Small wins: the quiet legislative successes

Moving behind all the hoopla of the 2011-2012 N.C. General Assembly thus far have been some quiet, mostly nonpartisan background bills that have now become state law. They have dealt with tax exemption for land conservation, flexible school schedules for inclement weather, brain concussion awareness in school athletics, and other issues directly affecting or pertinent to Western North Carolina.

One of these is HB 350/S.L. 2011-274, designed to modify and clarify when land used for conservation purposes can be excluded from the property tax base. Rep. Chuck McGrady, Republican of Hendersonville, was one of four primary sponsors, and he explained the need for the bill in an email to the Xpress.

“Various county tax assessors have interpreted current law in different ways,” McGrady said, citing the example of a land acquisition done by the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy on the border of Henderson and Buncombe counties. “The Henderson County tax assessor granted CMLC a tax exemption,” said McGrady, “but the Buncombe County tax assessor did not — at least initially.”

The new law should make it clear for tax assessors just when land trusts are entitled to a tax exemption on their holdings, McGrady said, and it “also allows the counties to recoup lost tax revenues if the land trust loses its tax exemption by doing something inconsistent with the exemption.” Examples of uses consistent with tax exemption include: educational or scientific purpose in which wild flora, fauna and biotic communities are preserved for observation and study; wildlife habitat protection in agreement with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; forest management through the Forest Stewardship Program; and public access to public waters and trails; or specific conservation purposes under current state law.

McGrady had strong bipartisan support for the bill, including WNC Democrats Susan Fisher of Asheville, Ray Rapp of Mars Hill, and Phil Haire of Sylva.

Another quiet enactment was HB 792/S.L. 2011-147, the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act, for which McGrady was also a primary sponsor. Matthew Gfeller and Jaquan Waller were two N.C. high school football players who died of head injuries sustained during (separate) games.

The new law takes effect for the 2011-2012 school year and applies to middle and high-school athletics. It calls for the development of an athletic concussion safety training program that includes providing written head-injury information sheets provided on a yearly basis to coaches, school nurses, athletic directors, first responders, volunteers, students who participate in interscholastic athletic activities, and the parents of those students, to be signed before a student may participate in the school’s athletic activities.

The law also requires that a student exhibiting signs or symptoms consistent with concussion be removed from athletic activity and not return to play or practice for the day. The student may only return subsequently after appropriate evaluation and signed permission. Schools will also be required to develop venue-specific emergency-action plans.

Several other ratified bills of less-than-controversial nature include:

HB 49/S.L. 2011-191 (Laura’s Law): Increases punishment for DWI offenders with three or more grossly aggravating factors (including prior offense), and authorizes the court to require continuous alcohol monitoring for certain offenders. (Named for Laura Fortenberry, a 17-year-old killed last summer by a drunk driver who had two prior DWI convictions.) WNC co-sponsors were Fisher, Buncombe County Democrat Patsy Keever, and Spruce Pine Republican Phillip Frye.

HB 197/S.L. 2011-93 (School Calendar Flexibility/Inclement Weather): Provides options for schools that must close due to inclement weather, requiring a minimum of 180 days or 1,000 hours of instruction covering nine months. WNC primary sponsors, Rapp and Frye; co-sponsors McGrady and Buncombe County Republican Tim Moffitt.

HB 344/S.L. 2011-395 (Tax Credits for Children with Disabilities): Allows an individual income tax credit for children with (statute-defined) disabilities who require special education and is enrolled for one or two semesters in grades K-12 at a nonpublic school or a public school where tuition is charged. Also establishes a Fund for Special Education and Related Services, to be administered by the State Board of Education. WNC co-sponsors, Rapp and Moffitt.

HB 758/S.L. 2011-301 (Establish Arts Education Commission): Provides for a commission to “review, prioritize, and recommend implementation strategies for the recommendations of the Comprehensive Arts Education Plan for K-12.” WNC co-sponsors, Fisher and Rapp.

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor

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