News

With a state budget nearly a month overdue, several Republican lawmakers headed to California this week to attend a conference with close ties to some of the nation’s largest corporations.

alecAt least three of the lawmakers will have their $700 registration costs for the American Legislative Exchange Council and a $104 per diem paid for by taxpayers, according to staff in the N.C. General Assembly’s legislative services division.

N.C House Speaker Tim Moore, state Sen. David Curtis, of Lincoln County, and state Rep. Hugh Blackwell, of Burke County, all requested reimbursement from the legislature.

The lawmakers will not receive the $104 per diem they generally get for being in session, and instead will get the travel per diem, which is the same amount.

It’s not all that unusual for the state legislature to pitch in for conferences like ALEC, which promotes free markets and limited government, or another annual conference by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

ALEC, however, has come under criticism in recent years, for its close ties to some of the nation’s largest corporations, with questions raised about the level of corporate influence making its way into Congress and state capitals through pieces of model legislation pushed by the group. Several high-profile companies have left ALEC, including Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Electric, Google and Microsoft.

There are other lawmakers from North Carolina attending the event in addition to the trio who will be reimbursed by the state, though they may be paying for the conference themselves or through campaign funds.

WRAL reported that state Sen. Bob Rucho, of Mecklenburg County, and the following House GOP members are headed to San Diego for the ALEC conference: state Reps. Mark Brody of Union County; John Fraley, of Iredell County Craig Horn of Union County; George Robinson of Caldwell County Stephen Ross of Alamance County; Jason Saine of Lincoln County; Sarah Stevens of Surry County.

The ALEC schedule lists Saine as a panelist for a discussion Friday about technology creating efficiencies in government.

“What I’ve found is that the meetings are very much just informative. You learn a lot of things,” Moore told WRAL.  “I know some of the groups coming out and criticizing ALEC, a lot of them are the same groups that criticize us because we want to lower taxes. But I frankly believe that’s what most North Carolinians want.”
Commentary

(This post has been updated — see below).

There’s good news and bad news from the North Carolina Senate today.

The good news is that this is the last day for Senate committees to meet during the 2015 session. Senators will undoubtedly bend this rule in the days to come, but as a general matter, the official end of committees is a good sign that a) the flood of dreadful new laws should slow down at least a little and b) lawmakers are beginning to kinda sorta think about ending this nightmare of a session.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that senators will almost certainly be ramming a bevy of bills through committee today with scarcely any review or public input.

In this troubling vein, check out the agenda for today’s Judiciary II Committee where members are scheduled to review ten — count ’em ten — bills in one meeting that will convene just two hours before the Senate floor session. And to make matters worse, included in this list are two especially problematic proposals that are all about death:

And, of course, to make matters even more worrisome, the Senate has a penchant for adding everything but the kitchen sink to such bills in last minute “committee substitutes.” Thus, for instance, while the Schaffer’s gun bill was significantly watered down prior to passage in the House, it seems entirely plaussible that senators will pull a new version of the bill out of their hats this morning.

(UPDATE: After an absurdly fast-paced and at times, borderline chaotic meeting in which many members of the public were not admitted due to the tiny committee room that was used, both bills were passed by voice votes and now move to the Senate floor.)

Commentary

President Obama 3Looking for something to restore your faith in our government? Then check out the new rules adopted yesterday by the Obama administration to clamp down on predatory lenders who take advantage of American servicemen and women.

The new Department of Defense rules, which were announced Tuesday by the President in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, update the Military Lending Act—a 2006 law that capped interest rates and add-on fees to members of the military and their families at 36 percent.

Unfortunately, the original 2007 regulations implementing the law capped rates for just a small number of loan types, such as payday loans of 91 days or less and so-called “car title loans” of 181 day or less. Since that time, sharks have evaded the rules by simply extending the terms or restructuring the loans — thus allowing them to continue to target service members (something that often impacts their security clearances and even jeopardizes their careers).

Happily, the new rules take big step toward putting an end to these evasions in that they:

  • Apply market-wide to all high-cost credit products that target service members, including payday, auto title and installment loans designed to evade the 2007 protections;
  • Cap interest and add-on fees at 36 percent for loans issued to service members and their dependents;
  • Prevent lenders from using junk fees such as credit insurance, debt cancellation or debt suspension to circumvent the 36 percent interest and fee cap.
  • Preserve service members’ access to the courts by prohibiting forced arbitration agreements;

Research by the Department of Defense released last year found that as many as one out of every ten enlisted serviceman and woman continued to be targeted by high-cost credit designed to evade the Military Lending Act. DoD estimates that the final rule will reduce involuntary separation caused by financial hardship, resulting in a savings of $14 million a year or more.

The rules come as a particular boon to North Carolina, home to tens of thousands of active military personnel and one of the nation’s largest military populations.

Of course, the obvious next step for federal regulators in the years ahead is to extend the protections now afforded to active military personnel to all individuals affiliated with the military and, eventually, all American consumers period. Let’s get to work.

News

If local school boards need a way to hold county commissions accountable when it comes to providing sufficient local funds for schools, they may soon lose a key feather in their hats — the ability to sue.

Senate lawmakers passed an amended House bill Wednesday that strips local school boards of their ability to sue the county in the event they believe the commissioners should provide more local funds for the district’s schools.

Similar to a bill that was defeated in the House earlier in the legislative session, NC School Boards Association lobbyist Leanne Winner says the current measure would change the dynamic in local communities when it comes to negotiating local budgets.

“School boards are the only elected body in North Carolina that doesn’t have ability to raise its own revenue,” said Winner. “School boards are also the body to which the state has given responsibility to provide the opportunity for children to receive a sound basic education. If a school board doesn’t have resources necessary to do that, there has to be some kind of mechanism available to be able to deal with those financial issues.”

Senator Dan Soucek (R-Watauga) amended HB 561 quietly on the Senate floor Tuesday to strip the school boards of their power to sue county commissions for the next five years, citing a need for a “cooling off period” between local governments and school boards. Other supporters of the bill say it’s a waste of money for counties to sue themselves.

In 2013, the Union County school board sued the county over a budget dispute which resulted in a $91 judgment that was overturned by an appellate court.

Winner says it’s important for school boards to have the possibility of litigation as a negotiating tactic when working on a local budget.

“While the process is not used very often, the notion that it exists helps bring people to the table to to do more for their community,” said Winner.

Without a way to push county commissions to sufficiently fund public schools, local school boards will have to rely even more on the state’s coffers to fulfill their constitutional requirement to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education for all.

North Carolina has seen state-funded per pupil investment fall considerably over the past several years. Since 2008, per pupil funding has dropped nearly 15 percent according to the Center on Budget and Public Policy, ranking among the lowest in the nation.

The Senate version of the bill must now go back to the House for concurrence. Given House lawmakers’ defeat of a similar measure earlier this session, it’s unclear if a second attempt will prove successful.

News

It’s not just the state budget and Medicaid reform where legislators are at odds. On Wednesday the NC House voted overwhelmingly to reject the Senate’s latest version of a sweeping regulatory reform bill.

House Bill 765, which began as a one-page bill about gravel hauling, was transformed by the Senate into a 58-page measure that covers everything from the repeal of recycling requirements for discarded computers and televisions to allowing polluters to “self report” their violations to avoid penalties.

During a public hearing Tuesday, former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr told legislators that another portion of the bill that requires the courts to force private individuals to pay the state’s attorney fees if they lose their challenge was possibly unconstitutional.

“I would submit this legislation is unfair in its application, it’s bad public policy favoring the government over its citizens,” explained Orr

Yet another section of H765 would lower the age of required adult supervision (from 8 to 6) for children operating ATVs.

With Wednesday’s vote, the House and the Senate will appoint conferees to  work toward a compromise on the legislation.

Read more about H765 here. Click below to hear Orr speak on the bill:
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