#4. New direction in Raleigh hits home
Since gaining a majority in the House, Senate and governor’s mansion for the first time in a century, Republicans pushed for sweeping changes across the board in 2013.
The new Republican-controlled legislature tackled education, tax reform, voter identification, Medicaid expansion, unemployment benefits and more. Not every piece of legislation made it into law, but the ones that did will have a significant impact on the state — and on Haywood County — for years to come.
Many Haywood County residents, mostly Democrats, held their own “Moral Monday” protests in front of the courthouse to show their opposition to the new direction in Raleigh.
The chief complaints were the proposed changes in education. Everything was on the table, including teacher tenure and contracts, private school vouchers, charter schools, school calendars and even cursive writing.
Many of these bills didn’t make it into law during the 2013 session but some made it far enough to be brought up again in the 2014 short session. The Haywood County Schools administration did not support a number of these bills, including Senate Bill 337. The bill, signed by Gov. Pat McCrory on July 25, created the Charter School Advisory Board to govern charter schools in the state and took away control from the State Board of Education.
“I’m personally concerned that we have elected officials who ran on a ticket of less government but are creating a whole new division of government for charter schools,” said Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, supported this bill and recently said charter schools give parents another option for educating their children. Charter schools are public schools that receive public funding but receive more flexibility with curriculum and other programs.
But the logic doesn’t make sense to many traditional public school educators. Nolte said earlier this year that he didn’t understand why the traditional public schools aren’t afforded the same options.
“If there’s truly something to be gained academically or economically with giving the flexibility associated with charters, we would definitely like to have that same flexibility,” he said.
While there have been charges that education funding has fallen short, Republican legislators have countered that the money allocated to education this year increased. A portion of the funds were repurposed, however, and will be going to newly established charter schools.
A bill to fund vouchers for certain students attending private schools passed the House, and is eligible to be considered in May when the short legislative session begins.
House Bill 146, Back to the Basics, was signed into law by the governor on June 12. It requires all schools to teach cursive and memorization of the multiplication tables. Haywood County teachers choose to teach cursive, “but that (bill) is getting very involved in local education. Those decisions should be left to educators,” said Superintendent Anne Garrett.
Local school leaders did support the 2013 School Safety Act, which would include funding for more school resource officers and counselors in elementary schools. Right now there are only ??? school resource officers for Haywood County’s 16 schools, but the board of education would like to have more if funding allowed. The bill passed the House but was held up in the Senate.
Voter ID laws
Despite a lot of push back from poor and minority constituents as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, McCrory signed a bill into law that requires voters to present photo identification before being allowed to cast a ballot in North Carolina.
McCrory defended the bill, saying showing identification is fundamental to a fair election and that most other democracies require photo ID at voting polls.
Voters will be asked for ID at the polls in 2014, but an official identification form will not be required until the 2016 elections. Acceptable forms of a state-issued ID include a driver’s license, passport and military ID. McCrory said that people who don’t have a state-issued ID could obtain one through the Department of Motor Vehicle office for free.
The law also included many other provisions that will affect voters, including reducing the early voting period from 17 to 10 days, doing away with same day registration, ending straight-party voting, prohibiting voting outside of one’s designated precinct and not allowing teenagers to pre-register before they turn 18.
Additionally, college students would need to vote at their permanent home address, which means they would have to change all their licenses and mailing information to their college or dorm address to vote in the community where they attend school.
ACLU, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice are now challenging the constitutionality of the law.
“This law is a disaster. Eliminating a huge part of early voting will cut off voting opportunities for hundreds of thousands of citizens. It will turn Election Day into a mess, shoving more voters into even longer lines,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, on the ACLU website.
Blocking Medicaid expansion
As part of the federal health care reform, states had the option of expanding their Medicaid programs to cover more needy residents.
In exchange for expanding, the federal government would pay 100 percent of the states’ cost for the first three years and then funding would begin to taper off toward funding 90 percent of the costs. Instead of expanding the program to provide health care for 500,000 uninsured residents, the N.C. Legislature passed measures to block the expansion.
McCrory said he spent weeks weighing the pros and cons of expanding Medicaid before deciding the state was not ready for it.
“In light of recent Medicaid audits, the current system in North Carolina is broken and not ready to expand without great risk to the taxpayers and to the delivery of existing services to those in need. We must first fix and reform the current system,” he said in a press release.
Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, both supported the effort to block the Medicaid expansion, but Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, was against it because it would have covered more people and created jobs in the state.
“By rejecting Medicaid expansion, the legislature has cost the taxpayers of North Carolina over $2 billion of their federal tax dollars that would have come to the state and is denying health-care coverage to an estimated 15,000 people in my district,” Queen said at the time.
MedWest-Haywood also supported the expansion because of the benefits it would have for health care providers and patients.
“We believe health care coverage is critical to the patients in our community. It provides access and gives our patients options instead of visiting the hospital,” said MedWest CEO Janie Sinacore-Jaberg.
The decision to block Medicaid came about the same time legislators decided to make changes to the state’s unemployment benefits, which was a double blow for many residents with a job or insurance.
The changes included shortening the number of weeks laid off workers could receive unemployment and lessening the amount they could receive. The bill reduced the weekly benefit from a maximum of $535 for 26 weeks to a maximum of $350 for 12 to 20 weeks.
About 17,000 North Carolina residents were affected by the decision to block the federal extended unemployment benefits.
McCrory said not accepting the federal assistance would allow the state to repay the $2.6 billion it owes to the federal government by 2015 instead of 2019.
The Tax Simplification and Reduction Act was also passed this year and made major changes to the state’s tax code. It replaces the three-tiered personal income tax (6 percent — 7.75 percent) with a flat income tax rate of 5.8 percent in 2014 and 5.75 percent in 2015.
The standard deductions will also increase for all taxpayers. Married couples filing jointly will have a standard deduction of $15,000, as opposed to $6,000 under the old system; the heads of household deduction will be $12,000 compared to $4,400 and single filers can earn $7,500 as opposed to $3,000 before paying the flat income tax.
Legislators say it simplifies the code and makes the state more competitive for business development by lowering the corporate tax. But critics called it a tax cut for the wealthy disgusted as tax reform.
While it wasn’t a state decision, the federal government shutdown in October had a noticeable impact on Haywood County. The 15 days of shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for Western North Carolina — smack dab in the middle of the color season.
A Western Carolina University economist estimates that the first 10 days of the shutdown cost more than $33 million in lost visitor spending in the 18 North Carolina and Tennessee counties located within 60 miles of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The shutdown also affected the Department of Social Services as Work First (welfare) checks were suspended. Without the federal money coming in, residents couldn’t receive their checks. About 75 Haywood residents receive that benefit, which ranges from $236 a month for a family of two to $324 for a family of five.
Luckily the federal government worked out a budget deal before any more major damage could be done to the tourism industry as well as benefit recipients.