Legislators argue money, praise Boy Scouts, and contemplate election law changes

While much of the news generated during the past week in the N.C. General Assembly centered on budgetary issues and health care, a little-ballyhooed bill was introduced that could have significant impact on state’s elections. And to make it more intriguing, HB 32 (the Electoral Freedom Act of 2011 — its full title happens to be some 94 words long) even carried the distinction of bipartisan — even tri-partisan — sponsorship.

Current N.C. ballot-access laws are among the more restrictive in the country. New political parties must petition the State Board of Elections with voter signatures totaling at least 2 percent of the number of votes cast for governor in the preceding general election. Those signatures must also include 200 voters from each of four congressional districts in the state. Then, having gained access to the ballot, the party must poll at least 2 percent of the entire vote cast for governor or for presidential electors in order to keep itself listed on the ballot.

The N.C. State Board of Elections website indicates there were 4,268,941 votes cast for governor in 2008. Two percent of that total would be 85,378 — the number of signatures that would be required under current law. The reform bill would lower that threshold to only 10,000, including 200 signatures from three — instead of four — congressional districts. And to remain on the ballot, the party would need just 10,000 votes for either governor, presidential electors, or (under the bill’s expansion) any other position on the Council of State.

According to the website of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina, these proposed changes would align the state with the majority of states in the country — more than two-thirds — that now require 10,000 signatures or less for party access.

Two Democrats and two Republicans were the primary sponsors of this bill, and its initial co-sponsors included four Democrats, two Republicans (one being Deputy Majority Whip Jonathan Jordan, who represents Ashe and Watauga counties) and even an unaffiliated representative, Bert Jones of Rockingham. The bill would change other ballot-access requirements, including the process for adding the name of an unaffiliated candidate to a primary ballot, and it would exempt write-in candidates for partisan races from having to collect petition signatures. A declaration of intent signed only by the candidate would replace such petitions.

In other business, the flow of bills picked up in the first full week of the Legislature, with 44 bills now filed in the House and 38 in the Senate. The following sample of the past week’s bill introductions and action includes legislation of particular interest to Western North Carolina, as well a salute to the state’s Boy Scouts.

HB 29 (Retrieval of Deer): Authorizes retrieval of killed or wounded deer using a handheld light and a single dog on leash for the purpose of humane dispatch. Pursuit and retrieval may occur after hunting hours if necessary, but use of a motor vehicles is banned. Co-sponsored by Jordan. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Agriculture.

HB 31 (Unlawful to Use Mobile Phones While Driving): Replaces current restrictions on drivers younger than 18 to include all drivers of motor vehicles (including school buses) on a public street or highway or public vehicular area when the vehicle is in motion. An exception is made for communicating emergency information to emergency response agents (ambulance, fire department, law enforcement). Passed first reading; referred to the Committee on Rules, Calendar and Operations. A second bill addressing mobile phone use while driving, HB 44, would allow for hands-free phone use.

HB 32 (Electoral Freedom Act of 2011): (See article above.) Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Elections.

HB 36 (Public Contracts/Illegal Immigrants): Prohibits state and local government contracts with contractors who employ illegal immigrants, and requires verification of employees’ legal status or authorization to work in the United States. WNC co-sponsors, Reps. Jordan. Phillip Frye, Republican of Spruce Pine, and David Guice, Republican of Brevard. Filed; no further action.

HB 41 (Tax Fairness in Education): Allows individual tax credits of $1,250 per semester for part of the expense of “avoided public education” (i.e., use of private schools), and authorizes counties to appropriate education funds for non-public schools (not to exceed $1,000 per child, per year). The tax credit would apply to household incomes based on tax-filing status: married, filing jointly, up to $100,000; head of household, $80,000; single, $60,000; married, filing separately $50,000. WNC co-sponsors: Reps. Jordan and Tim Moffitt, Buncombe County Republican.

SB 8 (No Cap on Number of Charter Schools): would authorize the State Board of Education to approve a local board’s request to reform any school designated continually low-performing. Under a “restart” model, the local board may then ask to operate the school with the same exemptions as charter schools, or under the auspices of an educational management organization. The bill passed its first reading and was referred to the Committee on Education/Higher Education. Co-sponsors included WNC Sens. Tom Apodaca Buncombe/Henderson Republican, and Ralph Hise, Spruce Pine Republican.

SB 13 (Balanced Budget Act): Aims to reduce general fund expenditures for the current year in order to help reduce the projected deficit in the coming year. The goal is to reduce recurring expenditures by at least $400 million. Passed first and second readings. Co-sponsor, Hise.

SB 25 (Only Barbers to Use Barber Pole/Advertisement): Restrict the use of barber-pole display to only those persons qualified to engage in barbering by the State Board of Barber Examiners. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Commerce.

SB 33 (Medical Liability Reforms): Provides limited protection from liability to those performing emergency medical care, including limiting the amount of non-economic damages and authorizing periodic payment in lieu of lump-sum payment of damages. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Judiciary I. WNC primary sponsor, Apodaca; WNC co-sponsors, Hise and Sen. Jim Davis, Republican from Franklin.

SB 38 and companion bill HB 39 (Honor Boy Scouts): Resolutions honoring North Carolina’s Boy Scouts for their accomplishments, in particular more than 300,000 hours of community service to improve the state’s parks, schools, retirement centers and other public areas. House primary sponsor, Moffitt; co-sponsors, Reps. Susan Fisher, Buncombe County Democrat, and Chuck McGrady, Henderson County Republican.

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor


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