Under the Dome

Morning Memo: McCrory quietly signs RJA, Social Security is landmine for GOP

TODAY AT THE STATEHOUSE: The growing consensus at the legislative building: state lawmakers may stay in session through mid-July. And the not-in-a-hurry pace is evident in today's calendar. Only a handful of committees will meet and most of the work is being done behind the scenes among select lawmakers negotiating the tax bill and state budget. A bill allowing coastal jetties will draw a crowd in the 10 a.m. House Environment Committee. And on the floor, the House will consider a measure to up the speed limit to 75 mph in some places. The Senate will debate a bill that could allow mega-dumps for out-of-state trash, a political hot potato the McCrory administration now supports.

Gov. Pat McCrory will meet with legislators in the morning before attending a ribbon cutting in Greenville for a children's hospital at Vidant Medical Center and meeting with N.C. League of Municipality officials later in the day at the mansion.

McCRORY SIGNS RACIAL JUSTICE ACT: Talk about burying the lead -- Just before 6 p.m., the governor's office announced that he signed 56 bills Wednesday. Among them: the Racial Justice Act. It was tucked into the long list at the bottom, noted only by its bill number. From AP -- Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature Wednesday repealed a landmark law that had allowed convicted murderers to have their sentences reduced to life in prison if they could prove racial bias influenced the outcome of their cases. McCrory signed a repeal of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which both proponents and critics say will restart the death penalty in a state that hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006.

***More on the Racial Justice Act, the GOPs latest political problem and McCrory's agenda below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

McCRORY ON RACIAL JUSTICE ACT: Republicans say it was so poorly crafted that it has allowed nearly all of the state’s 156 death-row inmates to launch appeals under the law regardless of their race. They say the law impedes the will of unanimous jury decisions. McCrory raised similar complaints in a statement.

“The policy implementation of the law was seriously flawed. Nearly every person on death row, regardless of race, has appealed their death sentence under the Racial Justice Act,” he said. “The state’s district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the Racial Justice Act created a judicial loophole to avoid the death penalty and not a path to justice.” But Democrats argue there’s plenty of evidence that those juries were racially biased.

McCrory’s signature was a quiet end for legislation that produced repeated, bruising political battles. The law, one of only two like it in the country, was adopted after months of contention along party lines and much opposition from prosecutors, law enforcement organizations and victims’ rights advocates. Full story.

RURAL CENTER PROMISES REVIEW: The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center said Wednesday it will conduct a “timely, aggressive, and responsive” review of its grants after reporting in The News & Observer raised questions about how taxpayer money has been handled by the nonprofit organization. The Rural Center’s board chairwoman, Valeria Lee, wrote in a letter to board members Wednesday that she would appoint an eight-person committee to address “the concerns of board members and the public” by July 31 about how the center awards, monitors and reports on its grants. The committee will be headed by former state Rep. Carolyn Justice, a Pender County Republican who did not seek re-election last year. Full story.

BAD POLITICS ON SOCIAL SECURITY PLAGUE TAX BILL: As Republicans continue to work behind the scenes to strike a tax deal, Social Security is one major sticking points between the House and Senate bills – and a thorny political problem. Senate leaders, in an unusual step, sent the tax legislation tentatively approved last week back to a committee Wednesday while they negotiate with House lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory to find a compromise measure before the end of session.

The Senate bill puts a state tax on Social Security income for some seniors with other sources of income. The House plan doesn’t touch it. And the governor has expressed concerns about the Senate approach. “It seems like the GOP is willing to grab, with both hands, the third rail of American politics – taxing Social Security benefits,” said Michael Bitzer, a political expert at Catawba College. “While the Republicans want to fundamentally restructure the state’s tax code, this rail has too many volts of electricity, especially with AARP coming out and announcing their opposition to it.”

VOTERS REACT: Everett Conn can’t believe state lawmakers are even proposing to tweak Social Security, particularly after voting to put Republicans in power. “I did. Lord, forgive me,” he said. “There are some things they’ve done that I do support. But this is one that just would totally wipe me out from supporting them.” Full story.

McCRORY AGENDA ADVANCES: Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who took office five months ago promising to shake up the status quo after 20 years of Democratic rule, saw his change agenda pick up momentum Wednesday. The state House began moving his plan to turn the Department of Commerce’s economic development functions over to a nonprofit corporation. The legislature also gave final approval to the first rewrite of the state’s highway funding formula in a quarter of a century.

McCrory also tasked the state’s education leadership to come up with a major plan to improve North Carolina’s public schools in time for the 2014 legislature next May. The governor and administration officials couched all three initiatives as efforts to address North Carolina’s persistently high unemployment rate of 8.9 percent.

Unlike some of his earlier decisions – such as his support for curtailing unemployment benefits and his opposition to expanding Medicaid – McCrory’s proposals received broad bipartisan support Wednesday. At times, McCrory seems to have taken a back seat to the legislature on such major issues as proposals to overhaul the state tax system. But on Wednesday, the governor put his stamp on legislation. Full story.

MORE: On his Commerce plan HERE. And on his education initiative to boost teacher pay (not this year though) HERE.

FIRST LADY REBUFFED: First Lady Ann McCrory called for the passage of a so-called puppy mill bill -- but the Senate said no thanks. The famously private McCrory did not take any questions at her first press conference. More from the mansion: In her first press conference as First Lady, Ann McCrory spoke out Wednesday in favor of legislation restricting puppy mills that has languished in a Senate committee since being passed by the House last month. Puppy mills, or large, commercial dog breeding facilities, treat dogs poorly, raising them without exercise or proper nutrition, McCrory said. She spoke in front of the Governor’s Mansion, standing between the bill’s two main sponsors, House Republicans Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville and Jason Saine of Lincolnton. Full story.

TOP GOP LAWMAKER STAYS ON THE OUSTIDE: State Sen. Bob Rucho remains in a standoff with his own party’s leadership over his decision last week to resign his Finance Committee co-chairmanship. The Matthews Republican sat with the rank-and-file members at a committee meeting Wednesday instead of taking his normal position on the dais. But Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger reiterated his position that Rucho’s appointment hasn’t been withdrawn. Full story.

NONPROFITS FIGHT TAX BILL: Nonprofits have vowed to fight a Senate plan that would eliminate incentives for individuals to donate and put a cap on the amount that charities can receive in sales tax refunds. The Senate plan calls for eliminating itemized deductions on state income taxes, including charitable deductions. At a news conference Wednesday, officials with the N.C. Center for Nonprofits directed much of their criticism at the proposed sales tax cap, which would impact larger nonprofits like universities and hospitals. Full story.

YOU KNOW IT'S A CAMPAIGN WHEN … U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan's office is now making comments about the opening of a fire station in Cary. Her press office passed along this statement in case anyone wanted to know where the Democratic incumbent stands on fire stations. The statement: “Cary is a safer community today because of the opening of Fire Station 8,” said U.S. Senator Kay Hagan. “I am working in the Senate to make sure we continue investing in our first responders who keep our communities safe. They deserve the tools and resources that will protect them as they work to protect our families.”  

SENATE, McCRORY ADMINISTRATION BACKS LANDFILL BILL: A state Senate committee voted Wednesday to ease some landfill restrictions imposed six years ago by reducing the distances that dumps must be from protected lands and narrowing the reasons why permit applications can be rejected. The measure would roll back a 2007 law designed at the time to discourage out-of-state trash from being shipped to eastern North Carolina. Most Senate Finance Committee members in attendance voted for the legislation, which scales back restrictions approved when Democrats led the General Assembly. Democrats then were seeking to stop construction of at least four large landfills Down East. Republicans now control both chambers of the legislature and the governor's mansion. Full story.

COUNTY PASSES RESOLUTION OPPOSING TAX PLANS: The Brunswick County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution earlier this week opposing the state legislature's tax overhaul plans, calling them "defacto unfunded mandate." The local board is worried that state lawmakers will cut their revenues as part of the tax bills being negotiated between the House and Senate. The Senate's plan is particularly worrisome to local governments, who are warning it could lead to property tax increases.

US AG OFFICIALS VISIT DURHAM: Two U.S. Department of Agriculture officials visited Durham on Wednesday to see an example of an emerging business model for distributing regionally grown, mostly organic foods. Durham’s Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) hosted Acting Agriculture Deputy Secretary Michael Scuse and Agriculture Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo for a roundtable discussion and a tour of the Pettigrew Street warehouse the company shares with other businesses. The discussion, which was closed to the public and media, covered immigration, food safety, labor practices, and federal support for regional food systems and small businesses. Full story.

BILL EXPANDS BREAST CANCER AWARENESS: Rep. John Faircloth, husband to a breast cancer survivor, sponsored a bill promoting the issue of dense breast tissue. The bill, which passed unanimously through the Senate Health Care Committee Wednesday, would expand the information in the letter women receive by mail after mammograms, telling them if they have dense breast tissue. “The research has shown that there are about one in four women (that) have dense breasts, that likely may have some abnormalities in them,” said Sen. Gladys Robinson, who also helped the bill along. “The lumps in those breasts could possibly be cancerous,” but don't always show up in mammograms. Some senators and doctors who spoke suggested that more should be done to provide women treatment, in addition to keeping them informed.

--Annalise Frank contributed


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