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This week in disappointment: taxes, schools and executions



Between the Opportunity Scholarship Act and the Fair Tax Act, Republican lawmakers are catching major guff this week for their giddily titled bills. Up next: The GOP's N.C. Happy We Love Ice Cream Sandwiches Act. OK, we made that one up.

No doubt, however, the opposition is very real for Mecklenburg Republican Bob Rucho's Fair Tax Act, or Senate Bill 677, one of three competing reform plans in the General Assembly. The Fair Tax Act eliminates popular breaks on food, prescription drugs and Social Security income to pay for broad tax reductions.

Rucho promised last week that "every single soul who pays taxes in North Carolina will have more money in their pocket" if his plan passes. That doesn't seem likely, given the Senate plan is getting flak from top GOP brass such as Gov. Pat McCrory.

McCrory signaled his support last week for the bill's competitors. That includes a considerably more bipartisan, revenue-neutral plan—SB 394, the cheerfully named Lower Tax Rates for a Stronger N.C. Economy—crafted by Charlotte Democrat Dan Clodfelter and Concord Republican Fletcher Hartsell Jr.

The Clodfelter-Hartsell plan lowers overall tax rates and expands the state sales tax to include new services, but it retains tax breaks on food and drugs.

A third plan, HB 998, has the support of top House leaders such as primary sponsor Republican David Lewis. The Lewis plan expands taxed services to pay for cuts in the income and corporate taxes.

All three have critics, including the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, which argues the plans, through sales tax expansion, essentially raise taxes for most North Carolinians to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act, or HB 944, cleared the House education committee last week, setting up a potential showdown over public money for private schools. The bill, sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats, sets aside $50 million to pay for private school scholarships in the next two fiscal years.

Supporters, including religious-based private schools, say it will allow low-income students the chance to attend private school by offering $4,200 grants.

However, numerous opponents note the vouchers do not cover the cost of most secular private schools. Critics also object to dispersing public funds for private schools that lack the same accountability and testing required in public schools.

This week, Wake County residents should monitor SB 325 by Wake Republicans Neal Hunt and Chad Barefoot. The measure changes the county's school board elections, compressing the board's nine districts into seven and creating two new "regional" districts.

Democrats are incensed because the bill could reduce the terms of current Democratic board members and potentially offer new Republican-leaning voting districts. GOP backers say the bill is intended to give parents the power to vote in at least two board members.

Another bill likely to see debate in the House this week is SB 306, which would strike what's left of the Racial Justice Act one year after Republicans approved changes gutting the seminal law.

Approved in 2009, the act allowed death row inmates to seek commuted life sentences if they could prove race played a part in their sentencing. Republicans passed revisions last year restricting the use of statistics in those appeals, but they say the appeals have led to a de facto death penalty moratorium. There have been no executions in North Carolina since 2006.

Democratic lawmakers contend there is clear evidence of institutional racism in the courts, denouncing the act's repeal as irresponsible.

Last point: The state's jobless soon will feel the pain from GOP-backed unemployment reforms. State officials estimate thousands of unemployed North Carolinians will lose their benefits by July 1 owing to a Republican plan—backed by the N.C. Chamber of Commerce—that slashes weekly benefits and limits the length of unemployment benefits.

The reforms, approved to pay the state's $2.5 billion unemployment debt to the federal government, were spurred by the recent recession and business tax breaks enacted by Democratic leadership in the 1990s.

Because the state reforms take effect July 1 rather than next January, more than 70,000 residents will miss out on extended federal unemployment benefits through the end of the year. Is it too late to file the Unemployed People Like To Eat Too Act?

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