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Senate honors Kinnaird

The state Senate on Wednesday adjourned in honor of Ellie Kinnaird, the longtime senator who resigned her seat recently to concentrate on grassroots organizing.

On Sen. Floyd McKissick's motion, senators spoke fondly of the Democrat from Orange County.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Archdale, said, "Ellie was an unabashed liberal. ... Be whatever you are, but be that," Tillman said.

Tillman said Kinnaird was a hard-working lawmaker who came to every Republican event she was invited to -- and probably some she wasn't.

Senate Democrats will select minority leader in mid-December

When the Senate Democratic Caucus meets in mid-December to select the minority leader – another term for Sen. Martin Nesbitt, Jr. or someone else – members insist the decision will not be contentious and that talks will be more centered on the best strategy for working with the Republican majorities that are all around.

“The fact of the matter is, there’s a small enough number of us that everyone in the caucus is going to have their voice heard,” said Sen. Dan Blue. “Nobody has called around to indicate any change or specific candidates.”

Senate committee approves redistricting plans

Two sets of GOP-drawn plans for electoral districts won approval from a Senate committee today. Democrats didn't like either of them.

The legislature is scheduled to vote on redistricting plans next week.

The Senate committee meetings were marked by tense exchanges, including an argument between Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, and Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville over whether their cities get along.

The Senate committee approved a plan for 13 congressional districts and 50 state Senate districts after rejecting a change proposed by Nesbitt that would have keep Asheville from being split between two congressional districts.

Nesbitt said it was clear from public comments that people in Asheville want to be represented by one congressperson.

Republicans said they decided Asheville would get better representation with two.

"We treated Asheville like every other urban center," said Sen. Andrew Brock, a Mocksville Republican.

In drawing the state's 13 congressional districts, GOP map-makers gathered 49 percent of the state's African-American residents into three districts - the 1st, the 4th, and the 12th.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, asked how the 4th District, where Chapel Hill Democratic Rep. David Price is the incumbent, was created. The existing district, which McKissick called "exceptionally compact," now includes all of Orange and Durham Counties, southern and western Wake County and northeast Chatham.

It would change to meander across seven counties, including parts of Alamance and Wake and thread into Cumberland County, with a river basin connecting the territory as it runs from from Chatham into Harnett.

One of the criteria used to draw districts is keeping together "communities of interest," and McKissick asked what rural Alamance had in common with downtown Durham or downtown Raleigh.

Brock said the "communities of interest" is one of the least important factors, falling behind federal law and court rulings.

"Almost every district is pretty diverse," Brock said.

Two views of GOP agenda

Black legislators and the head of the state NAACP, during a break in the N.C. Black Summit on Friday, piled criticism on legislative Republicans for their proposals on education, spending and changes to voting rules.

A leading House Republican, Majority Leader Paul Stam of Apex, said in an interview that black residents like some of the GOP initiatives, and said the black legislators who spoke Friday are "out of touch with their constituents."

Sen. Floyd McKissick and Rep. Larry Hall, both Durham Democrats, and the Rev. William Barber, NAACP state president, said the changes Republicans want for the state would roll back progress and hurt black and low-income people disproportionately.

Some items on the 'no' list: The proposed voter ID law, charter schools and tax credits, education cuts, and fee increases.

Barber said the NAACP will be organizing groups around the state to challenge their local legislators.

"Extremists have taken over the General Assembly," he said. "Today marks the day we begin to push back. United. Together."

Stam said black residents support some GOP initiatives, such as the push to lift the cap on charter schools. In Florida, more than half the children who use tax credits similar to those Stam champions are black or Hispanic, he said, and nearly half qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Proposed revision to death penalty law called racist

The N.C. Legislative Black Caucus denounced what they said was an attempt to repeal a law devised to ensure fairness in death penalty cases.

The law, called the Racial Justice Act, allows defendants and death row prisoners to challenge prosecutions on the grounds of racial bias. The law passed in 2009 largely along party lines.

Four Republican legislators filed a bill this week that would change the law so that people seeking relief would have to show that prosecutors intentionally used race as a discriminatory factor in seeking the death penalty or selecting a jury.

"Passing this repeal would be a giant step backwards for justice in North Carolina," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat.

Rep. Earline Parmon, a Winston-Salem Democrat who worked on the bias bill, called efforts to change it "a racist attack, an ungodly attack on the poor people of this state."

Not surprisingly, one of the bill sponsors strongly disagreed with that assessment. "Wow," said Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican who proposed changes. "I think that's an outrageous comment, first of all."

Nearly all of the states death row prisoners have filed petitions for review under the law. Burr called the accusation of racism "absurd" because white defendants charged with killing white victims are using the law.

The changes are an attempt to make sure the burden of proof is put on the defendant and is not financial burden on the state, he said. The existing law is essentially is a death penalty moratorium, he said.

Wrongfully convicted men call for SBI lab changes

Greg Taylor and Dwayne Dail want the state crime lab moved from under the umbrella of the State Bureau of Investigation to instead report directly to the state Attorney General.

They spoke this afternoon to support a bill filed by Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, who said the change would result in a lab that produces objective results rather than pursues convictions without regard to innocence or guilt.

Taylor, a Wake County man, served 17 years for a murder he did not commit. An SBI agent failed to report blood test results in his case. "Had the lab been independent in 1991, I believe I would not have been convicted," he said.

Dail was a Wayne County man exonerated after 18 years by DNA evidence after a conviction for rape he did not commit.

The bills sponsors are both Democrats.

Dail and Taylor's lawyer,  Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said establishing an independent lab should be a bipartisan issue.

"This is about the truth," said Mumma, a Republican. "That should be important to both sides."

An independent audit called into question blood evidence in 229 cases. Last week, the SBI said it had found 74 more cases.

Voter ID compromise may be near — or not

Lawmakers have reached the outlines of a compromise on a proposed voter identification bill that would no longer require voters to show a photo ID, reports Jim Morrill, Dome's Charlotte Observer correspondent.

But it still may not placate opponents.

Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, the chairman of the House Elections Committee and a bill sponsor, said he’s been working on a compromise that would allow voters to use voter registration cards or other forms of identification.

And in case of a dispute, polling officials would match the voter’s election day signature with the signature scanned from the voter registration card.

"Part of what you do up here is if you don’t get everything you want, you get as much as you can get,” Lewis told reporters today.

But the issue is far from over.

A House Elections Committee meeting scheduled for this afternoon has been canceled. And the Black Caucus criticized any bill that would require voters to show an ID, photo or not.

“Any type of ID required to be shown each and every time can have a chilling effect,” said the caucus chairman, Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “Any obstacle to the polls we think is unjustified.”

McKissick heads black caucus

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, has been named chairman of the 25-member state Legislative Black Caucus.

McKissick said in a statement that he would work with caucus members to champion issues such as job recruitment and the promotion of small and minority-owned businesses.

McKissick has been a senator since 2007. He was a member of the Durham City Council for eight years.

Senate ethics bill moves toward floor vote

After a flurry of amendments, a Senate Judiciary committee has sent a wide ranging ethics reform bill to the Senate floor.

Republican Leader Phil Berger said he expects broad bipartisan support for the ethics reforms when the measure comes up for a vote next week.

The bill had been sent up to the Senate floor last week, but was sent back to committee without a vote after Republican objections to the inclusion of a proposal to provide a public financing option for some statewide political campaigns. With the public financing issue gone, committee members set about Thursday to tweak what was left.

Among the changes approved:

Sen. Richard Stevens' amendment to strip out a provision to extend the "revolving door" ban on former legislators and state officials working as lobbyists from six months to 1-year after leaving public service. Supporters had argued the 1-year ban was need to keep legislators from resigning at the end of one legislative session, and then returning as a lobbyist for the next.

"It seems to me six months is a reasonable cooling off period," said Stevens, a Cary Republican. "We're chilling a person's ability to make a living."

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, proposed an amendment that stripped out a provision to require the estates of public officials who die to file a final posthumous ethics disclosure of their financial interests. McKissick said the measure was "overkill." He questioned who the state might punish for non-compliance.

"I'm not sure who you would go after, unless you're going to hold a seance," McKissick said. Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, the committee's chairman, quipped that the Bull City lawmaker was attempting to curry favor with dead voters.

Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat from Charlotte, proposed an amendment to require state agencies to disclose why a state employee who was fired lost the job. The measure was supported by the N.C. Press Association. Current state personnel law allows a state agency to hide from the public the true reason a state employee fired for malfeasance was dismissed.

UPDATED: Adds response from Sen. Berger.

Perdue lauds extraordinary efforts

Gov. Bev Perdue attended a Martin Luther King celebration Friday and used the occasion to talk about ordinary North Carolinians who did extraordinary things.

She mentioned the four N.C A&T State University students who integrated a lunch counter, thereby beginning the sit-in movement. She cited Floyd McKissick's decision to sue the University of North Carolina to gain entrance to the law school. And she mentioned Ella Baker, the Warren County woman who traveled across the segregated South organizing for the NAACP.

“These were ordinary people who did extraordinary things for equal rights,” Perdue told a packed sanctuary at First Baptist Church across the street from the Capitol, reports Rob Christensen.

Perdue said the fight for equal rights was not over, and that the fight for providing an equal education for all children continued.

The service was attended by most top state officials. The main address was delivered by James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus at The Riverside Church in New York.

Perdue announced that the late Donice Maria Harbor received the John R. Larkins Award as the state employee who did the most to improve human and race relations. Harbor, who was director of the governor's office of citizens and faith outreach, died in July of breast cancer.

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