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Democratic legislation under the ax in North Carolina

Here is a list of programs initiated by Democratic governors or passed by Democratic legislatures (sometimes at the urging of Republican governors) that could be ended or have their funds deeply cut by the Republican legislature. A few have already been repealed.

Education

• Since 1941, under Democratic Gov. Mel Broughton, public school teachers who earn a graduate degree earn a pay supplement. The Senate budget proposes to end the supplement, which is currently a 10 percent pay increase for teachers who earn a master’s degree. The House budget proposes to keep the supplement, as does the governor’s budget.

• Smart Start, the public-private early childhood initiative, was an effort to help young children who come to school unprepared to learn. The program teamed government with local organizations to give local communities control. It was started by Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt in 1993 as a centerpiece of his third term. The program hit a high mark of state funding of $231 million in 2000-01, but that has fallen to $151 million per year, which Gov. Pat McCrory is proposing to continue. The Senate wants to fold the program into the Division of Social Services in a move that it estimated would reduce funding to somewhere between $90 million and $100 million.

• When Hunt first took office in 1977, his major initiative was the Primary Reading Program, which put a reading aide – or what would later become known as a teacher assistant – in every classroom in grades 1-3. That program is being cut way back by Republicans. McCrory’s budget and the Senate budget would eliminate teacher aides in grades 2 and 3, but keep them in kindergarten and first grade. Some of the money for teacher assistants could be used by local school officials for other purposes.

• The Teaching Fellows program was passed by the Democratic legislature in 1986 in an effort to convince the best and brightest young people to enter teaching. It provided college scholarships to talented high school students who would agree to teach in North Carolina schools for at least five years, particularly in rural areas. There are now 4,443 teaching fellows working in 99 of the state’s 100 counties. The legislature has been phasing out funding, with no freshman class of fellows this year and with the program ending in 2015. Senate Republicans include no money for the Teaching Fellows Program in their budget. The House GOP budget would reinstate money for the teaching fellows.

• The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching was created in 1985 in Culllowhee with a smaller facility in an old Coast Guard station in Ocracoke. It provided about 66,000 teachers sabbaticals, allowing them to take courses and seminars. The $8 million budget had been reduced during the recession, was cut in half in 2011, and the Senate budget would eliminate it. It would be continued in the House budget and the governor’s budget.

• With the passage of the Excellent Schools Act in 1997, Hunt and the legislature made a commitment to raise North Carolina’s teacher pay to the national average. That goal was not reached, but teacher salaries did rise to 95 percent of the national average, and North Carolina ranked 21st in the country in teacher salaries in 2001. The recession took its toll, but the current legislature doesn’t seem interested in turning things around. Teacher pay has now fallen to 46th in the nation and in the South tops only West Virginia and Mississippi.

Environment

• Since 1985, North Carolina had banned the construction of jetties or terminal groins along its coast – first as a rule and then as law. The move was designed to protect the environment, because jetties cause beach erosion further along the coast and cost taxpayers up to $10 million each. But developers and homeowners have pushed for such structures for years to protect local beaches. The GOP legislature in 2011 passed a compromise measure to allow four pilot project jetties – but included language that had certain taxpayer protections. This session, the Senate has passed a measure to allow unlimited jetties and removes the taxpayer protections. McCrory has opposed the move.

• In 2007, the legislature passed the Solid Waste Management Reform Act partly in response to three landfills that were proposed for Eastern North Carolina. The restrictions became an issue in the 2008 governor’s race, when Democrat Bev Perdue ran ads against Republican McCrory accusing him of wanting large landfills in the east because he opposed the bill. A Senate committee has approved a bill that would undo a number of environmental standards in the 2007 law, weakening protections for parks, wildlife refuges, wetlands, endangered species habitat and sensitive or high-quality surface waters.

• Concerned about water quality problems in Jordan Lake, an important water supply for Triangle communities, the Democratic legislature in 2009 adopted environmental rules for nutrient reduction. The legislature, responding to pressure from land developers and uplake communities, has been moving to repeal the rules and set up a new study.

• Partly in response to the pollution problems caused by the industrial-size hog farms in the east as well as fish kills, the Democratic legislature – largely at the urging of Senate leader Marc Basnight – created the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in 1996. At its height it was distributing $100 million per year in grants to local governments, state agencies and non profits to help finance projects dealing with water pollution such as building wastewater treatment plants and for storm water management problems. This year the GOP legislature cut it to $10.7 million, and McCrory is proposing to cut it to $6.7 million. The Senate would dismantle the fund, while the House is proposing to fund it at $20 million next year.

• The N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund was created in 1987 with the strong backing of Basnight to provide supplemental funding to state agencies to acquire land for parks and historic sites. It sets aside 25 percent of the state’s real estate deed transfer tax and a portion of fees for personalized licensed plates. It raises $12 million a year for land acquisition – more than $300 million over the life of the program. The Senate would combine the Clean Water Management Trust Fund with the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund into a smaller fund and take away the deed stamp tax as its source of funding, making it rely on regular budget appropriations. At their height, the two funds raised $150 million annually. The Senate budget would raise $12 million combined.

• In the 1970s, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was first being formed, the Democratic legislature passed a series of provisions – known as the Hardison amendments, after a conservative lawmaker – saying no state environmental law could be more stringent than the federal law. During the 1980s as the Reagan administration relaxed enforcement of environmental regulation, there was a push to repeal the Hardison amendment to give the state more flexibility. Among those who campaigned for repeal was Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Martin in 1984. It was finally repealed by the Democratic legislature in 1991, which by then had grown more environmentally friendly. But the Republican legislature, with the backing of business and farm groups, re-installed the Hardison amendments in 2011. The Senate this year has passed an additional version, saying that local governments cannot pass any environmental laws more restrictive than the state laws.

Income tax

• North Carolina has had a progressive income tax since 1921, when it was passed under the leadership of Democratic Gov. Cameron Morrison. The money helped finance North Carolina’s big push to build its university system and roads, making it a leader in the South. The Senate is proposing to abolish the income tax, and the House is proposing a flat tax, so that rich and poor pay at the same rate. The GOP plans make up some of the loss of revenue from income tax through broader use of the sales tax, which economists describe as regressive.

• In an effort to provide relief to low-wage workers, the Democratic legislature, with the support of Democratic Gov. Mike Easley, in 2007, passed the Earned Income Tax Credit. It provided a refundable tax credit to nearly 907,000 North Carolina workers in 2011. But the Republican legislature voted to repeal the tax credit this year, and it was signed into law by McCrory.

Women and children

• In 1987, at the urging of Republican Gov. Jim Martin, the Democratic legislature expanded Medicaid to pregnant women with income at 185 percent of the poverty level. The program was called “Baby Love” and was aimed at reducing infant mortality. The Senate budget would change the requirement for pregnant women who are Medicaid-eligible, changing it from 185 percent ($21,256 for a single person) to 133 percent ($15,282 for a single person.) The Senate bill would provide a small voucher to a narrow group of pregnant women who are thrown off Medicaid to help them buy private insurance.

• Child Fatality Task Force was created in 1991 by a Democratic legislature and Martin when there was concern about the state’s high infant mortality rate. The task force has focused its efforts on child health and safety and supported policies to reduce infant and child deaths. The child death rate has dropped from 107 children per 100,000 in 1991 to 57.4 per 100,000 in 2011. The House budget would end the program.

Economy

• N.C. Rural Economic Development Center was created in 1986 under the leadership of Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Jordan in an effort to address the growing gap between urban and rural areas. The center hands out $600 million grants for water and sewer projects and other projects. McCrory is proposing to cut the budget from $18 million to $6.6 million, and the Senate proposes to end funding, creating a new division with the Department of Commerce to oversee rural economic development. The House budget would fund it at $16.6 million.

• The Biofuels Center of North Carolina in Oxford was created by the Democratic legislature in 2007 to promote feed stocks for use as fuel. McCrory proposes to cut the budget from $4.3 million to $1 million, and the Senate budget would eliminate it.

• The N.C. Biotechnology Center is a nonprofit created in 1984 in the Research Triangle Park by the Democratic legislature under Hunt to promote life-science businesses. McCrory’s budget would cut its budget from $17.2 million to $7.2 million, while the Senate budget would abolish it.

• Golden Leaf Foundation, a nonprofit in Rocky Mount was created in 1999 by the Democratic legislature to receive money from the state settlement from cigarette manufacturers. The money is used largely to help rural communities. McCrory’s budget would cut off the annual revenue, or $69 million, to the Golden Leaf Fund, as would the Senate. The House would divert payments for two years.

Others

• The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009 by the Democratic legislature with the support of Perdue. It allows people sentenced to death to use statistical evidence to argue that race played a significant part in their trial or in the prosecution’s decision to seek the death penalty. The legislature has repealed the law, arguing that it’s a back-door attempt to ban the death penalty. It’s now on McCrory’s desk.

• Unemployed workers have been receiving 26 weeks of benefits since 1951, when under the leadership of Democratic Gov. Kerr Scott, the benefits were expanded from 20 weeks. That will change this year, as the result of a new law passed by the Republican legislature and signed by McCrory, which reduces benefits to a sliding scale of between 12 and 20 weeks.

• Annexation law was passed in 1959, pushed through by Democrat Pat Taylor, who later became lieutenant governor, as a way to make sure that North Carolina’s cities continued to grow in an orderly way. The Republican legislature changed the law in 2011 to make annexation of established residential areas very difficult.

• The birthplaces of two of North Carolina’s most famous governors, Charles Brantley Aycock in Wayne County and Zebulon Vance near Asheville, became state historical sites in 1955 and opened shortly thereafter during the administration of Democratic Gov. Luther Hodges. McCrory’s budget would close the historic sites, but still maintain the property.

Elections

• Following the Watergate scandal, the Democratic legislature in 1977 with the encouragement of Hunt sought to limit the influence of special-interest money in campaigns. It passed a law that would allow taxpayers to voluntarily check a box on their individual tax forms to give $3 to fund that helps finance the political parties. The funds are distributed based on party registration. McCrory has proposed abolishing that program, and the legislature seems likely to follow.

• In 2007, the Democratic legislature approved public financing – through voluntary tax check off – for statewide races for state treasurer, insurance commissioner and superintendent of public instruction. The theory is that special interest groups were most interested in financing those races. The Republican legislature is in the process of ending the program.

• Worried about the potential influence of big money in judicial campaigns, the Democratic legislature in 2002 passed the first public financing system for races in the country. The law applies to races for the N.C. Supreme Court and the N.C. Court of Appeals and is funded through voluntary tax check-offs and lawyer fees. The Republican Senate has proposed repealing it, and the House is considering doing it as well.

• The N.C. Museum of Forestry was created in Whiteville in 1998 with the support of Democratic state Sen. R.C. Soles, who got $1 million to get it off the ground to celebrate the state’s forestry industry. Two years ago, the state spent $2 million to renovate the museum. But the Senate budget will kill the $357,000 operating budget.

- Staff writer Rob Christensen

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