Loretta Boniti

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Legislature tries another fix to annexation issue

RALEIGH – State lawmakers are working on a one two punch on annexations issues in the state.

After working to overhaul the involuntary annexation system last year, the issue is still in court and still has both sides dissatisfied.

Legislators are now pushing through legislation that will have at least one side walking away happy.

A group of North Carolina citizens frequently referred to as the "red shirts" have been walking the halls of the legislative building in Raleigh for years.

Their goal: To get North Carolina to overhaul its involuntary annexation laws. Lawmakers did just that last year, but the law ran into a roadblock.

“The court ruled that was unconstitutional because only property owners would have a say-so,” said Sen. Buck Newton, R-Nash. “They call that an election, so we are trying to address the judge’s concerns and it doesn’t matter if you are a property owner or not just if you are a registered voter.”

So now, a new bill: This one said all registered voters living in the proposed involuntary annexed land get to vote on whether or not the annexation can go through.

Municipalities said this will essentially kill future involuntary annexations.

“It will lead to increased taxes, it will lead to lower quality of life in those communities, and it will lead to less economic development and jobs,” said Kelli Kukura, with the N.C. League of Municipalities.

Supporters said this isn’t true.

“In my view that is just extreme rhetoric,” said Newton. “Honestly they haven’t like anything we’ve proposed.”

Most lawmakers acknowledge there have been some bad land grabs by cities in the past, where property is annexed, taxes are raised, but no new services are offered. But some said letting the voters in the proposed annexed land get a say, in all cases, might not work.

“And ask us to stop and reflect for a moment, what we are trying to do, when we ask everybody to wear exactly the same clothes,” said Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D- Mecklenburg.

For the red shirts, this is what they have been working for: A clear chance to control their destiny.

Short session gavels into session with annexation, casinos on docket

RALEIGH – State lawmakers are back at work for their so-called short session.

Legislators said they will need about six weeks to complete their work, which includes making budget adjustments in the two year spending plan and a long list of other high profile proposals.

“First day of school, first day of session, getting used to being here and getting back to work,” said Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg.

State lawmakers gaveled into session at noon Wednesday, with a big to-do list in front of them, including making adjustments to the current two year state spending plan.

Republicans said education and Medicaid are the two areas that need a little work. Democrats said they are hoping for some big changes to come forward.

“We arrive with our schools hurting, and our jobs hurting, and we really hope some progress will be made,” said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney.

But the budget is just the beginning.

“We are glad to get back and hit the ground running,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson

And boy did they run. The Senate wasted no time getting down to work on the other big issues of the session – annexation, casino gaming, and gas tax all on the agenda for day one. The casino gaming bill was approved by the full Senate. It is now on its way to the House for consideration.

This is part two of a two-year session and Republicans look poised to make sure they complete work on their to-do list before heading home in their target of just six short weeks.

Democrats balked last year at the speed bills were pushed through. Republican leaders said they believe Democrats will be better prepared for their style of leadership this year.

“You know when you are in the minority, you are always dreaming about in the majority,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis. “My guess is those in the majority never dreamed about being in the minority, so they were just not mentally prepared.”

Gen. Assembly to take up budget, other issues in short session

RALEIGH — The legislative building has been quiet for the past few months, but it will be bustling with activity Wednesday. That’s when lawmakers return to town.

The top order of business is the budget. Halfway through the two year spending plan, adjustments will need to be made. But legislative leaders say the changes shouldn’t be too drastic.

“Every part of the budget, with the exception of Health and Human Services is on track,” said President Pro-Tem Phil Berger.

Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, said they have no idea what budget changes will be proposed.

“The Republican House and Senate leadership have been sort of crafting their budget behind closed doors,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Cumberland County Democrat, “and not allowing the Democrats to participate in that process. Or the governor’s office.”

The budget isn’t the only issue expected to be debated during this session. Also on the agenda is capping the state’s gas tax, allowing fracking to begin in North Carolina, and taking up a voter ID proposal, which failed last year.

“We may try the same thing,” said Rep. Paul Stam, House majority leader, “but we may alter it so it is equally efficacious but maybe garners a few more votes.”

Stam said another bill from last year, the repeal of the state’s Racial Justice Act, will also be discussed. The governor vetoed the proposal, and rather than try to override it, Republicans worked during the short session to see if there was a compromise proposal.

“We received absolutely zero suggestions from opponents of the death penalty of how to fix the Racial Justice Act,” said Stam, “so my guess is that we will just consider the bill that is before us.”

Republicans have set a target of completing their work by the end of June. But with several controversial bills on the agenda, Democrats said they a longer session could benefit them in the long run.

“The one thing that we have learned from watching the Republicans over the last year,” said Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat, “is that the longer they are in session, the less people like them.”

State Democrats divided over vote to keep Parker

RALEIGH — The Saturday meeting of the North Carolina Democratic Party started out the way it was expected to, with current chair David Parker resigning his post after a sex scandal at the party headquarters unfolded in the public last month.

“I humbly request that you relieve me of the duties of the office of chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party,” Parker said to the crowd.

But several hours later, after a lot of political maneuvering, there was a vote to not accept his resignation and Parker was back.

“My friends, I resigned this party,” said Parker while addressing the crowd for a second time, “but I abide by the will of this state executive committee.”

Some state Democrats, including the man vying for the state’s top elected spot, were not happy with this outcome.

“I was disappointed in that, as I have already said,”said Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the Democratic nominee for gov. “It was my understanding that he was going to resign.”

Several Democrats had come forward leading into Saturday’s meeting, saying they would be willing to take the helm at the headquarters, including Raleigh city councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin.

“It was like getting hit by a two-by-four a few times,” Baldwin said Monday, describing the events at the Saturday meeting.

Baldwin, who, because of the political maneuvering, never officially had a chance to throw her name in the hat, said she had taken Parker at his word that he would step aside.

She said she was shocked by the way the day played out and what it could mean for party unity in the coming year.

“Now there are going to be some difficulties,” said Baldwin, “because you have factions that are supportive and factions who aren’t. And now I think David Parker has to be asked that question and I think he has to explain to us how he is going to unite the party.”

With the Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte in September, political observers said this division within the party could ruffle some feathers in Washington.

“For party insiders, I think that this should raise a red flag,” said political analyst David McLennan, “that the party seems to be very divided.”

Marriage amendment gaining most attention heading into May primary

RALEIGH — One by one, more than a hundred pastors voiced their support for the marriage amendment at a rally in Raleigh.

“When we stand for marriage we stand for the god of the bible we stand for man going on forever in this world.. until God comes back,” said Pastor Wil Nichols.

At the same time, pastors were also standing shoulder to shoulder in Charlotte asking voters to vote yes to this proposal.

“It is the principle that marriage is a standard that was designed by God,” said Past Mark Harris.

But the voices were also loud on the other side of this issue, where opponents to the proposal continued their chorus of concerns.

“That’s the biggest problem I had with it,” says Jacob Tobia, a Duke University student who walked from Greensboro to Raleigh to show opposition of the amendment. “It is fundamentally about discrimination and its about inequality. Neither of those things belong in our state constitution North Carolina is better than that.”

Some big names have lent their voice to the cause.

Former President Bill Clinton is part of robo-call campaign from the Coalition to Protect all NC Families warning that he believes the amendment could cost North Carolina jobs.

All this attention on the amendment is not going unnoticed by the public.

“I think it is pretty clear that the marriage amendment is a big driver of turnout at this point,” said Jonathan Kappler with NC Free Enterprise Foundation.

Kappler said the fact that a record number of voters went to the polls during the state’s early voting period can be credited to major campaigns by the pro- and anti-amendment folks.

“You have seen really strong Republican areas of the state have high turnout for an early voting period,” he said. “You have also seen precincts in very urban, very progressive areas of the state turn out in big numbers in the early voting period as well.”

Lobbyists reel as legislative Democrats ask for inquiry into improper relationships

RALEIGH — An official request has now been made to investigate the lobbyist and staffer affairs in the speaker of the house’s office, as one lobbyist association is speaking out about what went wrong.

“It is not anything that we have seen in all the years that I have been down here,” said Amy Fullbright, president of the North Carolina Professional Lobbyist Association.

Fullbright said in her 15 years of working at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, she has not seen the type of romantic affair arise that has come to light not once, but twice, in the last week in Speaker Thom Tillis’ office.

“As the president of an association that tries really really hard, and all of us do, to meet that level of ethical observation, I was a bit surprised,” said Fullbright.

For lobbyists, they said they already do follow a strict set of rules and are not sure if any further laws are needed or wanted to prevent a future situation like this from happening.

The first bullet point in the Professional Lobbyist Association Code of Conduct said lobbyists “shall conduct with integrity and honesty all relations with public office holders, clients, potential clients, employers, the public and other lobbyists.”

For their part, state Democrats are not sure that is what happened with two lobbyists and two staffers in the speaker’s office.

On Thursday afternoon, Democratic legislative leaders put in official requests to the State Ethics Commission and the Legislative Ethics Committee to investigate if the relationships and if any ethics laws were broken.

For Fullbright, she said she believes one case of improper conduct is too many because she believes the laws are black and white.

“You have to know where that line is and where you can cross it or not cross it. And I just believe if you maintain that same policy no matter who you are dealing with done there, then it is going to be an easy decision to make," she said.

Despite legislative resignations, ethics law may not apply

RALEIGH — In less than one week’s time, two staffers in the state Speaker of the House’s office have resigned.

That is 20 percent of his staff gone both for affairs with lobbyists. For his part, the speaker said the affairs were distractions, but do not appear to illegal.

“I have seen nothing,” Speaker Thom Tillis told reporters Tuesday, “absolutely nothing to suggest anything but an inappropriate relationship between two individuals.”

Tillis said he had heard rumors months before the exodus began, but believed his staffers when they said the rumors were untrue.

"You heard a lot of rumors about the leadership that came before us. You heard these rumors. So, I wasn’t going to judge him but if that was indeed the case he would lead to his dismissal," said Tillis.

There is a State Government Ethics Act that covers many of the folks that work within the legislative building, including the legislative employees who are involved in this situation.

The act said: "A covered person or legislative employee shall not knowingly, directly or indirectly, ask accept, demand, exact, solicit, seek, receive, or agree to receive anything of value for the covered person or legislative employee, or for another person…"

There are still some questions for many if the relationships with the lobbyists broke any of the act, but the lobbyists employers aren’t waiting to find out.

One lobbyist has had her license terminated for lack of anyone using her services, and the other has filed at least two resignations to the Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said this situation is not indicative of what happens day-to-day at the Legislative Building.

“I think we are all human beings,” said Rep. Dianne Parfitt, a Cumberland County Democrat. “And no matter what job your in you are susceptible to human foibles so I don’t think it is any different here and its unfortunate. And we are all very sad about it and it is distracting from the work that we need to do.”

Tillis himself said the laws — which do not currently discuss romantic relationships — may need to be updated, but for now he believes he has taken the action that needs to be taken to resolve this situation.

Two families on opposite sides of marriage amendment speak out

On its face, the amendment proposal North Carolina voters are being presented with on May 8 is a simple one.

It reads a "constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state."

But those 27 words are dividing North Carolina neighbors from one end of the state to the other. Two families – one traditional, one non-traditional – said if people could see inside their home, they would vote with them on May 8.

The Yancey family lives in Raleigh. They are, by their own definition, a family of faith.

A mom, dad, and three kids, who make religion an integral part of their lives, and make communication with each other a top priority.

The communication these days includes talks about the marriage amendment proposal.

“My family and I live by faith and we believe the Bible says and God set it up as one man and one woman and this amendment defines that,” said Vic Yancey, “and putting it in the constitution protects that sanctity of marriage that God set up so many years ago.”

The Yanceys will be voting for the marriage amendment on May 8, and said they believe this vote will protect marriage as they want it defined.

“We are not trying to take any rights away from people to live the way they want to live, but we are trying to keep that a sacred thing that we believe it is,” said Holly Yancey.

A little more than an hour away in Greensboro, Megan Parker and Shana Carignan are sharing their lives as a lesbian couple with a son, Jax.

Megan and Shana had a commitment ceremony two years ago around the same time Jax came into their lives.

Jax is a special-needs kid, non-verbal, but who has a smile that can brighten any room. His parents said if the marriage amendment is not defeated. They believe his future could be in jeopardy.

“I think everybody strives for a sense of normalcy and that’s all we want, for people to see us as a family,” said Shana Carignan, “maybe a little non-traditional and that’s OK. But just because he is not our biological son, nor am I considered an adoptive parent – Megan is – I do not have any rights to him.”

For this family, they are hoping the amendment is defeated, which they said would be a step in the right direction for the state.

“It means that we can breath a little easier, knowing that the state we live in, that I love so much is not discriminating against the family that I love so much,” said Megan Parker.

The issue of whether or not to put a proposal on the ballot that would let voters have a say in whether or not to change North Carolina’s constitution has been discussed for years.

In September 2011, the newly Republican-controlled General Assembly approved the ballot measure, but not without some dissension, including from the only openly gay member of the state House.

“You see that flag up there, it stands for freedom and no matter how much power you think you may have, you won’t take that away,” said Rep. Marcus Brandon.

Since this proposal originally came before the General Assembly, the people of North Carolina have worked to make sure that their voices are heard. You can frequently see rallies like this one across the state as those who support and oppose the amendment make sure they get their supporters out to the polls on May 8.

These rallies range in size from large to small, but the messages remain clear, as the divide between the supporters and opponents becomes more clear. And that divide is not necessarily down party lines.

It took both Republicans and Democrats voting for the amendment for it to get the necessary three-fifths votes that is needed to pass out of the General Assembly and appear on the ballot.

For their part, Republican leaders have stayed in locked step on this issue, all continuing to give their support.

But the House’s top Republican took many off-guard when he said he believes even if it passed, it could be overturned in 20 years.

“It does appear to me to be a generational issue,” said House Speaker Thom Tillis, “so 20 or 30 years from now, if you look back at the society we were 20 or 30 years ago, it just seems to me that those who support it are going to have to work hard to keep it in place, and they are probably going to have growing pressure to keep the constitutional issue in place as well as the underlying law which we all know is already there.”

But the national trend right now still favors banning same-sex marriage through state constitutional amendments. Thirty states have an amendment aimed at doing just that.

Opponents of North Carolina’s proposed amendment said North Carolina’s amendment is more ambiguous than most of the others, and that could have more far reaching consequences.

“If the folks who are pushing this amendment simply wanted to take the current definition of marriage that is in our statute and put it into the constitution, then they have made a terrible mistake,” said Alex Miller, with Equality NC and the Coalition to Protect All NC Families.

The groups launched the TV ad campaign last week encouraging North Carolinians to vote against the amendment.

Miller said this amendment does much more than just ban same-sex marriages.

“The folks who are pushing this amendment are lying about its true effects because they see if they tell the truth about it, they know that it probably won’t pass,” said Miller.

Legal scholars across the state are weighing in on this issue..

A group of professors from Campbell University School of Law issued a paper on the amendment, where they said concerns over domestic violence protection are unwarranted.

They said current state law would continue to act as it does now even with the amendment in place.

In a separate statement, family law professors from across the state voiced concerns over the proposal, saying it would be a far reaching amendment. That could end the ability of some North Carolinians to get health insurance.

As this issue is debated by lawyers and the court of public opinion, it also has been debated from city to city and county to county across the state.

“Same-sex marriage is not only an issue that divides states from one another, Northeast from South, but one can see within North Carolina,” said Jon Dinan of Wake Forest University. “There has been this interesting development to hear of local municipalities and counties passing resolutions and one has passing resolutions in support of the amendment, there are resolutions passing in opposition to the amendment, and so it is a divided state as well and that is a testament to the deep splits on this issue.”

For advocates of this marriage amendment, they said they don’t see the confusion over the amendment. They said they believe it is a simple choice for the voters.

“Our marriage laws are vulnerable to the whims of radicals who want to redefine marriage against the will of the public,” said Rachel Lee, with Vote For Marriage NC, “and this amendment gives people a chance to look at their government and say to them and say you are not going to redefine marriage for me.”

For Megan, Shana and Jax, they said they received a lot of support from their neighbors as they look toward May 8, but worry about how the vote will turn out.

“I think it is a big misconception, people are calling this the gay marriage amendment,” said Shana Carignan. “It has nothing to do with gay marriage. If it doesn’t pass, it’s not like we are going to go down to the courthouse and get married. It just simply is not going to happen, but it would give us some sort of acceptance that our relationship is considered valid.”

“And that our family is a family in the eyes of the state,” said Megan Parker.

Meanwhile, in Raleigh, the Yanceys worry their support of the amendment will put a label on them, one that they said they believe does not paint the proper picture of their home.

“I think the hardest part has been that as a supporter of the amendment that people think that we hate other people and alternative lifestyles, when really it doesn’t have anything to do with that,” said Holly Yancey.

“I think people should be free to live how they want to live and I think Jesus would feel that way. But I think that defining something so fundamental as marriage just needs to happen, Because if you start undefining that, what is the next thing going to be?”

Two homes. Two points of view. Two families who are anxious to see the outcome on May 8.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Shana Carignan’s name.

Candidates rack up endorsements ahead of May primary

RALEIGH — The final push for primary victories is on here in North Carolina and some top contenders are bringing out some notable names to show support for their candidacy.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Etheridge was surrounded by fellow Democrats Monday morning, showing the strong support he has in his effort to win the Democratic nomination.

“Never have I seen the challenges any greater than they are right now,” Etheridge told the crowd.

He is considered one of the front runners in this race, but recently has slipped in the polls to second place.

Current Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton now holds about a 10-point lead. For his part, Dalton is able to show a long list of endorsements for his candidacy and a much bigger war chest than his fellow democrats.

Political observers said this is the type of momentum candidates need leading into a primary races.

“I think Walter Dalton should feel like he is in pretty good shape,” said political analyst David McLennan. “He survived the debates, unscathed, and his advertising is generally upbeat and kind of memorable advertising that he had four years ago when he ran for lieutenant governor.”

Elon University, which polls both registered voters and non-registered North Carolinians, released a poll Monday which said just one week out from primary day and more than a week into early voting, most voters still don’t know who the candidates are or where they stand.

“I would be a little bit alarmed that so many candidates just aren’t known to people,” said John Robinson with Elon University.

All the attention on the Democrats isn’t overshadowing the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, Pat McCrory.

He is out-fundraising all other gubernatorial opponents by a large margin, and with Republican star, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by his side Monday, said he ready to fight for North Carolina.

I am using his advice during this past year, and actually used it as mayor of Charlotte also,” said McCrory, “in getting his input and ideas on both economic development and education.”

North Carolina voters head to the polls May 8 for the primary.

Marriage amendment may hinge on early voting

RALEIGH — North Carolina voters are back out at the polls. One-stop polling places are opened throughout the state, giving voters an opportunity to have their voices heard if they don’t want to wait until May 8 to cast their ballot.

One week in to this process, more Democrats are taking advantage of this voting option, but not by much.

“We’re not seeing a significant tide,” said N.C. State political science professor Andrew Taylor. “We are seeing roughly the same proportion of both parties. And this is as to be expected. 2012 is going to be a close year.”

Because it is so close, the polls are being closely monitored this primary season.

A lot of the attention is focused on the one issue which will be finalized when the polls close on May 8, whether or not to add the so-called marriage amendment into the state’s constitution.

“We’ve seen in our polling and all of research, that we definitely perform better with Democrats than we do with Republicans,” said Jeremy Kennedy with Protect NC Families. “We are encouraged by the increased Democratic turnout in early vote.”

Advocates and opponents of the amendment know that every vote will matter in the outcome of this ballot initiative.

Poll numbers have consistently shown voters support this proposal, but recent polling shows that support waning slightly.

Advocates shrug this off and say a victory still all comes down to getting their voters out to the polls. They said they believe the more ballots that are cast the wider their margin of victory will be.

“We have been waiting to preserve marriage in our state and chance has finally come,” said Rachel Lee with Vote For Marriage NC. “And North Carolinians are excited to come out and vote for marriage and we are thrilled that there has been a lot of enthusiasm surrounding early voting because that’s only going to help our efforts to preserve marriage between one man and one woman in our state.”

Even with more than 100,000 voters already heading to the polls, that is still less than two percent of the total registered voters for the state.

Activists said that is more than enough opportunities for campaigns to still convince voters to support them.