December 31, 2011

2011 Year End Legislative Report

Dear friends, As the year draws to a close, here is a review of some of the highlights of the General Assembly session of 2011. It was a busy session in which 1,731 bills were filed, of which 428 became law. (Most bills do not become laws, or sometimes are consolidated into laws.)

We took office with an anemic economy, double-digit unemployment, unprecedented foreclosures and bankruptcies, and a projected state budget shortfall of over $3 billion… the worst in NC history. The $1.6 billion federal stimulus money spent in the prior budget was all gone. The $1.3 billion/year temporary tax increase passed by Gov. Perdue and the previous legislature was set to expire, before the governor decided it should not be temporary after all.

However, we promised to balance the budget without yet another tax increase (which would have been the seventh in nine years). The result was as promised, with the passage of a still generous $19.7 billion budget. The budget battles were often fierce, as a new sense of "spending within our means" in Raleigh meant we had to prioritize and make tough choices. Measures were enacted to help revive jobs and the economy. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation had placed NC among the worst ten states in the nation concerning tax and regulation policies.

- Small businesses were extended much needed tax relief by exempting the first $50,000 of business income from taxes. Nonpartisan sources confirm this will benefit at least 450,000 businesses in this state, will no doubt save thousands of jobs and help create thousands more.

- The local land transfer tax was repealed, providing some long awaited relief for the decimated real estate market. We recognize the need to encourage home ownership rather than punish it!

- The State Health Plan was rescued from its huge shortfall and a $33 billion longer term insolvency. After years of mismanagement, the necessary changes were made to save the plan... a move greatly applauded by the long neglected State Employees Association. Meanwhile the NCAE union leadership opposed the efforts, and reinforced their "war" on the General Assembly. Many of our educators were bombarded throughout the year with political rhetoric from the left, that the Republican majority was out to get them. I appreciate all the educators who are opposed to such political rancor and regularly update me on the liberal agenda they get bombarded with. It is time to end Raleigh's tradition of using teachers and students for political purposes, and get the politics out of the classroom.

- We began to restore important dedicated funds that had been raided to spend in other areas, such as the Rainy Day Fund and the Highway Trust Fund. We are also paying back $2.5 billion with interest to the federal government, money that was previously borrowed to pay unemployment when our state unemployment funds were also depleted. Several much needed and overdue reforms were passed, which many other states have done, including:

- Meaningful tort reform was passed which limits business liability, places limits on attorneys’ fees, and allows a jury access to actual medical bills. This is simply cost saving, common-sense, fair legislation to help address a lawsuit frenzy that has often spun out of control.

- Medical malpractice reform was passed to address a major factor in rising medical costs. This caps noneconomic ‘pain and suffering’ damages at $500,000, and sets clearer standards as evidence of true malpractice. Many trial lawyers opposed such caps (they often get a percentage), but the cap is even much lower in some other states ($250,000 in Texas, for example). There is still no cap on economic damages, including loss of income. Most people understand the need to address the lawsuit frenzy and help control spiraling health costs, while still protecting the ability to recover reasonable damages when there is clearly fault.

- We passed workers compensation reform that is fairer to both sides (employers and employees) and makes the NC business climate more competitive with other states. This passed with a huge majority of votes, with input from both labor and management. Again, most would say this is reasonable and fair, while striving to make NC more jobs-friendly.

A major victory for advocates of private property rights was Annexation Reform. North Carolina annexation laws were virtually the most ‘anti-citizen’ in the country. Residents now have a voice in whether to be annexed, pay city taxes, and accept services they may neither need nor want. Several forced annexations in progress were stopped by the legislature, saving years of litigation and huge court costs… to the relief of many citizens affected.

We also witnessed the beginnings of some meaningful education reform, despite major pushback from many in the union and education bureaucracy. No other issue elicits more concern than education. But, one-third of students entering high school in NC do not graduate. Of those that do graduate and enter college, 60% must take remedial courses at college. We have many excellent educators, but the problem is the system. The old system is not adequately meeting the needs of students, parents, or even educators. Parents want choices, and more choices make for better quality education. For example, over 20,000 students were on waiting lists for charter schools as the former majority in the legislature refused to lift an artificial charter school cap established many years ago. This legislature lifted the cap on charter schools. Already, at least 27 new schools have submitted application for consideration. This alone is not the answer of course, but more choices and parental responsibility are much needed reforms.

Over 56% of the state budget is spent in the category of education. The legislature cut the education bureaucracy (including Raleigh bureaucrats making big salaries... even more than the governor). We fully funded student enrollment growth (which the governor’s budget failed to do), and funded all active current teacher and teacher assistant positions. Additional positions were funded through the third grade, especially to stress early education and learning to read. We also passed tax credits to help families with children with disabilities to help meet their special needs. Many families have personally contacted me with thanks for this much needed help. Unfortunately the bill does not benefit everyone that needs it, due to compromises with those in the education establishment who believe the public school should meet every need of every family... which puts unreasonable expectations on the teachers, and punishes the students and their families. Politics in education is simply awful, as the students, parents and teachers are used as pawns in the system.

The governor’s budget included over $100 million in unfunded mandates to the counties. These are forced new expenses not funded by the state, and would have forced higher county property taxes (likely 2-3 cents in Rockingham County). When I personally questioned the governor’s Budget Director in committee, his reply was, “when times are tough, stuff flows downward”, a reply I found unacceptable and I said so. The legislature eliminated the unfunded mandates in its budget.

Regarding jobs and the economy, Agriculture is by far the largest economic engine in North Carolina… responsible for over $70 billion/year. The governor’s budget cut the Agriculture budget by an unrealistic 21%, which Ag Secretary Steve Troxler stated would be crippling to the economy. The governor also proposed closing agricultural research stations, including the Upper Research Station in Rockingham County. Sen. Berger, Rep. Holloway and I all stood strong to save the station, and I thank the many Rockingham citizens and groups that contacted the legislature. The legislative budget saved the agricultural research stations, and Agriculture ended up with modest reductions like other areas of the budget… reductions that Secretary Troxler could endorse and work with in understanding of the times.

The 2011 legislature also downsized government through consolidation, reorganization, and elimination. DENR (the Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources) was modified and some divisions transferred. Other duplicate or unnecessary programs were eliminated. Three agencies for law enforcement were consolidated into one Department of Public Safety. This cost saving measure will also help streamline agencies and avoid duplicating efforts. The first role of government is the protection and safety of our citizens. We must do so as efficiently and effectively as possible.

There was comprehensive regulation reform following an extensive series of meetings with citizens and business leaders around the state. I mentioned the Tax Foundation's report last year citing NC as one of the worst ten states for business regarding taxes and regulations. It was a priority to address these types of concerns, to attract and retain jobs in our state. Many unnecessary regulations were eliminated, including state environmental rules that were not in line with their federal counterparts. For the first time, a cost-benefit analysis is now required for all such new rules and regulations. Imagine that... planning for costs!

Several social issues were addressed which North Carolina had woefully neglected, compared to many other states. These include: The Woman’s Right to Know Act. This is an informed consent law regarding abortion. The majority of states at least had some provisions for pre-abortion counseling including risk counseling, an ultrasound, and a 24 hour waiting period. This better ensures that the medical situation and potential risks are understood. We that believe in the right to life also hope that other alternatives to killing a preborn child may be considered. In other states, abortion rates have declined under such laws. Even many ardent abortion proponents claim to want abortions to be "safe and rare", and this law advances that goal. With a few Democratic votes, the legislature passed an override of the governor's veto by the narrowest of margins.

"Ethan’s Law" - The Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Before this law, criminals could only be charged for the killing or injury of an unborn child in North Carolina if the crime had been committed on federal property. Many other states (even liberal California!) had such laws protecting preborn children and their mothers. The reports of many hanus crimes targeted by this law were heart wrenching, as families of victims addressed legislative committees. North Carolina legislators had been trying to pass this law for at least 25 years, but the Democratic leadership would not allow the bill to be voted on. This year, it passed by a wide margin.

This legislature also passed comprehensive legislation protecting and defending Second Amendment Rights, and promoting the Concealed Carry Law which has proven to reduce violence, not increase it as opponents had claimed. Common sense confirms that only law-abiding citizens will obey laws... not the criminals! A criminal carrying a weapon to do harm to others will not stop because of a law against carrying his gun! This principle has been confirmed worldwide, as if common sense needs confirmation. Violence long preceded guns in human history. People may not like guns, but be thankful that law abiding citizens can carry them and not just thugs and criminals.

The legislature could not accomplish all the majority of citizens wanted. It is a fact that our state has divided government, and Republicans do not have enough votes to override Gov. Perdue's vetoes without some Democratic support. At least 75% of citizens want a Voter ID bill to help protect the sanctity of voting, as some other states have done. Also, a majority does not favor the sweeping, enormously expensive reforms of Obamacare. Many have little or nothing to do with healthcare but are crippling businesses (and state governments) with costs, and will cost untold jobs. A majority also favors the death penalty option for the most hanus of crimes, but the previous legislature had enacted what is in effect a stop of the death penalty and keeps court cases ongoing for years when there is clear guilt. This legislature passed bills supporting the will of the majority of people on these issues and more, but did not have the bipartisan support to override Gov. Perdue's vetoes (sixteen total this year, more than all previous vetoes combined). It seems these will remain election issues to be settled in 2012.

Finally, this was the year for Redistricting that follows the census every ten years. I served on the Redistricting Committee, as new maps were approved for the NC House, NC Senate, and Congress. These maps were approved (even by the Democratic Obama Justice Department) in record time compared to the redistrictings of recent decades. Of course, the standard lawsuits go forward as everyone knew they would. But, the Justice Dept. has agreed they are fair and legal, and so far nothing different has been demonstrated.

The new maps have House District 65 (which I represent) covering about two-thirds of Rockingham County, and adding Caswell County. District 91, represented by Rep. Bryan Holloway, covers the rest of Rockingham County and also Stokes County. The district lines in Rockingham County will change some by necessity. The effect is also that more districts are competitive with less gerrymandering than in the past, and better reflect their communities. Our House District 65 will be a bit more conservative based on past voting patterns.

Rockingham County is now included in the 6th Congressional District, currently represented by Rep. Howard Coble. This puts us back in a Piedmont area district, as we had been in for decades before being put last time in Rep. Brad Miller’s new 13th District with Raleigh. Virtually all the feedback from our citizens suggests that this move back to the 6th District is a very welcomed one.

As you can see, even the summary of highlights is extensive and I could not begin to cover all of what was done. It was indeed a historic, busy, but efficient session. The new majority made good on its “100 day agenda”. But, North Carolina (and Washington, DC) have divided government. The Governor was able to thwart some of our efforts, and the President's liberal spending agenda continues to be a major factor in the state of the economy. A state legislature certainly cannot change all that. But, we did begin to change the direction of the state whose borrow, tax, and spend policies had spun out of control. It is only a start, as the road to getting our state and nation onto a sound footing will be a long road indeed.

There are no quick fixes to the major problems we face. If you generally agree with these initiatives and a change from the "borrow, tax and spend" big government mentality that is crippling our state and nation, thank you for all your support that made these changes possible. Without your votes, financial support, volunteer efforts, and definitely your prayers... none of this would have happened. With your support, we will continue to work to make a difference for the better. God bless you, and best wishes for a wonderful new year in 2012. I do ask for your continued support as together we face the great challenges before us. Bert