Baskerville, Bryant share from a 'challenging environment'

Apr. 05, 2013 @ 05:52 PM

Lobby representatives with the N.C. Justice Center teamed up with state Sen. Angela Bryant and state Rep. Nathan Baskerville to present a comprehensive update on legislative issues Thursday night at Shiloh Baptist Church on College Street.

Baskerville, a Henderson Democrat, said that with Republicans in charge, every proposal, every argument, has to appeal to their total focus on economic development.

“This is a new environment, it is a challenging environment,” Baskerville said. “I go to work everyday trying to figure out how to navigate that new environment. I am racking my brain to try to figure out ways to be effective.”

Issues that seem to be slipping the wrong way, according to Baskerville, Bryant and three presenters with the justice center include tax reform, health care, unemployment assistance and Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget.

Also disliked, according to several others who spoke during the two-hour meeting, are proposals on voter identification rules and taking voter rights away from convicted felons for five years in addition to time served in prison.

Cedric Johnson with the justice center said the proposed tax bill raises tax burdens on the lower 80 percent of income earners through sales tax and user fee increases, but the upper one-percent of the wealthy will see taxes lowered for them.

“We would like to see the state move away from that,” Johnson said. “The huge debate will be around tax reform.”

He added the Earned Income Tax Credit will be allowed to evaporate with its predetermined timeout clause not extended, impacting hundreds of thousands of families.

“The least among us are being asked to pay more,” Johnson said, “basically taking us back instead of taking us forward.”

On health care, Republicans have formed a block against expanding Medicare with the implementation of the Obama administration’s federal Affordable Care Act.

“It would have been 100 percent paid for by the federal government, and the Republicans have decided to send that money back,” said Nicole Dozier, assistant director with Health Access Coalition, a project of the justice center. “Expanding Medicaid would save 3,000 lives a year.”

She added the move against expansion impacts 500,000 North Carolinians by keeping them from having equal access to health care options.

Sen. Bryant, a Democrat from Rocky Mount, said activism from voters is key to turning that debate around.

“We need to get to the CEOs, get to the legislators and apply pressure,” Bryant said.

“Our rural hospitals like Maria Parham are bearing the brunt of this,” Baskerville said. “We were going to get the money from the federal government, and then there would be 23,000 new jobs created and people would be healthier. This is not ideology, it is common sense. It is dollars and cents. We went the wrong way.”

Daniel Bowes, an attorney and lobbyist with the justice center, said his work on improving projects to help offenders as they leave the state prison system is one of the few areas he found bipartisanship support.

He added that a Senate bill to add a five-year loss of voter rights to the end of felony sentences is an affront to North Carolina’s progressive stance apart from other states to restore voter rights as soon as a convicted felon is finished serving time.

“We see it as a huge barrier,” Bowes said. “We believe in the right to vote as fundamental.”

Bryant added people should beware that black voters will be disproportionately impacted by the new rules, including proposed changes to voter identification laws.

“It is another fight we are going to have,” Bryant said. “Our belief is that any barrier to voting is unconstitutional.”

A difficult burden to bear will be changes in unemployment assistance, according to Baskerville. He said cuts to employer unemployment taxes years ago coupled with job losses put the state about $1 billion in debt to the federal government.

Two corrections include a temporary tax on employers totaling about $20 million annually and permanent cuts to benefits totaling $200 million a year.

“We have got to pay the money back, I agree with that, but this is not a balanced approach,” Baskerville said.

Proposed are cuts that reduce the maximum weekly benefit from about $535 to about $350, and reducing benefit weeks available to the unemployed from 26 to 20, with a mandate to accept any job offer at 120 percent of the weekly benefit or higher or be terminated from the program.

Presenters said McCrory’s budget takes all $65 million from the Golden LEAF Foundation, all $10 million from the N.C. Rural Center, $10 million from the N.C. Biotechnology Center and all $3.8 million from the N.C. Community Development Initiative, to fund a new public-private economic development plan.

However, while the cuts will hurt rural areas, “takes all” is not accurate. For example, McCrory’s budget funds the N.C. Rural Center with $6 million. It is a $10 million reduction. The Biotech Center gets $7.2 million, which is $10 million less.

And the Golden LEAF cut, while all $65 million previously coming from the state is now diverted, does not affect its fund balance of $730 million.

“The moving of money has nothing to do with the merit of those organizations,” Abdul Rasheed with Community Development, said. “It happened and we didn’t get a day in court. They’re taking from organizations with long, successful histories and talking about starting from scratch. How does that improve efficiency?”

Bryant said that the Senate version of the budget is likely to have differences from the McCrory version, so the debate is not over in Raleigh.

“They want to reduce taxes, that’s their primary goal,” Bryant said. “There may be some changes, so there may be some hope.”

Baskerville called on continued partnership from all interested to organize effective responses to the new challenges.

“I’m fighting for us in the House,” he said. “This is a team effort.”

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com