Most people predicted that this session of the North Carolina General Assembly was going to be fast and furious, and it appears that is indeed the case. The GOP-led General Assembly is advancing legislation that Democrats have traditionally not supported, like raising the cap on charter schools and opposing the federal health care law passed last year by Congress.
In addition, the $3.7 billion projected budget shortfall is also forcing lawmakers to look all over for money, a challenge that is also highlighting the different philosophies of both parties.
The Golden Leaf as a golden egg
It appears a move is afoot to snag money that is supposed to be headed for the Golden LEAF Foundation.
This fund was established from the tobacco settlement proceeds and is supposed to be used to promote the “long-term, economic advancement of rural, economically distressed, and tobacco-dependent counties.” That said, the $68 million annual settlement payment is being eyed by GOP leaders in the General Assembly as a piece of the deficit-reduction puzzle.
On Thursday, the Senate gave tentative approval to a plan that would take proposal that would take money from approximately 20 state accounts and the three funds supported by the 1998 national tobacco settlement — Golden LEAF gets half the tobacco settlement money, and two sister funds, the Health and Wellness Trust Fund and the Tobacco Trust Fund, share the other half.
The vote was 30-18 to take what would amount to about $142 million in all.
An email was sent out yesterday by the Golden Leaf Foundation president saying the idea was a bad one, and that other states have taken similar actions with bad results.
“That’s not the answer. Other states have used their tobacco settlement funds long ago to patch their budget. Now their money is gone, and they face the same issues we face but don’t have access to the assets you currently do through the Golden LEAF Foundation to create jobs and expand economic opportunity. Golden LEAF has helped create an anticipated 4,300 jobs and over $900 million in capital investments in the last two years alone, wrote Golden Leaf president Dan Gerlach.
A Western North Carolina source who is involved in an economic development project funded by the Golden Leaf Fund told The Smoky Mountain News on Thursday that conference calls were held around the region on Thursday to discuss the possibility the fund would be raided and ongoing projects might be stopped in their tracks.
So far this issue has been mostly split right down party lines, with Republicans supporting taking the money and Democrats — along with Gov. Bev Perdue — insisting the money stay where it is. Some Republicans have suggested that the Golden LEAF Fund should be dissolved and all of its $600 million in assets go toward deficit reduction.
N.C.’s own health care debate
Rep. Ray Rapp, D- Mars Hill, wrote in his e-newsletter that debate on repealing the federal health care law was one of the two dominant topics from the General Assembly’s first full week in session (the other was the economy).
Republicans in the House introduced and passed a bill to block the requirement in the federal health care law that requires everyone to buy health insurance by 2014. The bill — which passed essentially along party lines, 66-50 — would force Attorney General Roy Cooper to join other states in challenging the federal law.
“It only seems fair that we ask everyone to take personal responsibility for their own health by purchasing their own insurance so that we can require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, allow young people to stay on their parents’ health policies until age 26, eliminate life time limits and provide tax credits for small businesses that want to cover their employees,” said Rapp, who has been appointed Democratic whip for this session of the General Assembly.
Rapp and other Democrats point out that the Attorney General has said it would cost $344,000 to join the suit, tough money to come by in the face of the projected budget shortfall. Both Rapp and Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, voted against the bill. Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, voted for the bill.
In other General Assembly news
• As reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times Friday, Feb. 4, bills are progressing in both the House and Senate that would ban the practice of involuntary annexation, which forces residents near town limits into the town’s jurisdiction. Annexations typically mean additional city taxes and are usually accompanied by more services.
However, towns now have the right to grow their boundaries even if the residents to be annexed don’t support the move. These laws would ban that type annexation.
“I believe that people should have the opportunity to vote whether or not they should be included in an adjacent municipality,” said rep. Tim Moffitt, a Republican lawmaker from Buncombe County.
The bills would halt all involuntary annexations until July 1, 2012, during which time GOP leaders want to craft a new set of laws governing annexation.
• The Associated Press is reporting that Republicans are in support of a bill to lift the cap on charter schools and allowing proceeds from the state lottery to be used to build new charter schools.
State laws governing charter schools have changed very little since a bill passed in 1996 allowing for up to 100 charter schools in North Carolina. Because of the cap, charter school supporters say students in 53 of the state’s counties don’t have charter schools. The current 100 schools have a waiting list of 20,000 families, according to Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Charter schools don’t charge tuition and have open enrollment. They are run by private boards and exempt from many of the rules that are in place in traditional public schools. The state money allocated for each student follows that student to a charter school, but so far charters have not received any lottery money.
Opponents also worry that lifting the requirement that enrollment in charter schools reflect the general racial and ethnic composition of a county could lead to problems. They argued for slowly raising the allowable number of schools rather than a blanket lifting of the cap.
“What I do not want to do is create a dual system of schools and charter schools,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.
The bill is currently in committee.