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Morning Memo: N.C. part of 'great gerrymander', GOP legislature pushes ahead

TODAY AT THE STATEHOUSE: Monday legislative sessions are typically quiet but Republican lawmakers are using the first one this year to push two major proposals to overhaul unemployment benefits amid the state's $2.5 billion debt to the federal government (House) and block the expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law (Senate). The floor action for both chambers starts at 7 p.m. Gov. Pat McCrory lists no public events today.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Republicans have the votes to pass the measure but the question is how big a fight Democrats will mount. The tone and strategy of the Democratic opposition will help define the partisan relations this legislative session and signal whether the minority party will acquiesce to GOP supermajorities or make their lives difficult.

***This is the Dome Morning Memo -- keep reading for more analysis and a N.C. political news digest. ***

Morning Memo: No guns, but likely abortion legislation this session

GUN AGENDA NOT ON N.C. GOP LAWMAKERS' AGENDA: President Barack Obama may have pledged one of the most aggressive gun-control plans in decades last week, but don’t expect North Carolina to follow suit anytime soon.

Some state lawmakers said they planned to take a more cautious approach to gun-control legislation than Obama – if they make any changes at all. Jordan Shaw, spokesman for N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said “at this point, it’s probably unlikely that you’ll see any substantive changes in gun laws in the state.”

***This is the Dome Morning Memo -- a tipsheet for North Carolina politics. Read below to catch up on political news from over the holiday weekend.

Liberal group wants McCrory to call for Hartsell's resignation

A liberal advocacy group is trying to pin down Gov. Pat McCrory on state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell's campaign finance troubles.

Progress North Carolina is calling on McCrory to ask Hartsell, a Concord Republican, to resign after he spent nearly $100,000 from his campaign account to pay personal credit cards. The state election agency is investigating the spending. "Gov. McCrory has a chance to make a clear statement against government corruption," said Gerrick Brenner of Progress NC. "But if he says nothing, McCrory proves he's all talk and no substance."

A McCrory spokesman declined to comment.

Morning Memo: 'Gov. Pay Raise', Sen. Hartsell face tough questions

GOV. PAY RAISE: The salary hikes Gov. Pay McCrory gave to his cabinet are stricking a chord. From N&O columnist Barry Saunders: If you saw our new governor live or on television banging away on a drum set with a band at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre last week, you already know Ringo has nothing to worry about.

For further evidence that the governor is tone deaf, all you had to do was read the newspaper the next day and see that Gov. Pat, henceforth known as Gov. Pay Raise, McCrory bestowed sizable raises on the people closest to him while sprinkling a pittance upon those outside his inner circle – you know, the ones who do the actual work.

You are reading the Dome Morning Memo, an analysis of the day's political headlines. Read much more below. Thanks.

AHEAD THIS WEEK: The UNC system committee considering a new five-year plan meets Monday. The NAACP holds is own legislative briefing -- sure to be much different from the one Republicans will hold -- Tuesday to talk about poverty and economic justice.

Fletcher Hartsell celebrates 65th tonight with some very expensive presents

State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord is being feted at a fund raiser celebrating his 65th birthday tonight at the 18 Seaboard restaurant in Raleigh.

The special guest is Fred Eshelman, the Wilmington businessman, philanthropist, and major GOP donor. The cost of the even ranges from $150 to $4,000.

Committee meeting on mental health turns heated

Police officers were called to help clear the room after a legislative committee meeting on proposed changes to the state's mental health system ended before advocates for people with developmental disabilities were given a chance to speak.

At issue is a plan to consolidate local mental health agencies across the state and cut costs by giving them more authority to manage limited resources to help people with serious mental illnesses, developmental disabilities or substance abuse issues. There are currently long waiting lists for families seeking some treatment services through Medicaid, which pays for much of the care for people who qualify as permanently disabled.

"My biggest concern are the people who are currently receiving no services," said bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Barnhart, a Concord Republican who is also the CEO of Cabarrus Community Health Centers, Inc. "Everyone will get the level of services they need. No more, no less."

Under the new managed care system, many parents and caregivers for people with developmental disabilities are worried they will lose what services they now receive. They look at the sometimes spastic system wide changes imposed by the state's mental health bureaucrats in recent years, and see yet another reform plan being rushed through the legislature before all the kinks are ironed out.

At the very end of the hour-long committee meeting, Chairman Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, also a Concord Republican, announced it was time to hear from members of the public. The first to be recognized was Mary K. Short, the mother of a severely disabled daughter.

"The people who wrote all these past mistakes are the same people who wrote this," Short said. "The idea that you're going to save money when people are on waiting lists is absurd. ... The families aren't the ones running things over budget. Families are not the problem. It's the people at the (Division of Medical Assistance) who keep writing all these things that keep failing."

After Short spoke, Hartsell declared that time had run out and that the meeting was over. That triggered an angry response from the advocates and family members backed into the back of the room, many of whom had traveled from across the state to be heard on the bill likely to greatly affect their lives and those of their loved ones.

As people shouted at Hartsell, asking to be allowed to speak, three General Assembly police officers entered the room. Lt. Martin Brock, the ranking officer on scene, positioned himself in front of Sen. Hartsell, attempting to protect the legislator from the ire of a disabled woman in a motorized wheelchair.

The committee took no action on the proposed legislation, House Bill 916. Another committee meeting is scheduled for in the morning, possibly at 8:30.

Pat Wiegand, the mother of two adult children with Down Syndrome, had driven up from Wilmington in the hopes of being heard on the proposed legislation. She left the meeting room agitated and flanked by two police officers.

"Disgusting," she said. "We're never at the table when the decisions are made. It cost me 50 bucks in gas to get up here. Now I'll have to leave at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow morning to come back again."

Charlotte guys to head Senate Finance Committee

Senate Republicans Bob Rucho of Matthews and Fletcher Hartsell of  Concord will co-chair the Senate Finance Committee, overseeing the state's tax system and the way in which state government collects revenue.

“Senators Rucho and Hartsell are both capable, experienced legislators ready to lead the Senate Finance Committee which a clear vision for putting our state's economy back on firm footing,” said Senate Republican leader Phil Berger in announcing the appointment.

Rucho, a dentist, said his aim was to create a tax structure that encourages growth in the private sector and “does not antagonize businesses who want to find a home in North Carolina.”

Hartsell, an attorney, said that to get the economy moving  again, “we have to improve the state's business climate.”

Alcoa wants to talk

An Alcoa vice president is in North Carolina for two weeks talking to friends and detractors as part of the company strategy for getting its long-term federal hydroelectric license renewed.

Kevin Anton, a company vice president based in Tennessee, wants to talk to commissioners in Stanly County, which is suing to stop the relicensing, state Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco, who doesn't want the license renewed, and various others who are fighting the company's effort to get another 50-year license to operate hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. 

"We didn't like where things were progressing here in North Carolina," Anton said. "It was time for a new approach."

The company recently suffered a setback on the way to a license renewal when it was revealed in a court hearing that company representatives discussed hiding from state regulators information about how water-improvement devices would work. When company e-mail exchanges surfaced, the state revoked a certification Alcoa needs to get the federal license.

Alcoa still plans an administrative appeal of the decision to revoke the certification, but the company wants to talk to state regulators, too, Anton said.

Today, Anton met with Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican and Alcoa foe.

Hartsell described the discussion as "initial efforts at developing concensus." 

To show Stanly County it is serious about economic development, Alcoa plans to tear down 25 buildings on its 160-acre industrial site to get the property ready for another company to lease or buy.

Alcoa used to run an aluminum smelter on the property, but it has been shut down for years.

Please stand by...

It was a full house, but the show did not go on.

A Senate committee was ready to air an hour-long cut of a UNC-TV report on Alcoa, but the showing was delayed because of technical problems, Lynn Bonner reports.  The plan is to show it after today's Senate session.

State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, the Concord Republican who wanted the footage subpoenaed, said the station voluntarily delivered the material the committee requested yesterday. It consisted of 13 DVDs and an inventory of raw footage, he said.

Eszter Vajda, the legislative correspondent who worked on the piece, worked on her own to compile an hour-long cut the committee will air, Hartsell said.

In addition to committee members, a slew of reporters, lobbyists for environmental groups, Alcoa and UNC-TV execs, and First Amendment lawyers were waiting for the program.

UNC-TV documentary about Alcoa subpoenaed

A state Senate committee has subpoenaed a documentary about Alcoa from UNC-TV.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican who runs the Judiciary Committee  that issued the subpoena, said the station has important information about the company that may be available to the public only through the documentary, reports Lynn Bonner.

"It has to do with public health and other information," he said.

Alcoa, which runs hydroelectric plants along the Yadkin River, has applied to renew its federal license.

Hartsell opposes the renewal and backs a measure that would set up a public trust to handle revenue from the electric production should the state be allowed to buy it.

The issue is pending in the legislature, which will adjourn soon.

Subpoenas went to Tom Howe, UNC-TV director and general manager, and
Eszter Vajda, the station's senior legislative correspondent. A call to UNC-TV was not immediately returned.

As a state agency, the station is obligated to comply with requests for information.

Hartsell said he could see the First Amendment issues related to requesting copies of all documentary footage.

"It's an ironic position," he said. "We're simply trying to get information the public needs."

The documentary will be shown at 9 a.m. in the committee meeting on Tuesday, and will contain information "that will be very revealing to many folks," Hartsell said.

UPDATE: UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad said the station has no documentary about Alcoa. He said the material is planned for use in a series of reports for the show "North Carolina Now." "No documentary is contemplated at this time," he said.

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