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Record numbers of Republicans and African-Americans in the legislature

Record numbers of Republicans and African-Americans hold offices in the state legislature this year, according to the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

And those elected officials are more interested in constitutional amendments and getting the state involved in local issues, the center added.

Republicans hold 110 of 170 legislative seats, more than the GOP has had in more than a century, according to the center.

The legislature has a record-high 31 African-American members.

There's been near-record turnover, with 50 legislators serving their first term.

At least 18 different constitutional amendments have been proposed this year.

Former Perdue lobbyist starts own firm

Courtney Crowder, who worked for Gov. Bev Perdue as one of her lobbyists, says he left her office a few weeks ago to start his own firm, Crowder Consulting Co. 

Crowder, who is in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, says he'll do public relations and lobbying work.  He was one of 22 lobbyists to land on the list of the most influential for the first time this year. Crowder ranked 28nd on the list, complied from an N.C. Center for Public Policy Research survey.

Ranking of top lobbyists shades Republican, includes new faces

UPDATED: The lobbyists with the most clout on Jones Street are increasingly Republicans, according to the 2012 rankings in the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research survey of the top 60. (See full list here.)

The top 10 (with 2010 rank): 1. Dana Simpson (14); 2. Tom Fetzer (unranked); 3. Andy Ellen (2); 4. John McMillan (1); 5. Harry Kaplan (9); 6. Chuck Neely (10); 7. Connie Wilson (unranked); 8. John McAlister (13); 9. Theresa Kostrzewa (23); 10. John Bode (4).

The unscientific rankings are compiled through surveys of lawmakers, lobbyists and capital correspondents. About two dozen of the lobbyists who made this year’s top 60 are ranked for the first time and most represent an assortment of special interests on contract. The top 10 features mostly lobbyists with Republican ties, a reversal from two years ago when Democrats filled the upper echelon.

Read the full story here. And read below to see the center's breakdown.


Power surge among Republicans, power outage among Democrats

The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research annually polls lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters and asks them rate them in effectiveness.

Traditionally, it reflects the party in power, which is why Republicans used to say the ratings were never worth much, while the Democrats thought they were great. Of course, now it is Republicans   that have the high ratings.  Here are how the ratings changed for Triangle area lawmakers, read below.

Republicans at top of rankings

As expected, the leaders of each chamber - House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County, and Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County -  took the No. 1 spots.

Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca of Henderson County, the Rules Committee chairman, was second in the Senate. Sen. Richard Stevens, a Republican from Cary and a lead budget writer, was third.

In the House, Rep. Harold Brubaker, a chief budget writer from Randolph County, was second. House Majority Leader Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, was third.

The change in control from Democrat to Republican is evidenced by dramatic leaps and drops in the rankings.

Public policy research center: No transparency on community college bills

The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research is crying foul on lawmakers for their last-minute local bills that would allow 25 community colleges to opt out of offering federal loans.

The local bills get around a veto by Gov. Bev Perdue of similar legislation this year. The move would shut off access to low-interest loans for 111,000 college students in North Carolina, the research center estimated.

The local bill process has not been transparent, the nonpartisan center argues.

"The public has a right to know the content of all bills when they are first introduced in the legislature," said a news release from the center. "These bills do not give adequate notice to the public of what is being proposed, they’re not transparent in their content and purpose, and they are being used to rush consideration of significant legislation."

The center has done three years of research on financial aid policy in North Carolina, and has advocated for all of the state's 58 community colleges to offer the federal loans. The loans are considered to be the cheapest and safest way for students to borrow money for college. Some local college presidents have argued that they don't want to participate in the loan programs because high default rates could conceivably lead to a loss of other federal dollars.

The issue has a back-and-forth history. In 2010, the Democratic-controlled legislature required all community colleges to offer the loans. This year, the Republican-led legislature passed a bill that would have repealed the requirement, but it was vetoed by Perdue.

The local bills that emerged this week employed an old legislative trick. The bills' original language -- on topics such as parking meters, occupancy taxes and mental health waivers -- was stripped and the substitute language on the loan issue was inserted.

Research center: Bravo to Perdue for veto of community college bill

The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research praised Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of the bill that would have allowed community colleges to opt out of federal student loan programs.

Ran Coble, the center's executive director, said the veto would help more than 177,000 students who "will have access to the safest and most affordable means to borrow money to pay for college so they can get the education they need to get a job."

Only 20 of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges currently make federal loan programs available, which means a majority of community college students can't get the lower-interest loans. Coble said students with federal loans pay 4.5 percent to 6.8 percent interest, compared to those who resort to credit cards and end up paying 16-18 percent.

Some college leaders had said they don't offer the loans because they fear that they could lose access to the federal Pell Grant program if too many students default on loans.

But the nonpartisan policy research center said those fears were overblown. A study of five-years of default rates at the state's community colleges found that most were below 10 percent. In the most recent data from the U.S. government, only three N.C. colleges had seen their default rate climb above 20 percent. A college would have to exceed 25 percent three years in a row to be sanctioned.

No educational institution in the country that offers federal loans has actually been sanctioned in the past seven years, the center said. Only five schools nationwide are on the danger list for sanctions this year.

McMillan ranks as the top lobbyist in North Carolina

John McMillan, a contract lobbyist whose clients include Allstate Insurance, the drug lobby, Citizens for Higher Education and The Nature Conservancy, was ranked the state's most influential lobbyist in the latest survey sponsored by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

McMillan rose one spot in the latest survey. Andy Ellen, lobbyist for the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, hit No. 2, reports Lynn Bonner.

This is the public policy center's 15th lobbyist survey. The center says the rankings shed light on what issues were prominent during the legislative session, and which interests and organizations have clout.

The center noted a record number of African Americans in the top 55, and a record number of contract lobbyists -- those who represent multiple clients.

Two state agency lobbyists made the list: Andy Willis for Gov. Bev Perdue's office at 12th, and Kevin Howell for N.C. State University at 26th.

The survey was conducted last November and December. All legislators, 471 registered lobbyists, and 14 journalists who cover the legislature were asked to list the 10 most influential lobbyists during the 2009 session. The overall response rate was 40 percent.

Community college loans at issue in budget

During the House's six-hour budget debate Thursday, plenty of amendments got thrown at the wall.

One, by Onslow County Republican George Cleveland, would have stripped from the budget a provision that would require all of the state's community colleges to participate in federal student loan programs.

Currently 21 of the state's 58 campuses offer the federal loans, which offer lower interest rates, and 52 percent of the state's community college students can't get federal loans for their degree programs. 

Cleveland said the provision puts campuses at risk of losing a host of federal funding if too many students default. Many campus leaders are against the idea because they can be punished but have no authority to deny the loans to students who are at a high risk of default.

"For us to make a decision that the community college presidents don't know how to run their colleges is poor," Cleveland said. "Are any of your community colleges lacking for students? Have any of your community college students contacted you and said I can't get money for school?"

Rep. Ray Rapp, a Mars Hill Democrat, who has pushed for the change said that fears of campuses losing federal money are highly exaggerated, and it's unfair that some campuses offer cheap loans and some don't.

The provision would move $50 million from community college classrooms to pay for counselors and staff to administer the loan programs.

"Before these students take the loans, we want them to get adequate counseling and advising," he said.

Cleveland's amendment failed, but the issue will resurface when the Senate and House meet to hammer out a compromise budget. The House version permanently diverts the $50 million but only requires the schools to offer the loan programs for one year.

For students on a two year degree track, that could be trouble, said Sam Watts, an analyst at the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. Offering the loans for a year, presumably to ensure that the programs are working, doesn't leave enough time for administrators to gather data on how many students defaulted or successfully repaid the loans.

"The version that passed the House is not a good deal for students," Watts said. "While it's presumably well-intentioned, it's definitely ill-constructed."

Dome Memo: Effective ethics

RACE TO ETHICS: Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue unveiled a package of proposed ethics reforms and Republicans were quick to claim they were the party of ethics. With both parties running on ethics, might we actually see meaningful reforms this year?

FOR EFFECT: The Senate is losing some of its most effective Democrats, according to the biennial legislative effectiveness survey by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. Over in the House, Republicans were mostly shut out of the top spots for effectiveness. '

THANK HIM LATER: Democratic U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge says he's not worried about how his vote on the Democratic health care law will affect his chances of keeping his seat in Congress. The bill was not popular in his district, but Etheridge said that he believes voters will change their minds.

IN OTHER NEWS: Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr says he has $5.3 million in his campaign account. Ruffin Poole, an aide to former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley has pleaded not guilty to 57 corruption-related charges. Republicans are keeping up the pressure on Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper to join a multi-state lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the health care reform law.

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