
Jennifer Hawthorne, with the Fiscal Research Division, said the bill takes the state “back to what the State Board of Education recommended and had been implementing for many, many years, which is three students more than the allotment ratio for the average size and then three more for the maximum size.”
Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin) said the bill is a straightforward piece of legislation meant to fix an issue that arose after the budget was passed and should not be viewed as anything other than an attempt to help educators in the state.
“The explanation that we got right [on the bill] here would belie any political attempts from the news media or other people who have such an appetite for politicizing things like this to understand that what we’re doing is a sincere attempt to reinstate historically what educators have been asking for, and that should belie any attempts to turn this issue into a political issue, but of course it won’t. We will see [in news accounts] that ‘we are increasing class sizes,’” Dixon said.
Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford) joined Dixon in support of the bill and working together outside of political differences in the interest of North Carolina educators and students.
“I hope as a Democrat we can leave politics out of everything we do in this committee. I support the bill, and I know NCAE (North Carolina Association of Educators) – I talked to NCAE this morning – supports the bill, the [State] Board of Education supports it,” he said. “I know this is a fix for right now so I’m hoping we can have a conversation about what we can do long term to fix this.”