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An editorial in this morning’s edition of the Greensboro News & Record rightfully echoes many of the themes in Tuesday’s edition of the N.C. Policy Watch Weekly Briefing in its critique of new rules governing access to the state Legislative Building entitled “Protests muzzled.” As the N&R notes:

“Demonstrators took a practical precaution when they entered the legislative building Monday evening. They taped their mouths shut.

How else could they make sure they didn’t ‘act in a manner that will imminently disturb the General Assembly, one of its houses, or its committees, members, or staff in the performance of their duties,’ as prohibited by the new rules approved last week?

….the overly sensitive definition of disturbance and the reference to an ‘imminent’ disturbance leave too much to personal whim. Interpretation can be as strict as someone in authority wants it to be. When it comes to dealing with people who convey dissatisfaction with the authorities, the rules might be applied very strictly indeed.

These rules tell the public there will be little tolerance for verbal expression by visitors. They had better just remain silent from the time they enter until they leave — and the sooner they leave, the better….

Of course demonstrators should not be allowed to create a real disturbance in the legislative building. They should not make so much noise that committee meetings or floor sessions are disrupted. They should not block anyone’s way.

That kind of real trouble occurred rarely, if at all, last year. But it bothered lawmakers just the same to have people come into their building and protest their policies.

Except, of course, it’s not their building. It belongs to the people, who have a right to express themselves about policies that affect them. When they come in, they shouldn’t have to tape their mouths — not even figuratively.”

Read the entire editorial by clicking here.

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A reporter’s recorder was confiscated Tuesday at the state legislature, after a state senator announced that all recording devices had to be registered in order to be used at the public meeting.

N.C. Sen. Rick Gunn

Commerce committee chairman state Sen. Rick Gunn, a Burlington Republican, made an announcement  at the meeting that all recording equipment had to be registered with the legislature’s sergeant-at-arms staff.

The committee, held in a packed committee hearing room where audio is not automatically streamed for the public, was in the midst of hearing about “fracking,” the controversial process to extract natural gas from the earth.

One reporter, N.C. Health News Editor Rose Hoban, then had her audio recorder seized by the sergeant-at-arms after Gunn made his comments.

“’Did you have it registered?,’” Hoban said she was asked when she inquired where her recorder was.

Hoban, who has covered the legislature for several years, said she has never been asked previously to register audio equipment. The state open meetings law specifically allows recordings of public proceedings, finding that “any person may photograph, film, tape-record, or otherwise reproduce any part of a meeting required to be open.”

Gunn reversed himself halfway through the meeting, after word about his ban had been reported on Twitter.

“I rescind my comment about the recording equipment,” he said.

Gunn would not answer questions posed by N.C .Policy Watch after the meeting, and walked away from reporters questioning him about his comments.

The state legislative passed new rules last week about how the public can access the legislative building, a reaction to the weekly arrests at the Moral Monday protests last year by those upset over the agenda of conservative Republican leaders. Democrats have said the new rules are designed to discourage the protests, while Republican leaders say the rules offer clarification requested by judges in the wake of the arrests.

The new rules open up public access on the second floor of the building, where several legislative leaders have offices, and also define singing, clapping, shouting and using a bullhorn as potential “disturbances” that could mean ejection from the building.

Phillip King, the sergeant-at-arms for the state Senate, said Tuesday afternoon he would get clarification on what the rules regarding recordings are, but as of Wednesday morning he had not offered any further information.

He did say some at the legislature have been worried recorders are being left in rooms to record candid, and potentially embarrassing, conversations. King said his staff found multiple audio recorders last session and at committee meetings held in the interim that have never been claimed.

“Had we not picked it (a recorder) up and it had recorded some off-to-the cuff comments that were not meant for the public, at non-public meetings,” King said, “it could have been bad for whomever was in the room.”

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The dean of the University of North Carolina’s law school is stepping down, saying that he wants to make room for new leadership to steer an upcoming fundraising campaign and ambitious curriculum changes.

Jack Boger, 68, who has served as dean since 2006, will stay on the job until July 2015 and then continue to teach at the Chapel Hill campus, according to a news release from the law school.

UNC’s Jack Boger

Boger said he wanted to ensure a new dean would be in place to run a large capital campaign expected to begin in the next year or two.

“It’s better to use that pause to bring in the next runner,” Boger said, comparing the leadership of the school to a relay race.

Boger has taught at the university for a quarter-century, and was a deputy director at the law school’s Center for Civil Rights before his 2006 appointment to lead the law school. He will return to the classroom and teach classes in education law, constitutional law and racial discrimination.

Boger found himself recently in the public spotlight when members of the UNC board of governors and university administrators became alarmed over highly critical columns UNC law professor Gene Nichol has been writing about policies under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Among the most controversial was an October editorial in the News & Observer where Nichol, a tenured professor and director of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, compared McCrory to Jim Crow-era Southern politicians for backing restrictive changes to the state’s voting laws.

(Note: Nichol is a board member of the N.C. Justice Center, the larger anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is a part of).

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State Rep. Nelson Dollar said he anticipates the state will be able to patch the $445 million shortfall for next year and use money from budget cuts for modest teacher and state employee salary raises.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar

State Rep. Nelson Dollar

“The question is will we be able to pay teachers and state employees or have increase, modest though they might be, and… keep on track with raising beginning teacher pay,” Dollar said. “The answer is yes.”

Dollar, a Wake County Republican and chief House budget writer, made his comments Monday at a reporters’ roundtable held in downtown Raleigh.

The N.C. General Assembly short session begins on Wednesday, when lawmakers arrive to begin making revisions to the upcoming budget year and deal with proposals for coal-ash cleanup, teacher and state employee raises and more.

Dollar, who said there will be cuts, or “budget reductions,”  coming, but didn’t say from where with lawmakers still waiting to see a proposed budget from Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

‘There will be budget reductions, yes. There will be budget reductions in the various agencies,” Dollar said. “That will flow right back into raises.”

He said he did not anticipate an across-the-board percentage cut, but expected cuts to be “much more thoughtful than that.”

Dollar also said:

  • The Medicaid shortfall may be lower than the estimated $130 million shortfall currently projected, though Dollar did say that the continuing problems with the NC TRACKS Medicaid billing system makes it difficult to project accurately.
  • No major changes to Medicaid system this year. Any reforms to the $13 billion system will come with significant legislative input, Dollar said. “We need to keep momentum moving forward on Medicaid reform,” Dollar said. “It’s going to take a while to get the system that we want.”
  • Less babysitting of the UNC system? Dollar, in mentioning that the UNC Board of Governors now consists completely of appointments by Republican legislative leaders, said he expects the General Assembly will dictate less about how the UNC should make cuts. “There’s a lot of interest in letting them do their work,” he said. He added, “A lot of what they’re doing is evaluating the whole system.”
  • No independent redistricting process  any time soon. Dollar said he doesn’t see much desire at all in the Republican-led legislature to hand over redistricting responsibilities to a non-partisan group. “I get asked that sometimes by my colleagues in the other party and I always remind them that we introduced bills and they refused to take them up or consider them,” he said. “So, it’s sort of, it is what it is. I don’t see that moving anywhere anytime soon.”
  • Interested in the Speaker job? “I would certainly be willing to serve in any capacity that the caucus would choose,” Dollar said. “But my focus right now is solely on the budget.”
NC Budget and Tax Center

When state policymakers convene next week for the 2014 legislative session the budget debate will likely be at center stage. The most recent consensus revenue forecast signal that boosting investment in critical public services will not be an option unless state policymakers take a new direction.

Today, the Budget & Tax Center released a report that highlights opportunities for legislators to begin bolstering investments in various areas of the state budget that help create pathways to the middle class, strengthen communities across the state, and alleviate the economic struggles of North Carolina families. These opportunities include boosting investments in education, workforce development initiatives, safe and healthy communities, and environmental protection.

The BTC report also highlights the significant challenge that legislators face if they choose to seize this opportunity to change the state’s direction and boost investments in North Carolina’s future. The tax plan enacted by policymakers last year reduces the amount of revenue for public investments in the years ahead. When policymakers return to Raleigh next week, they will have to address a budget gap of $335 million as a result of a forecasted revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year and a Medicaid shortfall.

The budget challenge continues beyond this fiscal year. Next year, state policymakers look to face a budget gap of at least $228 million according to the consensus revenue estimate. This budget gap, however, could reach as high as $637 million based on cost estimates that identify higher costs for the personal income tax changes in last year’s tax plan.

The reality is that policymakers must revisit the tax plan in order to bolster schools, health care, and other things that help strengthen North Carolina’s economy. Under the inadequate tax system created last year, every year going forward, policymakers are likely to struggle to fund these needed supports to a strong economy.