This was the first session in 144 years that a Republican Governor had a Republican majority in the General Assembly. We had a lot to do:
While the budget has been finalized, the General Assembly still has more business to take up in 2014. We will be back in Raleigh on November 17th for a “Special Session” to look at Medicaid Reform. We will then be gone until the beginning of our 2015 “Long Session.”
Budget and Taxes: For the fourth straight year we were able to balance the budget without raising tax rates. The state budget for 2013-2014 was $20.631 billion (SB 402). We were able to do the things we said we would with a $21.1 billion budget for 2014-15 (SB 744), an increase less than the increase in population plus inflation.
We have provided the largest teacher pay raise in nine years by giving public school educators an average seven percent raise inclusive of longevity. This investment in education will move our state ahead of fourteen other states in national teacher pay rankings. North Carolina will be more competitive nationally.
Our budget maintains current funding for the state’s university system (while giving the university new flexibility), preserves teacher assistant positions, and allows superintendents broad flexibility in tailoring classroom spending to their districts’ needs.
Our budget retains current Medicaid eligibility, provides most state employees a $1,000 pay raise (plus benefits) and five bankable vacation days. It increases pay by five or six percent for those Highway Patrol Troopers eligible for step increases. With an environment that fosters economic growth, we have been able to provide compensation that, not too long ago, would have only come with a tax hike. There are no tax rate increases in the budget.
The English Playwright John Heywood said: “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour”. The system of laying the bricks is greater than the goal. The General Assembly has laid the proper foundation prior to reaching our goal, in order to have a fiscally efficient and effective implementation of our budget.
Curriculum: SB 812 establishes an Academic Standards Review Commission to make recommendations to the State Board of Education on changes to the English Language Arts and Mathematics standards. These standards currently incorporate Common Core standards in the Standard Course of Study. The State Board of Education will not enter into any agreement or contracts that cede control to any other government or agency.
New Educational Opportunities: SB 793, Charter School Modifications allows automatic grade increases as charter schools grow as long as appropriate conditions are met. The law also allows for single-sex charter schools and subjects charter schools to the Open Meetings Law and Public Records Act.
Clarifying changes were made to the Special Education Scholarships for Children with Disabilities (HB 712) and Opportunity Scholarships (SB 744, Section 8.25). Changes made to the Special Education Scholarships made the program easier to understand. It clarified the types of services for which parents can be reimbursed, including educational technology.
Changes to Opportunity Scholarships included a section prohibiting participating nonpublic schools from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. The budget adds $840,000 to the program (now totaling $10,840,000) and allows the State Education Assistance Authority to award scholarships for 2015 Spring Semester.
Higher Education: The budget provided funding to allow both the Community College and University systems to participate in Yellow Ribbon Reserve, a federal matching program that helps reduce tuition costs for non-resident veterans. SB 719, Student Organizations/Rights & Recognition, provides that a religious or political student organization at a community college or university may determine its own core functions. Once an organization is granted recognition, a community college or university may not deny the organization access to programs, funding, facilities, or other privileges.
Natural Gas and Energy: The Energy Modernization Act allows for energy exploration. The law extends the deadline for the Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) to adopt rules for a regulatory program for the management of oil and gas. (SB 786) makes statutory changes to update the current regulations involving shale gas exploration, development, and production. It authorizes the issuance of permits for oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Alternatives to natural gas are coal and oil. Natural gas is much cleaner.
The law expands the requirements for notice to subsurface owners in regards to initiation of exploration, development, and production activities. It places presumptive liability on an oil and gas operator for any contamination of water supplies near a wellhead. It increases the amount of pre-drilling, drilling, and post-drilling water supply tests, all of which is required through an independent third party. These will be public records. Any actions that cause damage require compensation.
Environment: The Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 is awaiting further action by the assembly in November. (SB 729), it would require all coal ash ponds to be addressed. The bill creates a Coal Ash Management Commission to oversee the assessment, planning, and clean-up of all coal ash ponds across NC, with an emphasis on the high-risk ponds which will be remediated first. North Carolina is the only state that has attempted this type of regulation.
The Business Court: SB 853, “Business Court Modernization,” changes procedures for designating complex business cases. This successful court is where businesses may obtain a fair and expert hearing in cases against each other.
Health Services: Hope 4 Haley and Friends (HB 1220) creates a pilot program for the use of hemp extract for intractable epileptic disorders. We also increased health care options for those needing medical care at their own homes (HB 625). Insurance companies may not set fees for services when those services are not covered under the insurance plan (SB 477). Medicaid reform will most likely be addressed on November 17.
Economic Development: (HB 1031) will shift many economic development functions of the Department of Commerce to a partnership. This legislation takes an important step in our “Carolina Comeback” by allowing our economic development efforts to be more focused on customer service and efficiency, as well as job retention and creation. The NC Economic Development Partnership will perform duties that previously functioned under Commerce. The partnership’s role will be to help recruit new business and industry to the state.
Transportation: There are many road projects in progress in order to meet the needs of local transportation. We received funding from the NC Board of Transportation for intersection improvements at SR 1115 (Avent Ferry Rd) and the Hwy-55 Bypass in Holly Springs. The Towns of Apex, Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina have urgently requested this in order to relieve congestion and improve traffic flow for commuters. (HB 1145) requires mopeds to be registered with DMV and will study insurance as well.
The Department of Transportation saw various changes that affect its organization. As recommended by the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee and the Department of Transportation, a few of the changes in (HB 1025) and (HB 272) include: improving efficiency in safety inspections, decreasing traffic burden on DOT statisticians, creating the installation and violation of ramp meter traffic devices, addressing DWI interlock violation and the location of DMV hearings, improving the production of state drivers’ licenses, and bringing interrelated work with Dept. of Agriculture and DOT and additional partnership with private developers in state highway system operations.
Agriculture: The North Carolina Farm Act of 2014 (HB 366) makes agricultural and environmental changes. It designates the “Got to Be NC” marketing campaign as the official agricultural marketing campaign for the state. It maintains the confidentiality of investigations within agricultural and environmental operations while formalizing a complaint procedure with DENR. The new law clarifies local government’s ability to adopt ordinances related to the environment and agriculture.
Integrity for our elections process: Changes to election laws in (SB 403) include: clarifying length of party affiliation and filing, updating ballot requirements for primary and general election partisan and nonpartisan races, clarifying hours offered for early voting sites, reiterating the photo identification requirements needed when voting, transferring some responsibilities of the local board of elections to the State Ethics Commission, and establishing a new procedure for voters who move between the first and second primaries.
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