02/15/07 — Officials forming military caucus

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Officials forming military caucus

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 15, 2007 1:52 PM

With six military bases and more than 100,000 military personnel in North Carolina, members of the state government, including Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne County, have decided that it's time for a more organized effort to protect those interests.

So far, about 75 people representing the House and the Senate, the governor's and lieutenant governor's offices, the National Guard, the American Legion, the North Carolina Military Foundation, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other military-related organizations have signed up for the informal caucus.

Also involved in these early stages from the Wayne County area are Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir County, and Russell Tucker, D-Duplin County. Goldsboro resident Troy Pate, chairman of the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Military Affairs also is expected to play a large role.

On Tuesday, the group met to begin organizing itself.

"There's a lot of interest in this. Everybody, I think, is very interested in what this committee wants to do," Rep. Pate, vice-chairman of the House Homeland Security, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and a caucus organizer, said. "This will not be an official part of the legislature, but we will be available to help.

"This will be a central point of expertise that can maybe help a person strengthen a bill, or frankly, tell them if it doesn't stand a chance. Our job will be to help enhance legislation."

The focus of the caucus, he continued, would be to protect North Carolina's bases against any future BRAC (Base Reorganization and Closing) Commissions, not only because of the $20 billion economic investment they create in North Carolina -- approximately 7 percent of the state's total economy -- but also because of the military's long history in the state.

In Wayne County, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base has been an integral part of the community since 1942 and according to Pate, creates about $900 million in economic investments each year.

"BRAC is like Dracula. It's not dead. It just sleeps," Pate said. "The next time it wakes up we want to have some good things in place to protect our military installations so the commission will look elsewhere.

"I think we can do that if we stay one step ahead."

Primary among the issues likely to come before legislature this year are those involving the need for open space around the bases and the need for improved state infrastructure, particularly in terms of schools and water and sewer systems.

Other goals presented last month to Gov. Mike Easley by the state Advisory Commission on Military Affairs included returning of a portion of the state gasoline tax collected at the military bases for use in quality of life improvements, an alternative fuel program, a legitimate banking alternative to payday lending and increased opportunities for military-related industries.

Bills have been introduced dealing with the need for statewide water and land conservation and school construction. Others have been introduced to allow employees of military and their dependents to qualify for in-state college tuition and to appropriate $2.9 million for family assistance centers for the National Guard and armed forces and reserves.