The 2012 short session has come to a close, marking a dramatic shift from legislative bienniums of the past, both in length and accomplishments. When legislators returned in 2011, it was the first time in over 100 years that Republicans controlled both chambers.
New leadership inherited a massive $2.5 billion budget deficit, faced plummeting school graduation rates and rising unemployment, and was charged with reforming an overbearing regulatory system that hindered job creation. Despite these challenges, several necessary and overdue reforms were implemented, which will lead to greater prosperity for our state.
Yet conservatives noted ruefully that the General Assembly failed to pass some much-needed measures. And though the state’s finances were put on a better footing, budget reforms were incremental rather than dramatic.
The bipartisan two-year budget cut taxes by eliminating the $1 billion “temporary” sales tax imposed by Gov. Perdue and Democrat legislators while also curbing the growth rate of state expenditures. It is hoped these efforts will begin to restore our economy and create long-term jobs for many North Carolinians.
In the area of education, reforms were implemented to strengthen student literacy, encourage effective teachers, and improve graduation rates. Last year, legislators were also able to remove the cap on charter schools so that parents and students have the opportunity to make the best educational decisions for their families. However, a tax credit allowing businesses to provide scholarships to low-income children attending private schools did not garner approval. As legislators begin to think about tax reform next year, they should re-double their efforts to ensure children with special needs and those from low-income families have access to quality education opportunities under the new system.
The energy sector was also revived through actions at the General Assembly as bipartisan legislation was passed to create jobs and attract businesses to North Carolina. The new law, the Clean Energy and Economic Security Act, will hopefully begin to lower energy prices as alternative sources are found and ultimately generate more revenue and jobs for our state.
In addition, the legislature worked to improve annexation laws to protect property owners. Going forward, a referendum vote will be required by the area’s registered voters before that area can be annexed by a municipality. Lawmakers also de-annexed several towns that were involuntarily annexed and these towns may not be re-annexed for the next 12 years.
While there were several successes, the legislature did miss the opportunity to bring true election reform to our state. The Republican-led General Assembly passed HB 351, Restore Confidence in Government Act, which would have implemented a free photo voter ID for all voters to ensure integrity in our elections and decrease voter fraud. However, Gov. Perdue vetoed HB 351 and lawmakers were unable to successfully override the veto. Several watered-down bills were introduced to replace the photo ID bill, yet none would have truly tackled the problem of voter fraud in our state.
The realm of health care was also an area that receives mixed reviews. With the Obamacare Supreme Court decision, the legislature resisted pressure to implement an unnecessary health benefit exchange. While the House chose to approve legislation that would establish a state-based health insurance exchange, the Senate refrained from passing the bill, which would only further burden North Carolinians with unaffordable and mandatory health insurance plans. The Protect Healthcare Freedom Act, HB 2, was another bill that failed to become law. This legislation passed both chambers but was vetoed by Gov. Perdue and was not overridden. The Freedom Act would have protected North Carolinians from the intrusive individual mandate, but unfortunately lawmakers have been unable to override the legislation or introduce and pass new legislation in time. This issue is an area that should be reconsidered when the legislature returns in January.
In the social arena, the General Assembly passed marriage amendment legislation last year that added the issue as, a referendum item on the 2012 primary ballot. Voters were given the chance to voice their opinion and determine how the state will define marriage. With overwhelming support, voters chose to uphold marriage as between one man and one woman.
The Racial Justice Act, a law that allowed convicted murderers on death row to appeal their sentence using arbitrary statistics to attempt to prove racial bias, was reined in as well. In order to prevent criminals from abusing the law, the legislature limited the statistical analysis to the county or prosecutorial district where the sentence was imposed as opposed to using statewide and irrelevant statistics.
In short, the new leadership had a successful two-year term. However, while much was accomplished, there are still several opportunities to bring government back within its original authority.