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Lawmakers see key issues on special session agenda

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, January 1, 2018

State lawmakers will enter 2018 with plenty of unfinished business, but they won't have to wait long to delve into it.

Local lawmakers expect to return to Raleigh on Jan. 10 for a special session, but they're not certain all the issues the session will involve. Democratic lawmakers expect judicial redistricting to come up, an issue local Republican lawmakers say needs “thorough and deliberative” study. Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, also said he expected the session to consider constitutional amendments capping the state's personal income tax and protecting hunting and fishing rights. Apart from those issues, he also said he’d use the special session to continue pushing for an investigation into the state’s prison system, following four murders in October at Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

In interviews and statements Friday, lawmakers discussed their expectations for the special session, and priorities for the “short session” this spring.

Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort

In an email, Cook didn’t say whether the session would take up judicial redistricting, which is proving to be partisan and controversial just like legislative redistricting. Published reports show the House passed a judicial redistricting bill, H717, in October, but the Senate has yet to vote on it. It changes judges' districts primarily in urban counties and doesn't change the boundaries of northeastern North Carolina's seven-county Judicial District 1. GOP proponents, including Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, argue the redistricting corrects imbalanced districts in Mecklenburg and other counties. Democrats decry it as a rushed effort to create districts favorable to Republicans who notably made local judicial races partisan in early 2017.

Making the issue more contentious, Republicans also canceled judicial primary elections, arguing it gave them more time to study judicial districts and possible “merit selection” of judges, according to an Associated Press report.

Cook wrote simply that, “in the coming year, we will be conducting a thorough and deliberative study of our judicial system,” and that the Senate would consider the House proposal, in addition to “merit selection models, retention elections, and, if we maintain a system of elections, their frequency and partisan structure.”

Cook did not provide a list of legislative priorities by The Daily Advance’s deadline, but identified homeowners’ insurance as one priority in the coming session. After encouraging public comment on the NC Rate Bureau’s intent to raise homeowners’ insurance rates by an average of 18.7 percent statewide, Cook reported he planned to draft “commonsense and beneficial adjustments to the system by providing clarity to the consumer regarding insurance rates and claims, and a better market for the providing industry.” He also wrote reform remains needed to ensure affordable property insurance for state residents.

Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan 

Steinburg said he expects the special session to take up a constitutional amendment capping income tax rates at 5.5 percent. The individual income tax rate is currently 5.499 percent. The Senate passed that legislation in March 2017, but the House didn't take it up.

Steinburg said he supports the constitutional amendment, which voters would have a final say on. He expects it would pass “overwhelmingly.”

Critics of the measure warn it could prevent the state from raising revenue in a crisis or economic downturn, but Steinburg disagreed. So long as the state's finances are managed responsibly, and spending kept in check, such a tax increase won't be needed, he said.

Steinburg also said an amendment may be proposed that defends the rights of North Carolinians to hunt and fish; he hasn't seen its language yet, he added.

As to judicial redistricting, Steinburg said he needed to learn more about the issue and critics' concerns might have some merit. Steinburg said he wanted to hear the issue debated, and there needed to a “rock-solid case” for redistricting.

Steinburg also indicated he won't wait for the short session to push for prison reform. He said he will seek lawmakers' support during the short session for a legislative investigation into prison management, which he has accused of being a “secret society” that avoids oversight and accountability.

Looking to the short session, Steinburg explained its basic purpose is to make modifications to the state's two-year budget, based on actual revenues and expenses in the last fiscal year. Revenue projections look good so far, but he's not expecting as large a surplus as last year, he said.

Another issue looming for the short session is a mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes in public schools. In a 2016 budget bill, Republicans set those class sizes in an effort to improve instruction. However, there was no funding to help schools hire more teachers or expand facilities, leaving ugly choices for school districts that might have to eliminate elective teachers, take teachers from upper grades or ask counties for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in more funding. Lawmakers agreed last year to kick the can down the road, passing legislation to delay the mandate to the 2018-2019 school year.

Asked about the class size mandate, Steinburg said smaller class sizes will help instruction, and he'd support more funding to help schools achieve them.

“We need to find a way to help fund the mandate,” he said.

Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton

Smith, who represents Chowan, could not be reached for comment Friday, but sent out an extensive newsletter. She reported “potential issues” to be covered during the special session include judicial redistricting, allowing legislative selection of judges instead of elections, and addressing state water contamination issues following controversy over high levels of toxic chemicals in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington.

Smith decried Republicans' efforts as “damaging” to the judiciary and attempts to “gerrymander” judicial seats. She also indicated her continued opposition to making judicial races partisan.

“A statewide poll indicates that the majority of North Carolina voters are opposed to hyper-partisanship of judges,” she stated. “Our office is adamantly opposed to taking away your right to elect fair and impartial judges.”

Smith also faulted the special session as “not likely” to address the class size mandate that's concerning school districts statewide.

Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford

Hunter said lawmakers may debate judicial redistricting in the special session, which he said he opposed as “meddling” in judicial elections.

“No Democrat, to my knowledge, will vote for this bill,” he said.

As to his priorities for the short session, Hunter said prison reform was a top priority. Correctional officers need more support, with more training and better pay, he said. He also said he hopes to get added to a committee handling prison issues.

Hunter also said he's still getting “bombarded” with emails about the class size mandate, and supported hiring more teachers and other resources to help schools meet it. The mandate is burdensome to rural school districts, he said, who typically have to put classes in trailers when there isn't space in buildings for all of them.

Hunter also said he hoped to work with legislative leaders to secure funding to finish expanding the U.S. Highway 158 corridor to I-95 to four lanes. That project will encourage more companies to locate in the area, he said.

Though short sessions aren't supposed to be as controversial as long sessions, Hunter also said he's expecting surprises from Republican lawmakers.

“I'm in the minority, so you can never tell” what legislation the majority party will introduce, he said.

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