01/18/07 — Legislators prepare for new session

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Legislators prepare for new session

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 18, 2007 1:59 PM

With just under a week to go before the North Carolina General Assembly starts its 2007 session, House members representing Wayne County are preparing to begin work on creating a budget, finding a solution to the Medicaid problem and searching for a way to alleviate school construction needs.

For new Rep. Van Braxton, D-District 10, preparing for his first session in the legislature has meant days of meetings with county commissioners, local community colleges and other civic and community organizations, as well as a week of orientation training in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Now he and Reps. Louis Pate, R-District 11, and Larry Bell, D-District 21, are ready to begin work.

"I'm looking forward to us getting started," Braxton said. "We're poised and we're ready.

The first order of business when the House convenes at noon on Wednesday will be the election of a new speaker.

The speaker of the house is the floor leader and is responsible for overseeing the chamber's debate and direction. This will be the first time in eight years a new speaker will be chosen.

Rep. Jim Black, D-District 100, decided against running for a record fifth term after being embroiled in a series of campaign fundraising scandals and other controversies. His withdrawal left the door open for six other candidates to toss their hats into the ring.

Last week, Rep. Joe Hackney, D-District 54, won the nomination of the Democratic Caucus in a close vote.

With Democrats holding a 68 to 52 majority, it's likely he will become the next speaker.

"He was one of my choices," Braxton said. "I think Mr. Hackney is smart. I'm probably a little more conservative than he is, but I think he realizes he has to be speaker for the whole state, not just any one group.

"I think he'll be a good speaker. I think we made a good choice."

But with only 18 votes separating Hackney and Rep. Jim Crawford, D-District 32, there has been talk of a possible compromise candidate with Republican House members.

"I know Rep. Hackney," Pate said. "He's a very capable individual, and I've always respected him.

"If he is elected, I think he will be able to manage the position very well, but it's not over until it's over.

"There's a distinct possibility with 52 votes (that a compromise candidate could be found). If we have one opinion for 52 people, that's a powerful number. It only takes nine more to a make a majority. A lot of Democrats who are up there are very conservative. We'll see how that plays out."

The Republicans will decide their position at their caucus meeting on Tuesday.

Democrats are downplaying such a possibility.

"I was pleased with all three of them," said Bell, a candidate for majority whip. "The impression I got from the meeting when we adjourned was that everybody was unified. We got together behind Joe Hackney and pledged our support.

"Anybody that changes from that, I think would be considered a negative part of the caucus."

But in the House, picking a speaker will only be the beginning.

Not only does the budget process begin in the House this year, representatives also are facing pressure to help with school needs, take away the Medicaid burden and address a whole host of other issues.

"I think Medicaid is going to be a focus," Bell said. "I think there will be some tradeoffs, but I think you'll see a push toward relieving the counties of that burden. I think we've heard enough now to do something about it."

With questions surrounding the budget and whether or not the state is facing a $1 billion to $2 billion shortfall, none of the three legislators know what form that relief might take, but all agree it is necessary.

"If we can take Medicaid off the backs of the counties, that would alleviate a lot of money they could use for school construction," Braxton said.

Also floating around Raleigh will be the idea of a statewide bond referendum to help pay for school construction, but none of the representatives seem excited about that possibility.

"We would need to do a lot of research," Pate said. "I would want to know that the projects are accurately portrayed."

The state also could help the counties find additional funding by allowing them greater flexibility in generating revenue, whether through local sales taxes, transfer fees or some other means.

"I'd love to see us give local governments more flexibility in how they can raise money," Bell said. "Before they've always depended on property taxes and people have had about enough of that and want an alternative. I think we need to give them that flexibility."

One of Pate's other goals is to introduce legislation to allow military bases to retain a portion of the gasoline sales tax they collect.

For Bell, health care and mental health are at the top of the list.

They also want to continue to improve education.

Bell is looking to emphasize high school graduation rates as a better benchmark of school success, while Pate wants to examine teacher retention rates.

"I think we need to focus our attention on high school graduation and dropout rates. If we do, more emphasis will be placed on reaching down to help students," Bell said.

"We're told we need 10,000 teachers a year," Pate continued. "But I don't think we do our best of treating them professionally. Everything is too structured and regimented. I'd like to see our teachers more professionally treated and by doing so, I don't think we'll lose as many in the early years."

And, of course, economic development is high on the list.

"Economic development is first. Education is second. We need to get our children educated and then have good jobs for them in this area," Braxton said.

All three are hoping to get their work done quickly and get out of Raleigh, but that will depend largely on the budget process.

"If we don't have any problems with the Senate and the governor's office, I think the House will get its work done in a hurry," Bell said. "I don't see this being a long, drawn out session."

"Maybe if we can get out by the first of August, that'd be good," Pate added.