Representatives expect session to focus on education, roads, health care

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Scott Jenkins

Salisbury Post

Education needs, road-funding questions and a potential budget shortfall are among the issues facing state legislators as the General Assembly convenes at noon today in Raleigh.

And local representatives say they’ll also push for a mechanism to replace the Interstate 85 bridge spanning the Yadkin River, though the nearly $200 million, 7-mile widening project that includes the bridge isn’t funded in the state’s current seven-year highway plan.

“They’re saying it will take all the money for District 9 (of which Rowan is part) for seven years,” Rep. Lorene Coates, a Democrat from Salisbury, said this week. “But I think sometimes we have to consider that a bridge or a road affects more than one county … because it affects everybody in this part of the state.”

The bridge is two lanes in each direction and will put a choke on traffic once the highway is widened to eight lanes north of Rowan County. In addition, the 50-year-old, narrow bridge has been listed as one of the most dangerous in the state by AAA Carolinas for several years running.

“We’ve got to make this bridge a priority as a state before somebody gets really hurt or there’s a really bad accident that shuts down commerce and economic activity for a few days,” said Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican from Davie County who represents Rowan in the N.C. Senate.

Brock introduced a bill last year that would have expedited replacing the bridge and funded the project separately from other state road projects. That legislation went nowhere, but Brock said it “attracted a lot of attention” to the problem and gained support for the project.

He plans to reintroduce the bill this session.

“I think we’re chipping away at it,” he said.

Rep. Fred Steen, a Republican from Landis, said he’s concerned about the bridge, too, and sees it as proof that interstates and the federal dollars to improve them should be taken out of the state’s equity formula, with remaining funds possibly distributed to counties to use as they see fit.

“We need to overhaul the whole system,” he said. “We’ve got to look at a formula that generates a common sense approach and I don’t know if we’ve got the votes to do it or get it on the table, but we’re going to try.”

When the House starts its new session, it will do so with a new Speaker. Coates, one of the first Democrats to call for former House Speaker Jim Black to step down amid legal and ethics troubles, said she believes incoming Speaker Joe Hackney will be “pretty much middle-of-the-road … working on the issues.”

Among those issues will be healthcare, Coates said. She has served on a committee studying how to provide access to health insurance to people who don’t have it, some because they’re terminally ill and can’t get insurance companies to cover them.

“I think we have to find a way to do that,” she said.

Education will continue to be a top priority, Coates said. She said accountability must be extended to students and parents and she believes the state will continue increasing teacher pay toward the national average.

“We can’t have the brightest and best teaching them if we don’t pay them,” she said.

The state’s mental health system and prison overcrowding are also on the legislative radar, she said.

Steen also pointed to education as a top issue this year. He said the state has to ask itself, “Are we happy with our current education system?” It’s that system that has landed Rowan-Salisbury Schools in corrective action, he noted.

“Locally, we have some very bright spots and we have some challenges,” he said. “Statewide, it’s the same thing.”

The legislature will look at tax reforms, also, Steen said. Property owners shouldn’t be continually asked to shoulder the burden for every expense, he said, but any revised system should be studied thoroughly.

“I think we need to be very cautious going forward and we need to be fair in how we apply those taxes,” he said.

Steen said he expects a death penalty moratorium to be discussed and believes he’ll probably be in the minority in opposing one.

Counties’ share of medicaid and expanded local options for school construction funding are other probable issues to be debated this year, Steen said. He and Brock will also continue to study Enochville residents’ request for an incorporation bill, but he believes Kannapolis, which is opposed, can still prevent incorporation.

“I don’t think it’ll happen,” he said.

Brock said the main issue for him this session will be finding ways to trim fat from the state budget.

Coates and Steen said it’s hard to tell how the budget will shape up until revenue numbers arrive in January and April, but Brock said the state is probably facing a $500 million to $1 billion hole because it spent one-time revenues on recurring expenses last year.

Brock said he sees that as “not a shortfall, but overspending.”

“I just see that spending needs to be kept under control this year and I think we need to see how we can make government more efficient,” he said.

One way to do that, he said, is to stop letting state agencies retain money they don’t spend on positions requested during the budget process, but instead return that money to state savings.

Brock sees prison overcrowding as a probable debate, also, and said he wants to find out why prison time isn’t putting more of a scare into potential offenders.

“Are they not tough enough?” he asked. “First, do we take out the basketball goals and weightlifting sets … do we make them make little rocks out of big rocks?”

Brock said he’d like to see a “home rule” bill reintroduced giving local governments more authority to pass laws, including some that would help fund school construction. He said the mental health system will come up in the Senate and he also hopes to focus on the state employee health and retirement plans. Those plans are funded now, Brock said, but he wants to make sure they remain in good shape.

Contact Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248 or