Beyond the budget battle

Published 8:37 am Saturday, July 5, 2008

By Staff
It is likely that at some point this week, House and Senate leaders will come up with a final budget agreement they can live with and that Gov. Mike Easley will sign, and the rush will be on to adjourn the session and get back to the campaign trail.
Let’s hope that lawmakers take a little time after the budget passes to consider a handful of important issues that cannot wait until next year, issues that affect the lives of children, the fairness of the criminal justice system, the livability of the state’s communities and the quality of air we breathe.
Senate Democrats are reportedly debating the Racial Justice Act in their private caucus meeting soon. It is a debate that should come up on the Senate floor. The legislation passed House last year and makes it less likely that race will continue to play a role in who receives the death penalty, as Rob Schofield explains in his latest weekly briefing.
Advocates for children continue to push for legislation to crack down on bullying and intimidation at school. The House and Senate passed different versions of the bill last session and its final passage is being held up by the religious right’s objections to including gay and lesbian students in a long list of kids who should be protected from abuse from their classmates.
The debate about the bullying bill prompted all kinds of bizarre claims last session by a few hard right lawmakers, who equated being gay with pedophilia and said that people are able to choose their sexual orientation. Maybe the facts will prevail this year and students will be protected at school.
It is not too late for lawmakers to help another group of kids too, undocumented students brought here by their parents, who have succeeded in North Carolina high schools and want to continue their education at a public university or community college.
Attorney General Roy Cooper has ruled that federal law bars students from attending community college or a branch of the UNC system even if they pay out-of-state tuition. A group of Republicans isn’t satisfied with Cooper’s misinterpretation of federal law and wants to pass legislation to bar the kids from continuing their education.
A handful of House Democrats have introduced a bill to allow the student to attend the colleges, a position supported by Governor Mike Easley, former Governor Jim Hunt, UNC President Erskine Bowles, and a host of other state leaders who are rightfully more concerned with helping children than scoring a few political points in an election year.
Rep. Lucy Allen and others are hard at work on Easley’s proposal to rewrite some rules about water management in the wake of last summer’s devastating drought and something is likely to pass before lawmakers leave town.
They ought to take up a new version of Rep. Becky Carney’s mass transit bill before they adjourn too. Carney’s proposal to help local governments fund transit systems came from former DOT Secretary Sam Hunt’s work on the 21st Century Transportation Committee.
No one expects the package to pass this session and there is plenty of work to do to come up with a fair funding mechanism for local light rail systems, but it deserves a hearing to bring more attention to transit as a vital part of the state’s transportation plan that will dominate the 2009 session.
A small group of lawmakers has been working privately on some changes to the state’s lobbying and ethics laws and that deserves a public debate this summer. So does legislation to allow public employees the right to collectively bargain.
And even when the budget is done, it won’t be too late to repeal the absurd windfall for university booster clubs snuck in the budget a few years ago that allows out of state athletes to pay in state tuition.
The provision takes spots at UNC and N.C. State from North Carolina students and costs the taxpayers $8 million a year. The House passed legislation last session to repeal the provision. It has yet to receive a hearing in the Senate.
It is true that passing a budget is why lawmakers come to town in even-numbered years for the short session. But there is plenty of unfinished business they should tackle while they are here too.