Senate

Senate files bill to start fracking in 2015

A bill filed in the Senate on Monday would authorize the Mining and Energy Commission to begin issuing fracking permits in March 2015.

The bill would also offer additional resources to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in support of fracking oversight. The commission has the authority to put into place rule governing fracking in North Carolina, but does not have to authority to issue permits. This bill would change that.

The primary sponsors of the bill are Sens. Buck Newton, Bob Rucho and Andrew Brock.

Read the bill here.

Proposed bill could take judicial races back to partisan

RALEIGH — The General Assembly is considering making judicial races partisan again.

Bills filed in both the House and Senate would affect races for state Supreme Court, appeals court, superior court and district court judges. It would also repeal public funding for judicial races.

The bills would send North Carolina judges back to the fund-raising circuit to raise money from businesses, lawyers and other entities that may end up in front of them in court.

Sen. Thom Goolsby, one of the primary sponsors of the Senate bill, told the Port City Daily the change would help voters make better decisions at the polls.

“Here, we always know who our judicial candidates are,” said Goolsby, a Republican from New Hanover County, “but there are places where folks put themselves on the ballot [and] nobody knows who they are. Nobody knows where they come from. They’ve not been vetted by any body or any party, and they just pop up on ballots.”

Brent Laurenz

The proposed changes raises concerns from good government advocates, who said a non-partisan system helps take the politics and money out of the judiciary.

“We have some polling data that voters don’t like the idea that judges are treated like other politicians, where they have to go out and raise funds,” said Brent Laurenz, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. “That’s why the public financing system worked so well, so voters don’t have to worry about judges’ decisions when we come before them.”

The Judicial Campaign Reform Act of 2002 switched appellate judicial races to non-partisan and created the N.C. Public Campaign Fund, which allowed judicial candidates to accept public funds, and created a voter guide on judicial candidates.

The public financing option allowed judges to be above the partisan fund-raising fray, said Laurenz, and would decrease the potential for conflicts of interest later.

But judicial candidates still have to raise a certain amount of money before they can get public financing and when they do, they only get a limited amount – about $200,000. That’s not much to run a statewide campaign.

Bob Orr

Former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a Republican, ran five statewide partisan campaigns and served on the state’s highest court from 1994 to 2004. He said the non-partisan system accentuates the importance of gaining endorsements from special interest groups.

“It still puts far more value on endorsements from special interest groups,” Orr said. “Those have far more influence than you think.”

And nowadays, running a non-partisan system still doesn’t keep special interest money out of the races. With changes to campaign finance rules, super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money and use that money to support or oppose any candidate.

In the 2012 state Supreme Court race, outside conservative groups poured more than $2.5 million to support incumbent Justice Paul Newby against challenger Sam Ervin IV. Ervin received about $200,000 in outside help.

That money paid for ads supporting Newby and attacking Ervin. Both candidates took public money to fund their campaigns and denounced the outside money. Newby won another term on the Supreme Court, defeating Ervin, 51 percent to 48 percent.

Non-partisan still political

When Republicans started winning statewide judicial races in the early 2000s, that’s when the Democratic-controlled General Assembly made judicial races non-partisan, Orr said.

Eddie Greene

He also said he understands why the legislature is looking to go back to a partisan system.

“It offers better choices in the primary,” he said. “It gives voters a little bit more information about the candidates and the races are run in a partisan matter anyway.”

Orr said he doesn’t think either system – partisan or non-partisan – are effective ways to choose and retain judges. Former Court of Appeals Judge Eddie Greene, a Democrat, agreed.

“Neither system is perfect,” said Greene, “but I’d prefer a non-partisan system than a partisan system.”

Greene served on the state Court of Appeals for 16 years before retiring as senior associate judge in 2002. He said when he was a judge, he began to feel that judges shouldn’t be Republican or Democrat, that “judges are judges. They shouldn’t be politicking.”

“Candidates try to be careful what they say, but you’ve got people that support them that are very clear why they support them,” said Greene. “It puts the judge in a bad position.”

Greene also said while he may prefer a non-partisan system, he also sympathizes with the voters, who aren’t informed about judicial candidates.

“I would hear voters say, ‘I don’t know who these people are. If I knew they were Republican or Democrat, it would help a little bit,’” Greene said.

Because of that, Greene said he prefers some kind of appointment system that takes the voter out of the selection process.

North Carolina has an appointment system when a vacancy opens on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The governor makes an appointment for the remainder of the term, then the appointee has to run for election when the term expires.

Former Gov. Bev Perdue recently appointed Cheri Beasley to replace Patricia Timmons-Goodson, who resigned in Dec. 2012.

Other states have judicial selection systems that mix elections and appointments. South Carolina and Virginia are the only two states where the legislature appoints judges to the appellate courts.

As for a federal-style appointment system, where the president make appointments and the U.S. Senate gives its “advice and consent” and where judges are appointed for life, don’t hold your breath for that coming to North Carolina.

“It would require substantial change to the constitution in which the public would not have any sort of vote,” said Orr. “It’s highly unlikely anyone would propose that on the state level.”

TO LEARN MORE

Capital Tonight Feb. 5: Sen Bob Rucho on tax reform

On Capital Tonight: Sen. Bob Rucho explains proposed tax reform changes, Adam Linker of NC Health Access Coalition and Brian Balfour of the Civitas Institute debate expanding Medicaid and establishing a health exchange, and Rob Schofield and Chad Adams debate whether the General Assembly is moving too fast.

Watch the episode here. 

SB 10 to Senate Floor Wednesday

The debate over how fast Republicans are moving to change state government will likely hit an all-time high on Wednesday.  SB 10 will get a second reading on the floor.  It eliminates several boards and removes members of several very important boards (i.e. Utilities Commission).

Check out the bill to see exactly which boards are eliminated and which boards will get new members.

Bill sponsors say it’s an opportunity for the Governor and Republican leaders to put like minded people on these boards and commissions.

Senate bill proposes to clear out oversight commission memberships

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick

The Senate Rules Committee approved a bill that would eliminate, reorganize, or reappoint new members for multiple commissions and state agencies.

The bill would get rid of current members of the Utilities Commission, the Lottery Commission, Environmental Management Commission, Coastal Resources Commission, and Wildlife Resources Commission.The bill also proposes to create an education cabinet, made up of the governor, presidents of the UNC system and the community college system, the state superintendent, chairman of the State Board of Education, Health and Human Services secretary and the president of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake

The bill proposes to eliminate other boards and commissions, like the Charter School Advisory Committee, the North Carolina Center for Nursing Board of Directors, the Board of Corrections, and change who is eligible to hold supervisory roles in the State Highway Patrol.

One of the bill’s main sponsors, Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said this bill is necessary to making government more efficient.

I think we are doing what we said we would do. We’re becoming more efficient and we are downsizing government where we can and we are answering to the voters,” Rabon said.

But Democrats objected to the bill. Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, said it was a “power grab” by the Republican majority.

We didn’t do it when we were in power. We didn’t fire Republican appointments. We waited for the natural cycle of things because that’s how good government works,” Stein said.

Read the bill here.

Tim’s Take: Rucho on tax reform

Earlier this morning I had the chance to briefly chat with Sen. Bob Rucho about his tax plan. He is the lead man in the Senate and has spent a significant amount of time explaining his idea to lawmakers, business groups, etc.

Essentially the argument is that our state is operating on a 1930s tax system that was not built for today’s modern economy.

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg

Sen. Rucho wants to get rid of income taxes and broaden the sales tax base.  That means instead of just paying sales tax on goods you buy, you would also be taxed on services like haircuts, lawyer visits, doctor visits, etc.  In the end, the goal is to make it revenue neutral.

Highlights from the interview that you can see tonight:

– The plan says the sales tax could reach as high as 8.05 percent to make up for the lost income tax revenue.  Sen. Rucho says he believes a reasonable target though would be in the 6-7 percent range of state and local sales tax combined. It’s currently 6.75 percent combined with the exception of a few counties.

– The big debate among Republicans is whether or not the state should lower or eliminate the income tax. Sen. Rucho wants to eliminate, State Budget Director Art Pope favors reducing, and Speaker Tillis has reservations of complete elimination as well. Today, Sen. Rucho told me he would ultimately support a bill that would lower the personal income tax over time as long as it reached zero and was spelled out specifically in the legislation. “I can live with that” was the quote.

– On exempting the real estate transfer tax potentially he says no one should get special tax preference but the 1 percent is much lower than a regular sales tax.

– A big concern I have heard from business folks and some Republicans is the plan’s effort to eliminate the corporate income tax and franchise tax in favor of a $4 billion business license fee.  Some supporters of GOP tax reform are concerned it could end up costing businesses more than the current system. Sen. Rucho says he is looking for a simple flat tax of some sort and he’s in discussion with the governor’s office and the House and it’s an evolving issue.  He did say thought that he believes business should pay its fair share.

Obviously, this is just the conservative side. Progressive groups have their own plans, which we will get into plenty over the coming weeks.  Check out Sen. Rucho’s interview on the show tonight.  We will also debate the health exchange/Medicaid issue and our Insiders will debate pretty much everything else going on!  See you then …

Tim Boyum

Senate Republicans: No state-federal health care exchange; no Medicaid expansion

Senate Republicans introduced a bill that would rescind the state-federal health care exchange and opt out creating a state-based exchange, as provided under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Tom Apodaca, Henry Brown and Bob Rucho, would reverse a decision made by former Gov. Bev Perdue to create a hybrid health care exchange using state and federal funds.

The bill would also opt out of expanding the Medicaid program. In its decision in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled states have the right to opt out of expanding the Medicaid programs.

“Obamacare was forced on us against our will by the federal government, and they should shoulder the burden of implementing it,” Apodaca said, in a statement.  “Any claim that North Carolina would ‘control’ this program is nothing more than an illusion.”

Read the full bill here.