Issues involving voter identification, tax reform, programs for troubled juveniles, educational reform, illegal immigration possibly — and, of course, jobs — will face area members of the N.C. General Assembly after they return to Raleigh today.
But Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy believes one of the biggest changes for the state Legislature will involve the presence of a governor from the same political party as that now in control of both the N.C. House and Senate.
“The governor just wouldn’t work with us,” Stevens said of Democrat Bev Perdue, who often was at odds with her and other Republican lawmakers — especially on budgetary issues. “It was like almost a constant battle,” added Stevens, whose House District 90 includes Surry County and parts of Wilkes County.
It is debatable as to whether having the top levels of state government representing the same party — thus curtailing healthy opposition — is healthy. Yet Stevens believes the emergence of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory will streamline operations overall, especially when budget cuts are needed.
“I’m excited that we’ll be working with him,” the Mount Airy attorney added of the new governor she believes will be more receptive to legislative objectives. “It’s nice that we’ll all be working on the same page.”
McCrory has assembled a staff to focus of the core state government services of interest to citizens, Stevens said. “People are going to be treated like customers when they call the state.”
Republicans took control of the N.C. Legislature in 2010 for the first time in more than an century and Stevens said 30 new GOP freshmen are now joining its ranks.
The General Assembly will begin a regular session today, but it is limited to electing officers, adopting rules and other organizational matters. Lawmakers then will adjourn and reconvene on Jan. 30 to being pursuing legislative agendas.
Their last session ended in July.
East Honor Planned
Shirley Randleman — who’ll be representing Surry County in the Senate due to the untimely death of Don East of Pilot Mountain last fall — said one of her first orders of business will be honoring the man she’s replacing.
East was seeking his eighth Senate term when he died on Oct. 22 from a blood clot after back surgery at Forsyth Medical Center.
Randleman, a Wilkesboro resident and former Wilkes clerk of court who’d earlier decided not to seek re-election to her 94th District House seat, was tapped by area GOP leaders to replace East on the ballot two days before the November election.
She plans to introduce a measure honoring East’s service “early on” in this General Assembly session, and already has consulted with the late lawmaker’s daughter regarding that gesture.
“We owe that to Sen. Don East,” said Randleman, whose 30th District Senate territory includes Surry, Wilkes and Stokes counties.
Rep. Darrell McCormick also has served parts of Surry County in the House in the past, which is no longer the case due to redistricting.
Jobless Benefits Face Cut?
Aside from the East measure, efforts to generate more jobs for North Carolinians were mentioned by Randleman as the first priority for legislators this term. “The economy and jobs — that’s paramount,” she said, especially for Northwest North Carolina.
Stevens added that both McCrory and many of the General Assembly members are “business-minded,” which should aid in this regard.
While the fiscal cliff debate in Washington has caused uncertainties for state governments concerning federal allocations for various programs, Stevens and Randleman seem to favor Raleigh distancing itself from Washington as much as possible.
“If we take the money, we’ve got to do this and that,” Stevens said of the associated requirements for participation in federal programs, mentioning No Child Left Behind as one example. “They come with strings.”
However, one budget concern cited by Randleman which the state might not find it easy to walk away from involves $2.4 billion it owes to the federal government in jobless benefits assistance. The state had to borrow that sum from Uncle Sam during the recession due to insurance taxes paid by businesses being outstripped by rising numbers of unemployed persons.
“That has to be addressed,” Randleman said of the “astronomical debt” involved and the need to find some way to pay it back, “because we owe that money.”
One possible solution embraced by a legislative committee would involve slashing maximum weekly benefits to recipients from $535 to $350 and trimming how long they can be received from 26 weeks to 13 to 20 weeks.
Requiring voters to produce photo identification at the polls is another measure looming on the horizon.
“I think voter ID will definitely come up,” Stevens said of a need to attack voter-impersonation fraud during elections.
“I think we’ll discuss voter ID this year,” Randleman agreed.
Such a law previously was passed by the Republican Legislature, in 2011, only to be vetoed by Gov. Perdue.
A survey by Elon University last spring found that three-fourths of the state’s residents support voter ID, although some Democrats believe it could prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots.
The issue is expected to be considered in the early stages of this General Assembly session.
Stevens and Randleman differ somewhat in their opinions on dealing with illegal immigration.
The representative from Mount Airy anticipates “more discussion” on that issue. “You’ll probably see some more of those bills.”
In the absence of activity by the federal government toward reform, states including Arizona have adopted their own anti-illegal immigration measures. The U.S. Supreme Court later struck down part of Arizona’s plan.
Yet Stevens thinks there are portions of it which North Carolina could embrace, “to make it less amicable for them (illegals) to be here.”
Randleman anticipations some discussion on that matter by state lawmakers, but says a cautious approach is warranted.
“You don’t want to hurt people who have come here and complied with the rules,” she said, and then get penalized by the misdeeds of those who arrive illegally. Randleman also cited the need to avoid actions that could harm agricultural interests dependent on their labor.
“It’s a very fine line.”
Stevens also acknowledged that North Carolina’s ultimate stance largely will depend on how Washington handles the issue.
Education, Tax Reforms
Educational reform also is on Randleman’s radar screen.
The objective is rewarding good teachers and eliminating bad teachers, she explained.
“There was some movement last year to do some educational reforms and I think we’ll see that continue.”
Tax reform is another area Randleman believes will be addressed this year, aimed at making taxation in North Carolina less complicated and removing loopholes.
McCrory also has taken aim at the higher rates for income, corporate and sales taxes compared to other states, saying they put North Carolina at a competitive disadvantage.
Another concern for Stevens will be matters affecting children in need, especially due to recently being named to chair a House judiciary committee dealing with criminal and family law.
“I think a big part of my approach this year will be juvenile services.”
This will include taking a look at laws related to juveniles, namely those dealing with abuse and neglect of children — “to find a better way for that system to work,” Stevens continued.
She also wants to see an expansion of a program called Tar Heel Challenge, designed to get youths who have dropped out or been expelled from school back on the right track. Operated by the National Guard, it has been described as a mixture of boot camp and high school.
“Children falling through the cracks have to volunteer for this program,” the local representative said of the 22-week session involved.
It is now costing $1 million a year and has the capacity for 250 students annually, with Stevens saying that 85 percent of participants are “on the straight and narrow” afterward.
Allocating more money to serve greater numbers could be accomplished by redirecting funds from other programs, Stevens said. “It won’t necessarily be an added expense.”
While some areas of the state budget can be cut, there is a need to identify programs that are effective and “put them on steroids,” Stevens said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.