LAURINBURG — Upon their return to the district after Wednesday’s adjournment of an eight-month marathon legislative session, Scotland County’s representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly reflected upon the year’s accomplishments.
“We were pleased with the bipartisan support that we had on many pieces of legislation this year – that’s what the people sent us to Raleigh to do: to find common ground to make North Carolina a better place,” said state Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland.
“Overall we were all able to work together on issues where we could, and that’s what the citizens expect of us.”
State Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, agreed.
“I think the atmosphere was a little better,” he said. “I think in the House there was a bigger attempt to work in a bipartisan way – we don’t always get there but there was a good faith effort to do that. It’s the best session since I’ve been there.”
This week, the state House approved the inclusion of a $2 billion bond referendum on the March 15 ballot. If a majority of voters support the bond, the state will allocate the majority of those monies to the UNC system, along with the state’s community colleges and state parks.
The lengthy session did not produce a 2015-2017 state budget until mid-September, well after the June 30 due date. The $21.7 billion spending plan was signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory on Sept. 18.
“I think it was probably the best budget that has come from the General Assembly in at least two decades,” said state Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond.
“We have proved that reducing taxes, reducing regulations, restrictions and unnecessary rules on business and individuals and putting more money in the pockets of taxpayers created a budget surplus which allowed us to fund many additional projects, plus enhance public education and economic development.”
The budget maintains funds to keep teaching assistants in their classrooms, and provides for a one-time $750 bonus to state workers and teachers to be paid in December. Salary increases for state prison guards and Highway Patrol are also included.
No cost of living adjustment was included for state workers, though Pierce said that a 1.5 percent adjustment would have been feasible.
“Like we always say, there was a lot of good in it, there was a lot that could have been better,” he said. “We could have done more for education. We could have given state workers raises instead of a $750 one-time bonus that we may not be able to sustain the next time around. They deserve more than that.”
Though there are no specific provisions for Scotland County or entities located here, the state has made a larger pool of money available to rural counties like Scotland to use in industrial recruitment.
“That economic incentives package will help Scotland as a Tier I county,” said Pierce. “When we’re trying to recruit businesses, we’ll have a little more money as incentive.”
The expiration of renewable energy tax credits, which the state did not renew, may put a damper on the construction of solar arrays, which have steadily flowed into Scotland County in recent years.
The budget also includes an expansion of sales taxes to apply to repair, maintenance and installation services, including car repairs. The additional funds generated will be redistributed to rural counties like Scotland, whose residents typically pay a large amount of sales tax outside of their county of residence.
Funding for driver education in the public schools is also maintained, funded by a new late fee for motor vehicle registration.
“I’m really concerned about these fees and taxes that you really have to dig through the budget to find,” Pierce said. “Different services will be taxed, there’s a lot of fees and taxes that people will be made aware of going forward.”
A tax deduction for seniors was also restored, allowing the elderly to write off many of their medical expenses.
“That was restored without a cap,” said Pierce. “That was something that Scotia Village residents really had a concern about — a lot of them have medical expenses and they’ll be able to deduct a large sum because of that.”
As one of the sponsors of the state’s farm bill for 2015, freshman senator McInnis worked to clarify the rules regarding property tax reductions for qualified farmers based on the present use of their property as farm or timber land rather than its potential use for commercial or residential purposes.
“It allows you to pay tax at a lesser amount to incentivize folks to be farmers and grow crops and create food for our tables, as well as for those that grow timber and forest products,” McInnis said.
McInnis also sponsored the effort to maintain a 15-point scale for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s annual grading of every public school in the state. The grading system was introduced with a switch to a 10-point scale after one year of grading.
During next year’s short session, McInnis hopes to see the reintroduction of an act — which did not get off the ground in this year’s session — to authorize the use of video evidence and create a civil fine for anyone who passes a stopped school bus with the arm extended.
Also emerging from the budget was a transformation of the state’s Medicaid program to a managed care system, a move that Goodman voted against.
“It basically turns our Medicaid program over to the managed care organizations from out of state,” he said, adding that there is a compromise that will allow provider-led entities to compete.
“North Carolina’s Medicaid program was one of the best in the United States. Our costs are low and were going down. We managed that system very well and I just didn’t see a reason to change it.”
After a drawn-out budget process unprecedented in the last few decades, Goodman is in favor of legislating a June 30 due date, and in part blamed legislators’ attention to social issues — such as a law enacted in June to allow county officials to abstain from their duties on the grounds of religious objection — for the prolonged session.
“We should try to stay away from some of these divisive social issues that really polarize people, more that the basic business and education issues,” he said. “I would hope we will try to avoid those things in the future. Many of them don’t affect the daily lives of people in the state or their economic well-being. If we leave those things alone I think we could have shorter sessions.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.