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Rep. Ray Russell’s Raleigh Report: Newsletter Highlighting Info from NC General Assembly

November 1, 2019
State Budget Update
North Carolina remains without a State Budget. Four months ago Gov. Cooper and legislative Democrats offered a counter proposal to legislative leaders but they have simply rejected it and refused to negotiate further.
Legislative leaders have now moved “mini-budget” bills through the General Assembly. Some of these bills are non-controversial and have passed into law with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, others continue the policy of advancing corporate tax cuts rather than investing in teacher and public employee compensation.
To add insult to injury, the House and Senate adjourned on Thursday without a state budget in place and won’t return to the legislature until Nov. 13. Even then, legislative leadership is limiting the bills we will be able to consider. For this body to adjourn four months into the fiscal year without a budget in place is unconscionable. It means that the General Assembly is failing at its most fundamental job.
Here are a few of the important bills that legislative leaders put forward in the last two weeks:
Corporate Tax Cuts
North Carolina has the lowest corporate tax rate in the country. SB 578 lowers the franchise tax paid by corporations and mostly helps the largest corporations. It reduces revenue over the next four years by more than $1 billion. The bill passed the NC Senate and the NC House and has now gone to the governor’s desk for consideration. North Carolina should be using that money to bolster the state’s educational system, not give tax cuts to wealthy corporations that don’t need them.
Teacher Pay
HB 377 is the Republican teacher pay bill. It funds the “step increases” that teachers are already entitled to by law, but invests no money in teacher pay raises. It also offers no money for pay raises for public school employees like custodians and nurses. Our budget counter proposal does not provide more corporate tax cuts and allows us to offer 5% raises for school employees and average teacher raises of 8.5% over the next two years. 
The bill passed the NC Senate and the House and is now on the governor’s desk.
Retiree COLA, Community College, and UNC Employees
HB 231 is the pay bill for UNC and community college employees, and the bill provides a 0.5 % (that’s only one-half of one percent) one-time COLA for state retirees. Our counter proposal would double the COLA to 1% each year. It would provide 5% raises for UNC employees and 4% for community college employees – both double what the Republican plan offers. The bill passed both houses of the General Assembly and is on the governor’s desk for consideration.
This piecemeal approach to the budget is wrong-headed and not in the best interests of the State of North Carolina. As I have said since early July, legislative leaders should sit down with the Governor and work out a comprehensive budget. The Governor has repeatedly offered to negotiate, but legislative leaders have refused.
Bill Strengthens Child Sexual Abuse and
Sexual Consent Laws
SB199 passed the House and Senate this week. The measure would increase the number of years that survivors of child sexual abuse could seek civil action against their perpetrators from age 21 to age 28.
In addition, the bill provides that consent to sex can be withdrawn even after the sexual contact has been initiated. North Carolina was the only state in the nation that did not provide this type of protection to women.
The bill also:
  • Expands the duty to report child abuse.
  • Protects children from online predators.
  • Requires training related to child sexual abuse and sex trafficking for school personnel.
Legislators had been working for a decade to modernize and strengthen sexual assault laws in North Carolina. I don’t know what the hold up was, but I am glad to see this bill passed this week with unanimous support from all legislators. It was a notorious failure of the state legislative body to not have passed these reforms earlier.
Good News for NCDOT workers, contractors
Last week the House Transportation Appropriations Committee approved $661 million in additional funding to cover a cash-flow issue that has caused layoffs for NC Department of Transportation contractors and closed down projects across the state. I am a member of the committee, and I voted in favor of the measure.
If HB967 passes the full House and the Senate, the expectation is that NCDOT will be restored to normal operations. We’ve gotten calls and emails from contractors in the district worried about layoffs as well as constituents upset because repaving projects and other road improvements in their neighborhoods suddenly stopped.
The lack of available funding at DOT is hurting people and hurting the local economy, so I hope the House will pass this quickly and the Senate will be on board. The state needs this badly.
Funding problems for the NCDOT were the result of several factors. One issue was the fact that the department made extensive road repairs after hurricanes and other adverse weather hit the state over the last several years. The Federal Emergency Management Administration has delayed reimbursement to the state for the work done and paid for by the state.
Another problem for the department came when, at the urging of the legislature, NCDOT became more aggressive over the last few years in scheduling projects, causing a dip in reserve funding.
In addition, DOT is dealing with lawsuits from the now-repealed 1987 MAP Act that had allowed the department to tie up real estate sales and development for land it planned to use for new road projects, even if the projects were years or decades down the road. The courts struck down the act in 2017, ruling that it was the taking of land without just compensation. More than $360 million is set aside in the bill for legal costs.
The bill also provides an additional $301 million to NCDOT in the form of a loan for road improvements and other projects. The loan would be due to the general fund by 2025.
$20 M for Cybersecurity Regional Training Center at private college
Speaking on the House floor last week in support of an amendment to HB398. The amendment would have removed a $20 million allocation to Montreat College (an amount greater than Montreat’s yearly budget) to establish a cybersecurity regional training center. The amendment failed with a vote of 51-51. The bill passed 54-49. I voted “No” on the bill. This Legislature starves public universities but can make an ill-advised grant to a private college. Unconscionable! (To be clear, I have nothing against Montreat. I myself have taught at similar institutions. The issue is that this is a poor use of your tax dollars.)
Hearing on Redistricting Reform, But No Action
The House Redistricting Committee on Thursday, Oct. 24, held a hearing on three bills that could provide fairer redistricting processes in North Carolina.
The committee chair, Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, made it clear that there would be no public comment and no votes on the bills under discussion during the meeting.
The bills under consideration are:
  • HB69: Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission. The bill would establish a commission of 11 registered voters (four Republicans, four Democrats, and three unaffiliated).The bill has 65 sponsors, a majority of the 120-member House, yet has not even had a committee hearing before this.
  • HB10: The FAIR Act. The bill provides for the voters to decide if a Constitutional Amendment to set up a nonpartisan commission on redistricting is warranted. The bill has 64 sponsors, also a majority of the House, and was filed in February, yet this is the first time a committee has even discussed it.
  • HB648: The NC Fair State and Congressional Districts Act. This bill would establish a 16-member commission to oversee redistricting in North Carolina as well as a Special Master appointed by a judge to oversee the process.
Other redistricting reform bills in the House (which have yet to have a hearing at all):
  • HB574: Fix Our Democracy.
  • HB827: NC Citizens Redistricting Commission.
After nearly a decade of lawsuits over the district maps proposed in 2011, it is time to come up with a fair, equitable solution to the contentious process currently in place. I urge House and Senate leadership to take seriously these bills and come up with a common-sense solution to redistricting. The proof is in the pudding, and so far these efforts are not meaningful at all.
Rep. Russell On the Go!
Odd Fellows Pancake Breakfast
I attended the Odd Fellows Pancake Breakfast in Ashe County recently. The organization is non-political and non-sectarian and supports charitable causes in the community. The Odd Fellows meet for breakfast the second Saturday of each month at Smethport Methodist Church, West Jefferson.
App Theatre Grand Opening
John McEuen performs on the Doc Watson Stage of the newly renovated Appalachian Theatre in Boone which opened on Oct. 14. I and my wife Rhonda enjoyed the opening celebration for the theatre at the Horton Hotel, then took a short stroll down West King Street to the historic theatre for its premiere engagement. The opening of the theatre will be a benefit for the downtown area.
Last week I visited Vulcan Materials near Boone. The company is the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand and gravel—and a major producer of other construction materials, including asphalt and ready-mixed concrete.
The last few weeks have been very busy for me despite the light load of bills to vote on at the General Assembly. I’d like to thank the following organizations and individuals for inviting me to participate in their activities and events.
  • Attended a legislative hearing on redistricting reform bills at the legislative complex (see article in newsletter above).
  • Participated in an interview by two Appalachian State social work graduate students on adverse childhood outcomes from trauma.
  • Attended Boone Town Council candidate forum.
  • Attended the Ashe Middle School Vocabulary Rally in Warrensville. Last year the students placed first in Division III for the nation!
  • Attended Leadership North Carolina Orientation held at Plemmons Student Union at App State.
  • Attended a breakfast hosted by Gov. Roy Cooper at the Executive Mansion.
  • Attended the Delta Kappa Gamma October meeting in Boone. The regional organization is a teacher support association.
  • Attended the Consumer and Family Advisory Committee annual retreat for Vaya Health.
  • Attended a joint church service and musical program for West Jefferson Baptist Church and Mount Jefferson Presbyterian Church.
  • Attended the 60th anniversary celebration for Mount Jefferson State Park.
  • Met with George Ford, board member for the Lost Province Center for the Cultural Arts, to discuss a visit to Raleigh for the board to meet with state agencies that might have funding to restore the circa-1938 Workman’s Progress Administration building (the Lansing School) to house the center.
  • Attended the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation Community Leaders Council in Jefferson Landing.