NC Leaders Weigh In on National Debate Over Religious Freedom Legislation

religious_freedom1RALEIGH—North Carolina leaders are now weighing in on the national debate the over religious freedom legislation.

The proposal was recently signed into law in Indiana and similar legislation has been filed in North Carolina. The nation has watched as protesters, business leaders and others have weighed in on that state’s new religious freedom law.

In North Carolina, people are waiting and watching to see what will be done with bills recently filed in both the House and Senate that have similar goals.

“This bill isn’t exactly like Indiana, but apparently Indiana is now back peddling or modifying the bill that they passed. So apparently this is still unsettled waters. I think the last thing we need to do is rush into anything,” said Rep. Tim Moore, Speaker of the House.

Moore said there are certainly members in the Republican 74-member caucus who want the religious freedom bill on the fast track. But he said that won’t happen in his chamber.

“This issue is certainly worthy of discussion, but its going to take some time. There is not going  to be a rush to simply push this bill through. I know there is some who wanted to rush to have a committee hearing on the bill this week, and that very simply is not going to happen,” said Moore.

The idea of a religious freedom bill started at the federal level decades ago. Due to court opinions, states have also been passing their own versions of the bill. Senate leadership says for now, they are still deciding what to do with North Carolina’s proposal.

“There are 20 plus state that have passed similar legislation. The federal government has a bill that was signed by Bill Clinton that does the same thing. We haven’t done it in North Carolina. If it comes up, we’ll take a look at it, and make some decisions,” said President Pro-Tem Sen. Phil Berger.

Indiana’s law has sparked controversy, because opponents say it allows discrimination—such as a businesses right to deny service to a same-sex couple. Governor Pat McCory said he is not sure why a law like this is needed.

“I’m always trying to find what was the problem we’re trying to correct—on both the transgender bathroom issue that the Democrats brought up in Charlotte and some of my Republicans are bringing up in Raleigh regarding the freedom of religion. What is the problem they are trying to solve and I haven’t see it up to this point,” said Gov. McCrory.

For Rep. Moore, he said he has been talking with CEO’s this week and this is definitely a topic of discussion. He said he believes there needs to be careful consideration before things move forward.

“My thought is that the high priorities we have right now are about job creation, improving our roads and improving education. I want to find out how this bill accomplishes those objectives,” said Moore.

Neither the House or Senate versions of the bill have been scheduled for a committee hearing at this point.

– Loretta Boniti

NC NAACP Rally to Support Confirmation of Lynch for US Attorney General

Loretta_LynchRALEIGH — The state NAACP staged rallies in Wilmington, Raleigh and Charlotte in support of confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the next US attorney general.

“She has the temerity to stand up for voting rights in our state and I support her,” said Charlotte protester Margaret Peeples.

The groups demonstrated in front of Sen. Burr’s office in Wilmington as well as Sen. Tillis’ offices in Charlotte and Raleigh. Both senators have said they will not be voting in Lynch’s favor during her confirmation.

“Step up to the plate, do your duty and lead with a high moral conviction and sense of servitude to the people of North Carolina,” said Deborah Maxwell, New Hanover Co. NAACP.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tillis released a statement saying in part, “Senator Tillis has immense personal and professional respect for Loretta Lynch. However, because Ms. Lynch has stated her clear support for the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty plan and did not make a firm commitment to reverse the partisan politicization that presently exists at the Department of Justice, he will not be supporting her confirmation.”

Sen. Burr said he is also not going to confirm Lynch as attorney general.

“I gave her every opportunity to tell me exactly how she would be independent of what Eric Holder’s agenda was at the department, and she said it would be identical,” Sen. Burr said on Monday. “So she certainly didn’t express to me any independence.”

The confirmation vote for Lynch has not yet been scheduled.

– Amy Elliott

Lawmakers Initially Approve Measure to Lower NC’s Gas Tax

gas_pump_0212RALEIGH — State lawmakers have initially approved a measure to lower North Carolina’s gas tax.

The state House and Senate reached a compromised plan on how to reduce the tax rate, while at the same time stabilizing the revenue coming into North Carolina.

Just a few weeks ago, the state House and Senate had very different ideas on how to lower North Carolina’s gas tax. Both wanted it reduced, but the Senate wanted to make the reduction the final one, creating a new so-called floor for the gas tax.

The House wanted a one time reduction that could drop again if oil prices remained low as an incentive for state leaders to act quickly in creating a new revenue source for transportation projects.

On Monday night, the two chambers both took a compromised proposal. The gas tax would be reduced from the current 37 and a half cents to 36 cents on April 1.

At the start of 2016, it would go down again to 35 cents. And in July of 2016, another penny to 34 cents.

Supporters argue this is reduction that North Carolina motorists could notice at the pumps. But opponents say this is still not the amount of reduction motorists would have seen, if the current gas tax formula stayed in place.

“In this conference report, we are denying the gas tax reduction and instead giving a gas tax increase,” said Rep. Larry Hall, minority leader.

Each time the state is dropping the gas tax by a penny it means about 50 million less for state coffers. Lawmakers say they are hopeful that reduced revenue will be the incentive they need to work on a more reliable funding source for the state’s transportation budget.

“It takes an important first step to assure that our state has the resources necessary to keep our roads and bridges open and safe for all members of the public,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, Brunswick Co.

During the conference committee on this bill, a Democrat sat with both the House and Senate side of the negotiations. The original bill saw some bi-partisan support and so did the compromised plan.

But opponents say the negotiators could have done better.

“This is just a tax shift, and I hope you will vote it down,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, Haywood County.

But with both the House and Senate approving the measure. It nows heads to the governor where it is expected he will sign it quickly into law.

This bill also has several other tax provisions in it, including one that mirrors federal tax code to let teachers have a $250 tax deduction for buying school supplies.

– Loretta Boniti

NC Lawmakers Hope to Raise Age of Juvenile Jurisdiction

prisoners_prison_fenceRALEIGH—A handful of state lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation Tuesday to “raise the age” of juvenile jurisdiction, an issue that’s gotten more attention in recent years.

North Carolina is currently one of two states that automatically prosecutes 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds as adults. The proposal would change that so when it comes to misdemeanor offenses, the offenders would be handled in the juvenile system.

An organization called NC Child is standing behind the legislation. It says under current law, offenders at the age of 16 and 17 can be prosecuted as adults even for low-level offenses like stealing a bag of chips.

Representatives with the organization believes the legislation would have a big impact statewide—from making communities safer, to saving taxpayers money, and ultimately improving the outcomes for children.

Lawmakers from both political parties are standing behind thi, including a retired New Bern police chief.

Newspaper-Backed Bill on Legal Notices OK’d by NC House

newspaperRALEIGH–North Carolina newspapers would be required to publish legal notices on both their websites and in their print editions for the same price in legislation that the House approved overwhelmingly.

The chamber voted 115-4 on Monday night for the online posting mandate when local and state governments alert the public to proposed zoning and annexation changes, public hearing dates and other actions.

Website listings would be posted for free. Government bodies also would receive a 15 percent break on newspaper print advertising prices for repeat notices.

The legislation backed by the North Carolina Press Association is moving as cities and counties want the option to post legally required public notices on their own websites, instead of paying a newspaper to run them.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Capital Tonight March 30: Renewable Energy in NC

Solar_panelsOn Capital Tonight: We look at how renewable energy is growing in North Carolina with an expert panel. Colin Campbell of the News & Observer of Raleigh and Ben Brown of NC Insider join the Reporter Roundtable. Watch the program here.

Apple CEO, Gov. McCrory Call Out NC Religious Freedom Proposal

640x320_Legislative_Building_NCCHARLOTTE—A proposed law in the North Carolina legislature is picking up national attention after being called out by Apple CEO Tim Cook for potentially fueling discrimination against LGBT community members.

The bill is short– just two pages.

It says the government can’t force someone to do something against their religious beliefs.

“Well, Jason and I, we were fired by HGTV precisely for our beliefs,” said David Benham.

He and his brother, both outspoken Christians, were fired last year from a reality TV show on the network.

Bill sponsors say cases like the Benham Brothers, or cases against wedding professionals denying service to same-sex couples are a type of discrimination becoming too common.

However, the brothers say they support HGTV’s right to fire them because they believe in the network’s rights to hold their own beliefs.

They say this bill speaks to that.

“It creates a shield, not a sword. It simply empowers business owners like us to prevent government overreach,” said Benham.

Sarah Preston, policy director with the ACLU North Carolina, disagrees.

“The act essentially allows people to ignore the existing laws under the guise of religious freedom,” she said.

Apple CEO Tim Cook called out North Carolina’s proposal in a Washington Post op-ed Sunday. Apple has a data center in Maiden, North Carolina.

Cook says such laws hurt jobs and development.

He was talking about a bill signed in Indiana last week, and companies are backing off investments or speaking out, including the NCAA.

Duke University says they “share the NCAA’s concerns” and they’ll be vigilant on their Final Four trip to Indiana.

Gov. McCrory is already speaking out against the bill, saying on WFAE Monday the it doesn’t make sense, and he doesn’t see the problem the bill is trying to correct.

“People really, I think, understand that this is ultimately about discrimination, and they don’t want to invest in states that will allow discrimination,” said Preston.

“It’s a very limited protection, and it’s not a guarantee. It’s just the ability to defend yourself in court,” said Chris Stone founder of Faith Driven Consumer, a Christian business advocacy group.

Religious and conservative groups like Faith Driven Consumer say claims of discrimination against LGBT groups are overblown.

“If I am the owner of a restaurant and a gay couple comes in, I can’t deny you service, because there’s no religious foundation for that,” he said.

They point out it follows a nearly identical federal law passed in 1993.

One of the bill’s sponsors says the bill was only just filed last week. He anticipates some debate, and probably additions to the bill to make sure it doesn’t promote discrimination against LGBT community members.

– Andrew Sorensen

Duke Energy Executive Compensation Cut Over Coal Ash Spill

duke_energy_ceoCHARLOTTE — Duke Energy’s CEO paid a price for the coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of a North Carolina river in sludge.

An annual statement released ahead of the company’s May shareholder meeting says CEO Lynn Good’s $8.3 million compensation in 2014 was cut by close to $600,000.

The top financial officer and three other executives saw similar reductions in compensation tied to annual performance.

Representatives with Duke Energy say the executives were docked because the spill will cost the company more than $190 million in cleanup and legal fees, and fines.

Capital Tonight March 27: Bow Tie Caucus

Capital_Tonight_logoOn Capital Tonight: Potential presidential candidates are visiting North Carolina to test the waters and drum up support for a campaign in 2016. So what are voters looking for in a candidate? Joe Stewart and Frank Hill join the Bow Tie Caucus to tackle this elusive question. Watch the program here.

New Bill Could Put Dorothea Dix Property on the Auction Block

Dix_propertyRALEIGH — Bill Padgett, president of Dix 306, is one of the advocates fighting to keep the Dorothea Dix property deal between Gov. Pat McCrory and city leaders on the table.

“This 306, 308 acres sits between 55,000 faculty, staff and students at NC State, and a population of a million folks in Raleigh and the surrounding area. So we are the only place in the country that has the potential for a 21st Century destination park.”

Padgett said to lose an opportunity like this would be catastrophic. But it could be a reality.

On Thursday, Senate Bill 705 was filed. It would essentially block the current deal between the governor and the city and put the property up for auction.

Raleigh City Council member John Odom said, “We were hoping that nothing would happen like this because we thought we already had a proposal on the table that was pretty good, and so we were hoping that would go through. However, we were being realistic. We knew it might happen and here we are today.”

The city offered to lease part of the space to the state for 25 years along with a $52 million purchase price.

Their plan includes creating a large park, but if it goes to the highest bidder the land could be used as development space.

Odom said, “I am not sure the private sector is ready to participate in this. We shall see if that happens. Maybe the legislators know somebody is offering them more money than we have offered them.”

Padgett said he has been waiting to see the space used as a park for a decade, and he’s not giving up.

“This would be one of these amenities, once again, in the center part of our state, that makes North Carolina just a fantastic attraction in the future, of what it could be?  The potential is beyond imagination.”

– Amy Elliott