by barbara solowAlthough it went on longer than some had expected, this year's legislative session was noticeably short on progressive ideas.
While they did raise teacher pay and approve a budget, state lawmakers took little or no significant action on expanding health care, reforming campaign laws or protecting the environment. With legislators back in their districts campaigning for the November elections, advocates for those shortchanged causes are busy taking stock of the bills passed this session and planning strategy for next year.
We took stock as well, and came up with the following list of the five best and worst ideas of the session:
The Best: Raises for public school teachers and state employees. These two items received the bulk of new spending in the $14 billion state budget. The higher salaries were part of Gov. Jim Hunt's plan to bring teacher pay in North Carolina to the national average. State lawmakers decided to apply the same logic to state workers, many of whom now make less than enough to meet their families' basic needs.
Using a portion of North Carolina's share of national tobacco settlement payments to create a trust fund for statewide health-care needs. The health-care trust will get a quarter of the $1.15 billion that's expected to flow to the state over the next 25 years. Another quarter will go to a fund for tobacco growers, and the remainder will go to the Golden Leaf Foundation for communities hurt by the downturn in the tobacco industry.
Closing loopholes in the state's campaign finance laws so that lobbyists can no longer make contributions to legislators while the General Assembly is in session. Sadly, state lawmakers passed up an opportunity to make more far-reaching reforms by creating a system of public financing of political campaigns. The N.C. Voter Education Project recently conducted a poll showing a majority of Tar Heel voters support public financing to lessen the influence of big money in politics.
Investing in the Clean Water Management Trust Fund. The governor's budget contained only limited money for the fund, which makes grants to local governments and nonprofits for protecting the state's rivers, streams and wetlands. The final budget approved by the legislature targets $30 million for the fund this year, with the aim of raising that to $100 million by 2004.
The infamous billboard ban. The merits of renewing a ban on new billboards along a section of I-40 that extends between the Triangle and the coast almost got lost in the media coverage of the governor's last-minute lobbying campaign for the bill. (Can't the state House get anything done without Hunt's say-so?). But the solution for the 180-mile stretch is temporary. The new ban expires next July 1.
The worst: Balancing the budget by raiding Medicaid reserves, delaying programs and using one-time revenues for ongoing needs. Legislators made clear they wouldn't consider raising taxes or closing loopholes in an election year, which left them with few other choices for dealing with a $450 million shortfall. But with statewide needs growing and tax revenues shrinking, this problem is not going away.
The "Taxpayer Protection Act," tying future growth in government spending to increases in population and inflation. Although the bill never made it out of committee this session, Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot has touted this idea as a "rational" way to address the state's current revenue crunch. Critics of the bill describe the formula as "gimmickry," and a smokescreen for reducing government spending.
Eliminating the "Willie M. Program" for violent children with mental illness. The program arose out of a class action lawsuit filed by parents who couldn't find needed services for their children. Adding insult to injury, the budget language removing the program also eliminated the appeals process for families when their children are denied care. Advocates for mental health-care reform warn we should look for further lawsuits on this one.
The "Enhanced Character Education" bill, sponsored by Sen. Beverly Perdue (D-Craven) would require students to address teachers as "Sir" and "Ma'am." While this type of empty gesture might generate good campaign ads (Perdue is running for lieutenant governor), it makes for lousy education policy. Public school supporters have identified more pressing issues, most notably, the achievement gap between African-American and white students in North Carolina schools. Fortunately, Perdue's "character" bill died in the House.
Passing a flood-prevention bill that lacks real incentives or penalties for violating rules governing development in the 100-year flood plain. While the "Flood Hazard Prevention Act" does outlaw junk yards and some other potentially dangerous uses in the flood plain, the final bill doesn't require communities to adopt flood-plain ordinances.