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Wednesday, 23 May 2012 19:57

Annexation and fracking and voter ID, oh my! A look at the General Assembly’s short session

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While arguments over the state budget are likely to dominate everything in Raleigh as the General Assembly convenes for the next six weeks, there are certain bills and aspects of the budget making their way through the chambers that are of special interest to this region.

Annexation, automobile inspections and certain local bills will be considered during this short session. But the budget is definitely the gorilla in the room, the three lawmakers — Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva; and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — from this region unanimously agreed.

“That’s the major point of why you even have the short session,” Rapp said of the budget.

Aspects of the state’s financial plan as written by GOP House budget writers will be unveiled for the first time this week, Rapp said, which will undoubtedly set the stage for fierce debate between the two parties.

Education is likely to emerge as the hot-button issue in regards to the budget. Schools are losing federal stimulus money and are looking at steep budget cuts if things stay as they are. Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed increasing the education budget by $785 million using new sales tax revenue. But while Republicans have indicated they want to find more money for schools, that might be difficult in these fiscally austere times and with their promises of adhering to a fiscally austere budget path and stout opposition to a sales tax hike.

“This has major implications in education,” Rapp said. “There’s the possibility of losing more teachers and school employees — this is the frontline battle that will grab headlines (this) week.”

In regards to various bills that are moving through the General Assembly, Davis said the one on annexation is capturing a lot of attention.

“This is particularly aimed at some municipalities that have involuntarily annexed people in outlying areas. In some cases the people haven’t received services for 12 years,” Davis said.

The State senate last week approved two bills that were written in response to a judge who disallowed annexation rules passed in 2011, Rapp said.

One bill would kill certain annexations that have already taken place and the other gives people the ability to stop a municipality from annexing their land into the town limits against their will.

“That one says that if you want to annex an area you have to have a referendum and a plurality of people must say they want to have this happen,” Davis said.

One GOP-backed proposal that Davis supported did not make the cut. Under the proposal, new-car owners wouldn’t have to get safety inspections until the cars were more than three years old.

Davis said he favored the idea because the safety inspection of new cars seems unnecessary. The proposal went down in flames, however, under a barrage of phone calls and lobbying by garage owners who make money off the inspections.

Fracking, a method of extracting natural gas hydraulically, is another hot-button issue identified by area lawmakers. There are several bills that will be introduced promoting fracking that are expected to pass. If they do, North Carolina would form an oil and gas board to oversee the procedure. Conservationists oppose fracking as posing an unnecessary risk to the environment.

Davis also pointed to voter identification as another bill to keep an eye on. This is a holdover from the 2011 session. The bill would require that voters show photo identification at the polls before they could vote. Democrats have fought the bill as a voter-rights violation.

On a more local level, several bills are being introduced that are of special interest to this region.

In yet another step in a tangled tale, Haire is introducing a bill that would allow Jackson County to delay the implementation of legislation passed last year seeking an additional 3 tax on overnight lodging.

The county inadvertently triggered a mandate governing county tourism entities when it sought the room tax increase, requiring it to form a single tourism development authority. Jackson County has had two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of debate. In the meantime, the county learned recently that its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

Haire said that his bill would give Jackson County until Jan. 1 to make that change, giving county leaders the opportunity to best decide what structure the single countywide tourism agency should take.

Davis, for his part, is overseeing legislation that would finalize an agreement between Graham and Swain counties over Fontana Dam money.

Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam and hydropower generators. The dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators. This bill nails down the dividing line as an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam that surveyors discovered.

Rapp is introducing a bill that would restore funding to the N.C. Center for the Advancement for Teaching. The center would receive $3 million in recurring funds beginning July 1 from the Department of Public Instruction under the bill.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million last year.

The 25-year institution is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development. In Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated because of the budget cut.

The short session is expected to conclude July 4.

“The rumor down here was if you wanted to make plans for the Fourth of July you could do so,” Haire said.

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