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Drone 2As Sarah Ovaska reported this morning in her story on some of the hidden gems in this year’s state budget bill, North Carolina now has – with virtually no meaningful public discussion — a new and flawed law on the use of those cute little aerial spying machines known as “drones.”

Unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, can no longer be used by people or state agencies to conduct surveillance without landowners’ consent. The law carves out some exceptions for law enforcement and media covering news event, and makes adding a weapon to a drone a felony. Outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen need to pay attention: using a drone to hunt or fish is now a misdemeanor. Some of the wording in the budget still leaves questions about how to legally use drones, and the new rules may make it difficult to use drones to take photographs or video for artistic purposes, said Sarah Preston, of the ACLU of North Carolina. “There’s still a lot of stuff that’s left up in the air,” she said.

One of the state’s most active and engaged critics of drone use and the backroom efforts of politicians with connections to the drone industry is Asheville activist/advocate Barry Summers. Yesterday, Summers authored a forceful critique of the new law in the Asheville Citizen-Times. As Summers notes:

During the final days of the budget train wreck in Raleigh, H1099 (Unmanned Aircraft Regulation) was slipped anonymously into the 2014 budget. This is the perfect, shameful and shabby end to a process where the GOP-led NCGA has failed to protect our civil liberties. Read More

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A new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Urban Institute shows the financial folly of rejecting Medicaid expansion. Currently 24 states are refusing federal funds to cover more of the uninsured, although that number is quickly dwindling as more governors and legislators get approval to implement state-specific expansion plans. If North Carolina does not act soon we will find ourselves in lonely company.

Here are the numbers. On average, the Urban Institute finds that every $1 invested in Medicaid expansion will bring $13.41 in federal funds to the state. In North Carolina the 10-year cost to expand Medicaid is $3 billion, although the savings and cost offsets mean that the state would actually save money in the budget over that timespan. At the same time our state is losing nearly $40 billion over 10 years by not expanding Medicaid. Hospitals in our state stand to lose $11.3 billion over 10 years, which is why we are seeing layoffs and closures at hospitals across North Carolina.

This financial picture has convinced even rock-ribbed Republican governors across the country to champion expanding coverage in their states. Many of these political leaders from Arkansas to Iowa, Indiana to Utah, are proposing to increase coverage by applying for a Medicaid waiver that allows these states to use federal funding to craft creative alternatives to traditional Medicaid expansion.

Arkansas led the charge on this front by using expansion funds to buy private insurance coverage for low-income individuals and families in that state. And we see that Gov. Mike Beebe certainly hasn’t suffered by doing the right thing. He currently enjoys a 60 percent approval rating compared to 23 percent who disapprove of his policies. Despite being a Democrat his ratings are even above water with Republican voters. Compare this with Gov. McCrory who is having trouble cracking 40 percent in his approval ratings.

Gov. McCrory could add some polish to his image by expanding health coverage to 500,000 more people, bringing $40 billion in federal funds to the state, and boosting hospital bottom lines by $11 billion. Who knows, it may even help the legislature pick its approval ratings up off the floor.

 

Falling Behind in NC, NC Budget and Tax Center

Governor McCrory signed a final budget into law for the current 2015 fiscal year, which runs from July 2014 through June 2015, this morning. The $21.1 billion budget includes new spending initiatives – largely pay raises for teachers and state employees – but fails to include additional revenue to sustain this spending in the long-term. Contrary to fueling North Carolina’s economic comeback, as Governor McCrory claims, the final budget continues to fund core public services at diminished levels, well below pre-recession levels, and compromises the ability of the state to get ahead and prepare for the future.  Moreover, it puts North Carolina on a fiscally irresponsible path that will continue to create budget challenges in the years ahead, largely as a result of the tax plan that was little debated and discussed in the final budget.

North Carolina faces a revenue challenge, and actions taken within the final budget make this reality clear. The final budget signed by the Governor spends every available dollar and uses dollars from last year’s budget as a result of the Governor requiring agencies to cut their respective budgets. No funding is available to build up the state’s Savings Reserve fund, which is meant to position the state to weather a future economic downturn. Furthermore, the budget relies on one-time funding sources that, once depleted, cannot be replenished with such low revenue and shifts funding for core public investments such as K-12 education to lottery receipts and early childhood programming to federal block grants.

Such budget decisions are driven largely by the tax plan the governor signed into law last year, which significantly reduces revenue available for public investments. Revised analysis by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division estimates that the income tax rate cuts in the plan will cost at least $200 million more annually than initially expected – more than $1 billion less in annual revenue once the plan is fully implemented. The Governor and state policymakers failed to account for this reality in the final budget, which means that, absent new revenue, more budget cuts to core public services are likely to occur in future years as the tax plan continues to be implemented. Another round of tax cuts is set to occur in January 2015.

Under the final budget signed by the Governor, state spending remains 6.6 percent below pre-recession levels (see chart below). Read More

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McCrory budgetGov. Pat McCrory held a formal signing ceremony to herald his approval of the new FY 2015 state budget this morning. The signing took place around a fancy old desk that was set up in front of some red carpeted stairs in the Governor’s mansion with a group of legislators and administration officials standing in the background. It was, in other words, a moment of gubernatorial pomp and circumstance — a moment in which the Governor was positioned to rise above the political fray and strike a statesmanlike pose.

Unfortunately, the Guv couldn’t help himself and in the middle of the ceremony — without any prompting from the media — decided to take cheap shots at his opponents. Read More

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Veteran Raleigh journalist and political observer Steve Ford is out with a new and convincing look at the new state budget (i.e. the one the Governor said he’d sign before he actually got around to the business of reading it). It’s a full-length read but, as is always the case with Steve’s takes, definitely worth a few minutes of your time. Check it out below:

Revenue-starved budget rattles and rolls
By Steve Ford

The debate is familiar: State government is too big. No, it’s too small.

People in the too-big camp typically think government – the state agencies and institutions that North Carolinians support with their taxes — is too expensive. That it tries to do too much in the way of regulating business. That it saps individual initiative with aid to folks who should be working harder to help themselves and makes everyone else pay.

Across the philosophical fence are those who view robust regulation, robust social programs – including public education – and a fair tax structure generating a steady stream of revenues as cornerstones of a government that properly serves the public interest.

In the real world, of course the divide is not always so stark. But the contentious process by which the N.C. General Assembly has settled upon a new state budget highlights the opposing viewpoints. The budget now before Gov. Pat McCrory, who has said he will sign it into law, is one that could be accompanied by the slogan, “We did the least we thought we could get away with.”

Even though it calls for raising and spending $21.1 billion during the current July-to-June fiscal year, this is another small-government budget, relatively speaking — in keeping with the preferences of the conservatives who control the House and Senate and their Republican ally in the governor’s office. Read More