by John Ager
Crossover Day, as I write, looms before me on April 27th and will have passed when you read this. It’s the day most bills must pass either the House or Senate or wait to be reintroduced in 2019. The week of Crossover tends to be a frenzy of committee meetings and long bill-passing Sessions (often late into the night) in the General Assembly. As a legislator, trying to keep up with the volume of bills and give them fair attention is daunting. For the citizens of North Carolina, there’s a great risk of poor legislation with unintended consequences getting pushed through in the deadline’s reckless atmosphere.
Adding to the agenda for the upcoming week will be two override votes precipitated by Governor Cooper’s vetoes. The two bills vetoed are HB 239 and SB 68.
HB 239 reduces the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12. Proponents of the bill argue that the court workload has diminished, justifying fewer judges; opponents point out that three current judges are reaching mandatory retirement age, and all three are Republicans. Governor Cooper, a Democrat, would name the replacements.
SB 68 relates to an effort by the General Assembly to merge the state elections board and the state ethics board. Prior to this bill, the state board of elections had a majority of its members from the party of the governor. Also, county boards of election had three members, two of the party of the governor. SB 68 would make the state boards eight members, four from each party, with the Republicans chairing during the years of presidential elections. A three-judge panel has already struck the first version of this new board down, and SB 68 is a second try. Since the General Assembly has a veto proof Republican majority, it is very unlikely that the governor will be able to sustain these vetoes.
More Bills to Watch
Another bill to watch is HB 500, a bill I co-sponsored. Since prohibition, North Carolina has put limits on how much beer a local brewery can sell. Currently, the limit is 25,000 barrels. Once a brewery hits that threshold, its products must be sold by independent distributors. With the growth of so many craft breweries in North Carolina, companies are now hitting that limit. They believe, as do I, that the current system is anti-competitive and anti-free enterprise. HB 500 raises the limit to 200,000 barrels. However, the wine and beer distributors spent $1.5 million in campaign donations, and last week legislators in committee voted to keep the cap at 25,000.
HB 662, the Carolina Cares bill, would be a homegrown Medicaid Expansion program bringing billions of federal dollars to our state. There’s no other bill in Raleigh that would have a larger effect on regular families, expanding health care to perhaps half a million of our most distressed citizens. Medicaid Expansion would shore up the budgets of rural hospitals, which must serve a high percentage of uninsured patients. So far, Republican leadership has been discouraging on moving this bill forward, but the benefits are so enormous I am hoping the logjam will start to break up.
On the local scene, let’s look at SB285: the Asheville District bill. You might recall the drama surrounding this bill on Sen. Apodaca’s last day as senator last summer. His replacement, Sen. Chuck Edwards, wants to rectify this embarrassment for his mentor. To be clear, I believe local election methods should be decided by local voters, not mandated from Raleigh. The city of Asheville has gone about trying to determine whether or not districts would be acceptable, and that process should be allowed to play out. Raleigh imposed a new district voting system on Greensboro, and just recently the courts struck it down. I’ll be keeping an eye on SB285.
Other important local bills to watch will be Chuck McGrady’s effort to once again give Henderson County more control over the Asheville water system, and HB13, which would allow funding flexibility for local school systems. HB13 passed the House unanimously, but has languished in the Senate. The Senate wants lower class sizes, something I would normally support. But the way the last budget bill was written, school systems would be mandated to hire more teachers to achieve the lower class size at the expense of hiring Art, PE and Music teachers. HB 13 would let schools continue to hire auxiliary teachers. Having fewer students in a class also means schools will need more classrooms, a huge capital expense for large school systems like Buncombe County.
Being in the minority party makes it hard to get bills passed, but I have introduced several that may be of interest. HB678 requires that private schools receiving vouchers (opportunity scholarships) be accredited. HB679 will fully fund our drug rehabilitation centers, including the one in Black Mountain, in the face of the opioid crisis. HB680 would allow conservation easements to specify, at the request of the landowner, that farmland must remain in agriculture. HB813 would allow military veterans living in North Carolina to have their military retirement exempt from state income tax. HB733 would create a system to register ginseng gatherers as a way to better control the over harvest of this regional resource. And finally, I would like to see the minimum revenue for a farmer to receive sales tax exemption lowered from $10,000 to $5,000. If you like following bills in the General Assembly, please go to www.ncleg.net.
And finally, congratulations to Coach Greg Cheatham, Fairview Elementary School Teacher of the Year.
Rep. John Ager, District 115 North Carolina House of Representatives