03/18/13 — Legislators differ on session's progress

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Legislators differ on session's progress

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 18, 2013 1:46 PM

Louis Pate

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Larry Bell

Don Davis

John Bell

RALEIGH -- Even on a slow day at the N.C. General Assembly, the one thing that both Democrats and Republicans agree on is that 2013 has, so far, been a busy, fast-paced year. Of course they disagree about whether that's a good thing, with Republicans seeing it as a sign of them getting things done in a timely manner, while Democrats see it as the GOP unfairly taking advantage of the fact they have complete control of state government for the first time in more than 140 years.

"We're attempting to move very quickly," Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said. "Our goal is to be in a position to insert the final budget numbers when the April 15 tax returns are finished and have a budget completed by the end of May or early June, and then go home, which would be a record, and I think so far, we're having a successful year."

But while Democrats agree that the goal of being done by early June is an admirable one, they worry that perhaps other pieces of legislation are being pushed along too quickly.

"We are moving at a very fast pace," said Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson. "There are some things that I like about that, as far as getting all the business out front and have an early departure. If we can get out by early June, that's very important for local governments that are setting up their budgets for the year. So that's good."

The negative, he said, is that he doesn't think all of the legislation being pushed through is good legislation -- a feeling with which Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, agrees.

"Things are moving pretty quickly through committee to the floor," he said. "In some instances, there's not been a lot of debate in committee. Bills have been kept open for debate on the floor, but a lot of legislation is shaped in committee."

Among the dividing lines this year have been bills to reject the federal government's offer to expand Medicaid coverage, to cut back long-term unemployment benefits and to give the governor the ability to replace the majority of those serving on state boards and commissions. And while some bills such as Caylee's Law to define missing children, which was recently debated on the floor, have fairly universal support, many of the big ticket items left on the agenda promise to be just as divisive -- voter identification laws, tax reform, education reform, and the biannual budget.

The problem, Davis said, is that all of these bills have become an assault on the middle class and working poor.

"I'm really concerned on the big picture. Unemployment being rolled back, not expanding Medicaid -- these programs are important in eastern North Carolina, and these actions are hurting the middle class and working poor," he said.

He said he understands the motivations for each of the actions, particularly the need to keep the unemployment fund solvent. But he also believes that these issues could have been dealt with through temporary measures and did not require an overhaul of the whole system -- a decision that he worries will have an unintended, adverse effect on those military members leaving the service without a civilian job in hand.

Davis also expressed his concern that by scaling back long-term unemployment and not expanding Medicaid, the state would be leaving federal dollars on the table -- dollars, he said, that have already been paid out by North Carolina taxpayers.

But the biggest problem, he said, is the cumulative effect of all of these bills.

"Painful," he said, summing up the session so far in one word. "If it were just one or two of these things it might be OK, but it's the cumulative effect."

However, the cumulative effect is exactly why Republicans like freshman Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, are excited about many of the things being done.

The legislation that has passed so far, and that remains to be passed, is all geared toward improving the state's business climate and its economy in the long term, he said -- efforts that also will help improve conditions for the middle class and working poor.

The goal, he said, with legislation involving unemployment benefits and Medicaid was to take care of problems that had long been building -- the lack of solvency in the unemployment fund and the fact that Medicaid costs often overran estimates and are already projected to do so again this year.

"These problems have been years and years in the making. They're not new this year. We were elected to deal with these problems. Do we put a Band-Aid on it and let it trickle along, or do we fix real problems with real solutions.

"We're not dragging stuff out. These are well-thought out, methodical solutions that will work."

But, Larry Bell said, he doesn't believe that every bill has been pushed through simply for the good of the state. Some being debated, such as the one that would allow the governor to replace the members of many of the state's boards and commissions, are simply being pursued out of "arrogance," he said.

"From the tone of the election process, I'd say we expected most of this (legislation) to happen," he said. "But a lot of the time, it's just to show 'we can do it -- that we have the power to do it.'

"And that's not always good. To the victor go the spoils, but I thought the process we had was good enough. It just shows a degree of arrogance."

Similarly, he said, the ongoing debates on voter IDs and even education reform are issues he thinks the state shouldn't be focusing on right now.

 "I don't think education needs reforming. I think it there may be some tweaking that could be done, but our education system is stronger now than it's ever been," he said. "Many times we just have people who are trying to reinvent the wheel."

And in terms of voter identification, he also noted that a challenge system is already in place to deal with people's concerns about voter fraud and that local officials often do a good job policing who is and isn't an eligible voter.

"I just don't think we've had any problems with that. I think they're doing it for the wrong reasons, and those reasons are voter suppression so they can win elections."

However, those are all issues that Republicans are looking forward to seeing come up for debate in next few months, in addition to the state budget.

And, said Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, the No. 2 state senator this year as the deputy president pro tempore, as they have so far, they will be sure to continue to allow both sides time to have their say.

"The Senate leadership has allowed unlimited debate as far as bills are concerned," he said. "We have yet to use parliamentary procedure to stop the debate on the floor."

In terms of education reform, he said the goal is to investigate issues such as teacher tenure, merit-based pay, social promotion and making sure that children "learn to read by third grade and then from third grade on, are reading to learn."

It's an effort that he expects to see action taken on this session.

Similarly, John Bell said, the GOP is serious about its desire to make the voter ID effort an inclusive process as its leadership asked recently for all interested parties to voice their ideas and proposals.

"We want all sides at the table. This is their opportunity," he said.

He also said that they are watching closely the success, or lack thereof, of similar measures in other states.

But, he emphasized that it is an issue that will be taken up and that some form of a photo identification requirement will be approved.

"Surveys have shown that 70 percent of North Carolinians approve of voter ID," he said.

Tax reform, he continued, is another issue that Republicans expect the General Assembly to address -- or at least begin to address this term.

"You'll see something," Bell said. "People have been talking about tax reform for years and years and years. And it's a big issue to get your head around. I don't think we'll see any drastic changes this year, but I think you'll see a good move to get a good start on reforming our tax code. I think you'll see the income tax reduced, the corporate tax reduced and some loopholes tightened. You'll also see a true reduction in spending to correspond to those.

"We want to be competitive with our neighbors and right now, we're not. We want to create an environment where businesses want to do business in North Carolina, and the best way to do that is to improve our tax climate."

But, John Bell said, the fruits of those efforts are likely going to take some time to mature. Much of what is being discussed and passed right now, from tax reform to the creation of multiple high school diploma tracks are going to show benefits immediately.

"A lot of our efforts have been focused on what we can do to grow our economy and loosen regulations so businesses can be successful. These aren't things you're going to see tomorrow, but long-term are going to make us stronger," he said. "Will there be things that need to be tweaked? Sure. But I feel that based on the information available and the research that has been done, that what we're doing is in the best interests of the state of North Carolina. We're making the positive decisions that will allow for those tweaks to be done."

And in doing so, Bell said, all the GOP is trying to do is take care of business.

"We're up here to take care of business -- to get the job done and go home, and the speaker (Thom Tillis) has made that very clear," he said. "I think the people want the legislature to come up here, do our work and go home. Plus, many of us have businesses to go back to."