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Wednesday, 21 June 2006 00:00

How to herd a bill

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Sen. John Snow, D- Murphy, had a whopper of a week last week.

He had four bills on the table he hope to push through committee, the Senate and the House in a matter of days.

One of the most crucial was a rather touchy bill asking the state to overturn a decision of the Cherokee County school board. Snow’s first hurdle was getting the bill passed by a Senate committee. It was 12:35 p.m. Wednesday when Snow took the podium in front of the committee to make his case. Rep. Roger West, R-Murphy, who was also pushing for the bill, slipped into the committee meeting for moral support and took an empty seat on the front row.

The controversy involved a handful of students who didn’t live in Cherokee County but attended school there. Some lived just over the county line in Clay County, and half a dozen lived just over the state line in Georgia.

The school board decided to kick these out-of-county students out of the schools, causing an local uproar, Snow said.

“The people were all over us saying what are we going to do about this. It would break these kids’ hearts to leave these schools they’d been going to and all their friends,” Snow said.

So the school board decided those already in the pipeline — about 28 — could finish out their schooling in Cherokee County. Two months later, the school board decided to charge them a tuition of $900 a year, however

“Roger (West) and I had a fit again and said please don’t do this to these kids,” Snow said.

“Senator Snow, I think we get the point,” the committee chairman said, cutting him off after a four-minute speech.

Leanne Winner with the N.C. School Board Association took the podium next and urged the committee not to approve the bill.

“We believe this is precedent setting legislation. We have never seen a bill that undoes a local school board decisions. it is a very slippery slope,” Winner said. “We appreciate Senator Snow’s efforts on behalf of these children, but we think it is the wrong way to go.”

Another Senator on the committee, Sen. Robert Holloman, said his school system charged tuition to out-of-county students. County taxpayers can’t foot the education costs for students from other counties, he said.

But Sen. Soles said his county didn’t charge tuition to out-of-county students. His hometown abuts the South Carolina border. Students cross the state line in both directions, so school systems on both sides agree not to charge the other’s students.

The bill ultimately passed the committee unanimously, but Snow’s work wasn’t over.

The next morning, Snow was found pumping hands on the floor of the House of Representatives where the bill was slated for a vote any minute. As a senator, Snow doesn’t serve in the House. That job falls to Rep. Roger West, R-Murphy. But a bill has to pass both the Senate and House to become law, and while West was pushing the bill in the House end of things, Snow figured it wouldn’t hurt to work the floor that morning since a vote was anticipated later that day.

“Roger is a Republican, so I’m just checking in with some of the Democrats to make sure they’ll support it,” Snow said.

That afternoon, the bill came up in the Senate. West, who was back in his office, tuned in to the live Web cast of proceedings on the Senate floor to hear how Snow was faring. West listened as skeptical lawmakers asked Snow what business the state had telling a local school board what to do. West fired back answers to no one in particular as he sat at his desk. Ultimately, Snow got the bill passed 49 to 1.

 

On another front

Snow also spent his week working on a special treat for several dozen veterans who descended on the legislative building on Flag Day for their annual lawmaker lobbying blitz. Snow wanted to introduce a bill that required schools to teach students the importance of Memorial Day and pass it on the floor of the House and Senate in the presence of the veterans.

But there was a catch. There’s only a short window each year when lawmakers can introduce bills. That window had passed by the time Snow thought of the Memorial Day bill. So he went to the Senate leader, Mark Basnight, and asked him if there was a spare bill floating around. There was. A bill that safeguarded the job description of school counselors had been introduced that year, but didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Snow stripped the old words from the bill and plugged in new words requiring the department of education to develop tools for teaching the importance of Memorial Day. Snow got the “new” bill OK’d by committee and passed in the House and Senate in just one day. The unanimous vote in the Senate was quite a feat for a freshman lawmaker, despite the small army of veterans watching from the balcony that day.

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