Legislators get back to work

First Posted: 5/17/2012

RALEIGH — North Carolina senators on Wednesday passed legislation closing this year’s Medicaid shortfall and expanding gambling laws while considering changes to annexation rules.

As the state Legislature opened its budget-adjusting short session, the House was tasked with offering the first proposed changes to the second year of the two-year state budget and the Senate started working on other matters.

“We’re hitting the ground running,” Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, said. “We’re here for a purpose and we want to be out of here in six weeks.”

The Senate unanimously approved a $206 million plan to eliminate a gap between Medicaid spending and the $2.9 billion budgeted through June 30 for the government health program for mostly poor children, older adults and the disabled. The money was assembled by shifting funds from various earlier allocations and $20 million from better-than-expected tax collections this year of $230 million.

The Senate also voted 33 to 14 to change state gambling and other laws needed to implement an updated gambling agreement reached in November between Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The measure, which moves to the House along with the Medicaid fix, would allow the tribe to offer live-dealer gambling at its western North Carolina casino. The state’s school districts would get a share of revenue from the new games, which Perdue said could also create hundreds of new jobs. A coalition of social conservatives and liberal Democrats in the House opposed to gambling could block the gambling law changes.

The compact would give the state an increasing share of revenue from the new games, which could ultimately bring a cumulative $90 million over the life of the 30-year compact, said Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon. The money would be distributed to local school districts statewide on a quarterly basis.

Over in the House, budget writers continued to focus on the $19.9 billion plan set to take effect July 1 and Perdue’s proposed changes. A bipartisan group led by Speaker Thom Tillis also filed separately what was labeled consensus legislation to compensate $50,000 to each living victim of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program from the last century. Tillis said the bill had support from Perdue and the Senate.

“The North Carolina House took a historic step toward a long-awaited resolution to a sad chapter in our state’s past,” Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement. A committee meeting on the bill was expected next week.

Legislators arriving for the session were greeted by more than 100 protesters representing liberal and union groups who banged on pots and pans to express anger with Republican policies over the past year. They also suggested that members of the GOP majority that pushed the conservative agenda after taking control of the Legislature following the 2010 elections would be targeted during this fall’s campaign.

“We’re out here saying it’s time to listen to the people,” said MaryBe McMillan of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, and “we’re going to continue to build this movement so that we can make our voices heard and our votes count in November.”

Many protesters carried signs expressing their unhappiness with the Legislature’s decision to allow a referendum on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The measure was passed last week with 61 percent of the vote.

“I’m mad at this Legislature,” said Marianne Carter-Maschal, an organic farmer from Siler City. “I don’t care what they’re talking about today. I’m mad at this Legislature (for) the things that have been going in our state the past year.”

The state chapter of the conservative-leaning Americans for Prosperity handed out earplugs to passers-by and suggested that legislators should use them to tune out a vocal minority. State Director Dallas Woodhouse said many of the protesters want to raise taxes.

“What I hope is the group that the legislators will listen to is the voters,” Woodhouse said. “We don’t believe these people are representative of their folks back home.”

Senators also pushed through committees some changes to involuntary annexation laws to respond to a Superior Court judge’s decision in March that rejected a new method the Legislature approved in 2011. That method allows landowners to petition to block a municipality’s efforts to expand its borders.

The legislation would replace the petition process with an up-or-down referendum by voters in the area where the proposed annexation would occur.

North Carolina’s involuntary annexation rules have guided municipal growth for more than 50 years. While many property owners in unincorporated areas have long chafed at being absorbed by cities and having to pay higher taxes, municipal leaders have said the previous laws helped cities grow at a manageable rate.

Another bill would cancel nine pending and contentious annexations on the outer edges of towns and cities from Wilmington to Asheville that also were subject to the 2011 petition method that’s now been blocked in court. Those cities would be blocked from attempting to annex those areas for 12 years.

Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said the residents in these unincorporated areas deserve some finality after challenging the involuntary annexations in court for years and later successfully blocking the annexations through landowner petitions. Now many are being threatened with annexation again by the municipalities after the court ruling.

“All of them in my view were the best-case examples of the most egregious abuses of our prior annexation law,” Newton said.

Kelli Kukura, a lobbyist with the North Carolina League of Municipalities, said her group doesn’t like the de-annexation bill or the election changes, which could reach the Senate floor as early as today.

Involuntary “annexations will for all real purposes stop,” Kukura said. “There’s no way, based on the formulas to deal with the election process, to be able to pass a city-initiated annexation.”

The House Rules Committee also met briefly Wednesday to take up a handful of bills, including one that would prevent death-row inmates from watching television. The bill is in response to a letter written by convicted killer Danny Robbie Hembree Jr. predicting how he’d get to watch color TV as a gentleman of leisure while he awaits an execution that’s likely decades away. The rules committee’s action means the bill can be introduced this year.