Choice battles emerge in Legislature

With the release of Gov. Bev Perdue‘s proposed 2011-2013 budget on Thursday, Feb. 17, an important line was drawn. The governor’s general-fund budget — roughly $19.9 billion for the 2011-12 fiscal year and $20.4 billion for 2012-13 — closes an anticipated $4.4-billion budget gap for that two-year period. But in addition to $3.2 billion in savings throughout state government, it does so by extending a major portion (75 percent) of the temporary 1-cent sales tax enacted in 2009 but due to expire June 30 of this year.

That’s the line the Republican majority in the Statehouse may refuse to cross, since ensuring the sunset of that tax was a major campaign issue for the party. So the budget battle has been joined.

Among the new legislative bills for the week was an old legislative bill under a new number, SB 73. For the past decade, a “Choose Life” specialty license plate has been proposed biennially without reaching reaching a vote in the formerly Democrat-controlled Statehouse. Although North Carolina now has more than 180 special plates for sale, this proposal has been mostly frozen in committee in the past under the rationale of keeping specialty tags non-political in nature. A portion of the money generated by each “Choose Life” plate would go to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship for distribution to nongovernmental, not-for-profit agencies providing pregnancy services and counseling, with distribution to entities that promote, counsel or refer for abortion expressly prohibited. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund for Central North Carolina has already raised a red flag against the bill, arguing that the state should not raise funds for organizations that “deny women information … for reproductive health care options.” Proponents over the years, however, have cited freedom of speech arguments and noted that over 20 states already have such plates on the road. This session, the route of SB 73 may not hold the same roadblocks that kept its kin from passing in the past.

Other specialty plates introduced so far this year are far less likely to be contentious:  N.C. Master Gardener, Ronald McDonald Houses, Kappa Alpha Order and the Girl Scouts are currently up for consideration. Additional new bills of particular interest to Western North Carolina and/or sponsored by WNC legislators covered such diverse topics as breweries, judicial terms, motorcycle safety and handguns, and included the following:

HB 98 (Breweries to Sell Malt Beverages on Premises): Modifies G.S. 18B-1001(1) to allow breweries to sell their own malt beverages on the premises. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Commerce and Job Development. Primary sponsor, Chuck McGrady, Hendersonville Republican; co-sponsors, Asheville Democrat Susan Fisher and Republican Tim Moffitt.

HB 99 (Judicial Terms): Would amend the N.C. Constitution to allow the governor to appoint justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals when vacancies occur before term’s end, with subsequent election for the judgeship to be held during the second election for General Assembly members after the vacancy appears. It also would allow 90 days instead of the current 60 for special elections to fill a judgeship vacancy in Superior and District courts. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Judiciary.

HB 111 (Handgun Permit Valid in Parks & Restaurants): Would allow persons with concealed-handgun permits to carry a concealed handgun on the premises of restaurants or in parks. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Judiciary Subcommittee B. Co-sponsors: Phillip Frye, Republican of Spruce Pine, and Roger West, Republican of Marble.

HB 113 (Motorcycle Safety Act): Would amend G.S. 20-154 by creating a Class 2 misdemeanor and adding a $200 penalty for improper turn signaling by a vehicle driver that results in causing a motorcycle operator to change lanes or leave the travel lane of a public street or highway, and creating a Class 1 misdemeanor and $500 fine when such a violation results in a crash causing personal injury or property damage to a motorcycle operator or passenger. Passed first reading; referred to Com on Transportation. Co-sponsors: Fisher, Moffitt.

HB 126 (N.C. Health Benefit Exchange): Would establish a state health benefit exchange to assist qualified individuals and employers by facilitating the purchase and sale of qualified health plans in order to reduce the number of uninsured individuals and promote improved marketplace competition with meaningful choice.
Filed. Primary sponsor, Fisher.

HB 135 (Efficient and Affordable Energy Rates Bill): Would require the N.C. Utilities Commission to establish tiered rates for residential, commercial, public and industrial customers to encourage energy conservation and efficiency; create a public benefit loan fund for the costs of certain efficiency projects; and create an incentive for purchase of energy-star qualified household appliances. Filed. Primary sponsor, Buncombe County Democrat Patsy Keever; co-sponsor, Fisher.

HB 130 (Women at Risk Funds): Would appropriate $280,000 in each of the fiscal years from 2011 to 2013 for the Women at Risk Program for female offenders in Buncombe and surrounding counties. Filed. Primary sponsors: Fisher, Keever.

SB 73 (“Choose Life” Special Plate):
See story above. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Finance. Co-sponsor: Jim Davis, Franklin Republican.

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor


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