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20 states give public pensions to private lobbyists including North Carolina

At least 20 states offer public pensions to non-government employees, a recent review by the Associated Press found, and North Carolina is among them.

As The News & Observer reported in 2011, the N.C. League of Municipalities, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians police officers are among those that get government pensions under special provisions approved by state lawmakers.

Hankins to retire from league of municipalities

Ellis Hankins announced Tuesday his plans to retire as executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, the main voice for cities and towns in the state.

Hankins has been executive director since 1997 and had previously served as the league's assistant general counsel, associate general counsel, general counsel and chief lobbyist, before leaving for a period for private law practice.

Hankins will remain with the league through January.

“It has been a great privilege to work for great public servants across North Carolina,” Hankins said. “I'm very proud what the League has helped our municipal membership accomplish. We have had many successes and also weathered many challenges. I am confident that the league and our cities and towns are well positioned for success in the future.''

Public backs voter photo IDs, but would accept affidavits new polls shows

A new poll shows strong support for a new photo ID bill, but also finds the public would not turn a voter away if they showed alternative forms of identification.

The poll by SurveyUSA found that 75 percent of voters back a voter photo ID bill. But 70 percent would not turn a way a registered voter who doesn't have one if the voter signs an affidavit and provides a verifiable number such as a date of birth or social security number.

The poll was commissioned by the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and it comes as the House Elections Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday afternoon. The bill does not include the back up option.

The poll found that 74 percent of voters agreed with the statement that “legislators should show evidence of significant problems, such as real voter fraud, before they pass law that make voting more difficult.''

The poll of 803 registered voters was taken April 11 through April 14th and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

NC cities get a new chief lobbyist

Paul Meyer has been appointed director of governmental affairs at the North Carolina League of Municipalities. Meyer succeeds Kelli Kukura, who recently resigned to become state government affairs director for Duke Energy. Meyer had served the league's chief legal counsel since 2009 and before that worked for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

Berger tells cities to back off annexation lawsuits

Senate leader Phil Berger has sent a letter to North Carolina municipal officials warning them about using the courts to challenge the constitutionality of the new restrictions on annexation passed by the legislature this year.

Berger warns local officials if they persist in filing suits, the legislature could consider a number of bills, including those that would roll back previously passed annexations, when it returns in May.

“If necessary, these matters will be heard by the legislature to ensure North Carolina taxpayer money is not wasted on frivolous and abusive legal maneuvers,” Berger wrote in a letter dated Dec. 21 to Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, the group that represents cities and towns.

Copies of the letters were also sent to mayors of Goldsboro, Kinston, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Rocky Mount and Lexington. All of those cities have pending legal actions involving annexation laws.

The move was immediately hailed by annexation opponents.

“Senator Berger and the North Carolina have taken a principled stand that they will not allow stubborn mayors and city officials to ignore our recently-enacted victory over forced municipal annexation,” said Dallas Woodhouse, director of Americans for Prosperity – North Carolina, a conservative activist group.

But annexation supporters took a different view.

“We have a great deal of respect for Senator Berger and appreciate all he has tried to do to insure that our communities continue to grow for the benefit of all involved,” said Kelli Kukura, the league's lobbyist. “The League of Municipalities is not party to this lawsuit. We also respect the local elected officials, obviously, who fully followed the law as it existed at the time related to these annexations and now they feel it is appropriate to represent their citizens and seek a judicial opinion.”

Berger said the new restrictions on annexations were a compromise.

Senate candidates pitch jobs programs

JOBS RULE: With North Carolina mired in a painful recession, the Democratic U.S. Senate hopefuls are portraying themselves as jobs candidates, offering a smorgasbord of proposals to try to stimulate the economy.

The Democrats are proposing tax credits, tax cuts, extended unemployment benefits and more worker retraining programs. They're also talking tough on foreign trade. (N&O)

MINI-VEGAS? The Wilmington City Council is considering a temporary moratorium on new sweepstakes parlors — which offer an experience virtually indistinguishable from video gambling. For now the courts say the businesses are legal. (Wilmington Star-News)

DEFAULT CHANGED: Chapel Hill's mayor has criticized the N.C. League of Municipalities for changing its insurance plans to assume that towns do not want abortion coverage for employees. (N&O)

Full House will hear records bill

A bill that would all but guarantee attorneys fees for those who sue over public records cleared a key committee Wednesday morning.

The bill's supporters narrowly escaped an amendment that would have also guaranteed attorneys fees if a government agency wins a records lawsuit. The amendment failed on a tie vote.

The amendment's sponsor, Rep. Bill Owens, an Elizabeth City Democrat, was necessary to ensure that news organizations and state residents don't flood government with frivolous lawsuits.

"It's said we need to look out for the people's information," Owens said. "We need to look out for the people's money as well."

Supporters of the original bill said that government agencies, cities, counties and towns are not above using their staff attorneys to stonewall citizens.

"Since when has fighting city hall been described as a level playing field?" said Rep. Edgar Starnes, a Hickory Republican.

Owens amendment, or one like it, seems likely to resurface when the bill hits the House floor, possibly next week.

More after the jump.

Open meetings bill clears key committee

A bill that would make it easier for people to collect attorneys fees if they win public records lawsuits, cleared a key House committee intact this week.

Versions of the same bill have sailed through the Senate in previous sessions only to stall in the House. Speaker Joe Hackney didn't like previous versions of the bill because they stripped all discretion away from judges hearing public records lawsuits.

The current bill, modeled on a Texas law, requires a judge to award attoneys fees in cases that are won substantially. Fees don't have to be awarded in close calls. Hackney supports the current version.

The bill also establishes a unit within the Attorney General's office to mediate public records and open meetings disputes.

"We prefer that people don't go to court in the first place," said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

The N.C. Press Association supports the bill. The Association of County Commissioners and League of Municipalities do not. The bill still has one more committee to clear before the full House can vote on it.

Update: Post now explains Hackney's stance on the current bill. 

Bowles names Watkins UNC lobbyist

The UNC system has a new lobbyist.

Anita S. Watkins, legislative counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, will serve as vice president for government relations for the multi-campus UNC system, Eric Ferreri reports.

She replaces Andy Willis, who resigned earlier this month to become a senior adviser to Gov. Beverly Perdue.

UNC President Erskine Bowles announced her appointment today. It is effective Jan. 26.

Watkins will serve as the university's primary liaison to the state legislature, the governor's office and state government agencies. She will also work with Bowles, the UNC Board of Governors and senior staffers to develop policies and programs.

She holds a law degree and a master's degree in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as undergraduate degrees in political science and Spanish from N.C. State University.

After graduating from NCSU in 1994, she served for three years as a research assistant in the office of state Senate leader Marc Basnight. She later was senior policy analyst for the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources before going to the League of Municipalities.

Claims Dept: Perdue's 'Floating' ad

Democrat Beverly Perdue's campaign is running a new TV ad in her race against Republican Pat McCrory, accusing him of opposing a bill that would have allowed large landfills in North Carolina.

What the ad says: The ad shows pictures of garbage-filled barges in New York Harbor and newspaper stories about a 2007 bill. Announcer: "It's trash day in New York City. What will they do with all that garbage? If Pat McCrory becomes our governor, that won't be a problem. Because McCrory wants to let New York and New Jersey dump their garbage in North Carolina. Newspapers say we would become the garbage capital of the East Coast. It's no surprise McCrory's gotten thousands of dollars from landfill owners. Pat McCrory, don't let him dump on us."

The background: The ad refers to the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007. Favored by environmentalists, the bill was designed to restrict new landfills in the state.

It was spurred by concerns that private regional landfills would turn N.C. into one of the country's top five importers of trash. One landfill, proposed for rural northeastern North Carolina, would have buried up to 3 million tons of garbage a year and create a trash mountain 270-feet high.

McCrory cited the measure as an example of the kind of bill he would veto as governor. But he calls the ad a distortion.

That's because the bill also included new taxes on municipalities. An early version would have charged minicipalities $2.50 per ton to dump trash and debris.

The N.C. League of Municipalities also opposed the bill, at least at first.

It dropped its opposition after winning concessions such as getting a larger share of the proceeds to local governments and lowering the so-called tip tax to $2.

McCrory did receive a contribution this year from Lonnie Poole of Raleigh, chairman of Waste Industries.

Is it accurate? Technically. He did oppose the bill and it does restrict large corporate landfills in the state.

But did McCrory want to create a series of trash mountains? Doubtful. The Charlotte mayor, like the League of Municipalities, wanted to save cities from the taxes the bill carried.

— Jim Morrill

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