Editorials

Your guide to crunch time in the N.C. legislature (updated!)

The Observer editorial board

Two N.C. bills ignore how development in Charlotte helps drive the state economy.
Two N.C. bills ignore how development in Charlotte helps drive the state economy. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Updated 5/9, 8:04 a.m.

More than 200 bills cleared the N.C. House or Senate last week before the General Assembly’s “crossover” deadline. Now it’s crunch time, with Republicans focusing on (and Democrats trying to block) bills that will have North Carolina talking this spring and summer.

Here’s the latest on 12 hot-button measures, with their chances of passing and what we think about the bills.

Robin Hooding urban counties

The bills: Senate Bill 126 and Senate Bill 660

What they do: SB 126 updates an old sales tax distribution formula to give rural counties a bigger chunk of the sales tax revenues generated across the state. Urban counties would generally lose money if the formula is updated.

SB 660 puts a cap on job-creation incentives the state can offer to corporations building in the state’s largest urban counties, including Mecklenburg and Wake. That cap would theoretically encourage companies to develop in more rural counties.

The bills were introduced by lawmakers in rural N.C. counties.

Where the bills stand: Both bills passed the Senate but not the House, which has been wary about measures that might curb growth in the counties that serve as North Carolina’s economic engines. A cap on incentives in urban counties was scrapped two years ago.

Chance of passage: 50 percent for SB 126; 30 percent for SB 660.

What we think: North Carolina needs a more thoughtful approach to helping rural counties than simply reaching into the pockets of urban counties. Lawmakers should pursue legislation that sets up a grant program to build schools, retrain workers and seed economic development efforts in the poorest counties. Doing so recognizes that while it makes sense to help counties that need money the most, larger counties are the engine that drive North Carolina, not merely the cash cows that fund it.

School boards vs. Counties

The bill: SB 531

What it does: Takes away the ability of local school boards to sue county commissioners over school funding. SB 531 also removes provisions in current law that allow for a mediator to meet with leaders of school boards and county commissions to negotiate a possible compromise.

Instead, SB 531 dictates that if a meeting of the full school board and board of county commissioners produces no agreement, the commissioners’ funding decision is final. That would mean that county commissioners have far less incentive under the new law to negotiate on school funding. School boards, meanwhile, would have little recourse if they are legitimately underfunded.

The latest: After Sen. Joyce Waddell unsuccessfully tried to have her home county of Mecklenburg excluded from the bill, SB 531 passed 37-11, with three Democrats joining Senate Republicans as yes votes.

Chance of passage: 65 percent.

What we think: There’s nothing wrong with the current law, which encourages mediation but gives school boards the last resort of going to superior court to get funding they think they deserve. We’d rather have a judge making those decisions based on the facts at hand, not the legislature preempting any and all lawsuits. That unnecessarily and dangerously removes accountability from counties.

Protecting our water from “stupid”

The bill: Senate Bill 434

What it does: Removes protections for “buffers” – undisturbed strips of land – along the Catawba River. Property owners would be allowed to develop land right up to the water’s edge.

SB 434 also eliminates protections individual counties have approved for buffers and repeals the plastic bag ban on the Outer Banks.

Where it stands: The Senate, led by Andy Wells of Hickory, passed SB 434 without bothering to hear any research about the environmental impact of buffers, which is substantial. That prompted one of our favorite legislative quotes in a long while, from Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius: “There’s an endless supply of stupid in state government.”

(Updated, 5/9!) Chance of passage: 15 percent. Tarte held a news conference at his house Monday and hit the bill hard all over again, saying it was “a perfect opportunity to ruin Lake Norman.” It’s unusual for any legislator to go after a bill sponsored by members of his own party, and House lawmakers will take notice. We’re downgrading the chances of passage to 15 percent.

What we think: “Supporters say they see it as a property-rights issue. The government, they say, shouldn’t be able to tell owners what they can and can’t do with their land. Except government does so all the time in the form of easements, utility lines and other uses. And buyers of land on the Catawba know the restrictions when they buy...

“The environmental value of buffers is not in question. They act as a trap for nitrogen and prevent nutrients and other contaminants from rushing into lakes and rivers. They help prevent erosion, keep the water clean and provide animal habitat and an aesthetically pleasing landscape. If anything, buffers need to be expanded beyond the Catawba’s mainstem to its tributaries, not eliminated.” Our View, May 4

Last U.S. state to ‘raise the age’?

The bill: HB 280

What it does: Classifies 16- and 17-year-olds as legal adults only if they’re charged with violent felonies. Children under 18 would be not be tried as adults for non-violent felonies and misdemeanors, although the bill would give law enforcement, judges and all other parties involved the power to ask that a nonviolent case be transferred to the adult system if circumstances warrant it.

Currently, North Carolina is the only state remaining that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

What’s the latest: The bill was scuttled to the House judiciary committee, which is ordinarily not a good sign, but advocates think it might begin to gain traction in the next 10 days.

Chance of passage: 50 percent.

What we think: “Every day in North Carolina, teens charged with the most minor offenses are being put through the adult system. They are less likely to get treatment and counseling that could get them on the right track, and if convicted of so much as a misdemeanor they are saddled with a criminal record for life.

“History and other states’ experience show that juveniles are more likely to become repeat offenders when put through the adult system rather than the juvenile justice system. So raising the age would also save taxpayers money.” Our View, March 11

Another stand on sanctuary cities

The bill: SB 145

What it does: Penalizes local governments that have “sanctuary city” policies by stripping those governments of a variety of revenue sources, including money from beer and wine taxes and telecommunication taxes. Charlotte could lose $40 million if it were found to be a defacto sanctuary city.

SB 145 allows citizens to file complaints against municipalities, and it orders the N.C. attorney general to investigate those complaints within 45 days. The bill also bans “community IDs” that some nonprofit groups issue to undocumented immigrants. Some police say those IDs can be helpful in identifying people during investigations.

Where it stands: The bill passed the Senate on a party line vote. A similar bill without the community ID provision has been stalled in the House, but Republicans will likely revive this opportunity for an easy political win with their constituents.

Chance of passage: 65 percent

What we think: It’s an unnecessary and potentially costly bill. It’s unnecessary because sanctuary cities are already banned in North Carolina, and no N.C. municipalities have any such policies, according to federal officials earlier this month. It’s costly because the attorney general will have to use state resources to investigate any citizen complaint, no matter how frivolous.

The Budget

The two-year state government budget determines spending in critical areas such as education, health and human services and transportation. Budgets also can include changes in policy (although those should be done in separate bills.)

What’s the latest: Governor Roy Cooper issued a budget proposal last month that called for more spending in education, health care and other areas without raising taxes. The proposal stakes out Cooper’s budget priorities, but that’s little more than a political exercise given who controls the House and Senate.

Senate and House Republicans will propose separate budgets, probably by mid-June, then negotiate a final budget to present to the governor.

The big items for debate: Education advocates (and editorial boards) will have their eyes on teacher pay. Under former Gov. Pat McCrory, the state made some gains in compensating educators. Cooper wants to go further, with a goal of North Carolina reaching the national average in teacher pay in five years. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have indicated they prefer an approach that emphasizes performance, not blanket raises.

Lawmakers will surely also do some talking about transportation and other infrastructure. Cooper is proposing a $150 million increase for targeted transportation projects and another $83 million for road maintenance.

What we think (on teacher pay): “ If both Cooper and legislators are sincere about wanting to get North Carolina teacher pay to the national average, they will collaborate to work through such snags. Anything less and teachers – and their students – will become victims of politics yet again.” Our View, Feb. 22

Other notable bills and issues we’re watching:

Billboards: Never count out the outdoor advertising industry, which is both patient and persistent about convincing lawmakers to do its bidding. So despite blowback about bills that eased billboard restrictions and took away the power of local governments over billboard companies, those concepts could find their way back into play.

Status: There’s no billboard bill currently out there, but language could find its way into a shell of another bill.

Sunday brunch: You still might be able to lift a glass to legislation that would pave the way for people to drink alcoholic beverages at restaurants on Sunday mornings. Senate Bill 155 would give city and county officials the ability to let establishments serve alcohol starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays instead of noon.

The bill also would reform other alcohol rules, such as those restricting distilleries from holding tasting events at festivals and other events. Doing so would bring tax revenue, supporters say. It faces the usual opposition from conservative and rural Republicans.

Status: Despite not passing either chamber by the crossover deadline, the brunch bill is alive because it deals with potential tax revenue.

Throwing protesters under the bus (and car and truck): Every legislative session has its share of nutty bills that get headlines but don’t have much of a chance of passage. House Bill 330 should be one of those bills, but here it is, surviving crossover. The bill would give drivers immunity from lawsuits if they run over a protester blocking traffic in a public street or highway. The bill says the driver must be using “due care” but doesn’t say what that is or why any driver truly using due care would need legal protection.

It’s yet another boneheaded piece of legislation that’s already earning North Carolina mockery around the country.

Status: The bill passed the House. We hope senators will come to their senses before telling drivers it might be OK if they ran over someone.

Sounds good (but isn’t) tax amendment: There are several proposed amendments to the state Constitution that lawmakers would like to put before voters (who have to approve such amendments.) The most dangerous of this year’s bunch is Senate Bill 75, which would place a constitutional cap on all income tax rates at 5.5 percent. The income tax is currently 5.49 percent, so this amendment would prevent any tax increases.

While this might sound good to low-tax lovers, it actually prevents the state from investing adequately in fundamental public services even in good times. Ask Colorado, which tried something similar, regretted it and rescinded it. Thirty other states have considered it since. Each was smart enough to say no.

Status: The bill easily passed the Senate, but the same happened with a similar bill last year before stalling in the House.

A new CLT power grab?: We’re hearing some rumblings – too loud to ignore – that lawmakers might revisit the dormant legislation that attempted to steal control of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport from Charlotte.

That attempt stalled in the courts two years ago, and the Federal Aviation Administration dealt the concept an additional blow last year when it issued a policy stating that it will accept an application for a management change at an airport “only upon a legally definitive resolution of a dispute.”

What might lawmakers have in mind? The rumblings take two forms. First, lawmakers may believe they have a better shot at the CLT takeover now that the FAA is under Republican control – and not under Democrat and former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx.

The second rumbling is starkly different: Legislators, who hold an HB2-fueled grudge against Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, might give a gift to her opponent, N.C. Sen. Joel Ford, and let him get his name on legislation that permanently keeps the airport under Charlotte control.

Status: Who knows? But you can be sure city officials are keeping an eye on things already.

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