CAGC: Short legislative session to be shorter because of HB2 controversy

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The Carolinas Associated General Contractors (CAGC) in its weekly legislative update indicates that the “short” North Carolina session may be shorter than usual because of the HB2 washroom issue. This may have impact on thwarting initiatives by twoMecklenburg County lawmakers to cancel the I-77 toll lane construction contract.

“Last week lawmakers convened the 2016 Legislative Session with the primary goal of amending the second year of a two-year biennial budget,” CAGC reported. “With an election coming up in November and the transgender bathroom law dominating the headlines, this session may be one of the briefest “short” sessions in recent history as legislators try to avoid any more controversy.”

“Legislative leaders seem determined to keep the (HB2) law despite nationwide criticism,” CAGC reports. Governor McCrory has asked lawmakers to repeal part of the law that eliminates the right of workers to sue under previously existing state employment discrimination law. Several repeal bills have been filed by Democrats but are not expected to get a hearing.”

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The I-77 project: While two legislators want the contract cancelled, it is unlikely to happen during the short session.

One impact of the shorter short session may be that two bills from Mecklenburg County lawmakers to cancel the I-77 toll lane construction contract will not likely gain much traction.

Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat, introduced House Bill 950 and Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, filed HB 954. Each would cancel the contract with I-77 Mobility Partners, a subsidiary of the Spanish firm Cintra. The $660 million project broke ground late last year. It would add center toll lanes to the interstate that serves the fast-growing Lake Norman area. Critics say the 50-year contract for Cintra to collect the toll revenue virtually precludes the state from adding any extra lanes for the length of the contract. Getting out of the contract would enact a penalty that’s been estimated to cost up to $300 million. Both measures says nothing in the bill “shall be construed as relieving the state from paying damages or other monetary penalties” from canceling the contract.

It’s not clear how any bill to stop the project would fare during the short session. Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County told reporters last week he hadn’t seen a specific proposal. But he didn’t seem inclined to support it. Cotham is running for Congress from the 12th District, which now includes north Mecklenburg County. Jeter is running for re-election against a well-funded Democrat after winning the March 15 primary.

CAGC says other agenda items include:

Budget: The General Assembly’s chief job during even-numbered years is to adjust the second year of the two-year budget approved last year. Additional funds at their disposal are anticipated due to tax collections that are slightly larger than projected. There is also a projected surplus from the current fiscal year that could provide additional one-time funding. The House is currently reviewing Governor McCrory’s budget proposal and will then offer its own plan. The Senate plan will follow. Legislative leaders will try to avoid lengthy negotiations like those that occurred last summer, when competing House and Senate plans were originally $685 million apart.

Taxes: Legislative Republicans seem interested during this election year to approve a tax cut that would disproportionately assist low- and middle-income filers. It also would help counter Democratic criticisms that tax changes in 2013 and 2015 benefited the wealthiest wage earners more. They are interested in raising the standard deduction. Senate Finance committee co-chairman Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said he expects colleagues will tweak recent tax changes that have resulted in broadening the sales tax to cover more services.

Employee pay: McCrory’s budget proposal would raise teacher pay on average by 5 percent, moving North Carolina’s average above $50,000. The raises would benefit most teachers, and those with at least 25 years’ experience who get no raises would receive $5,000 bonuses instead. The teachers getting raises also would get $1,100 bonuses. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said months ago that he expected across-the-board teacher raises closer to 2 percent. Senate Leader Berger said he supports the $50,000 goal but couldn’t say whether that was reachable in one year. The governor also wants to offer 3 percent bonuses to most state employees, with targeted raises in certain fields. But legislators should feel pressure from employee groups to provide across-the-board raises.

CAGC also reports that the latest polling results from the conservative Civitas Institute favor key Democratic candidates, but “as the poll sponsors say, it’s still a long way to November.”

“The main takeaway was Attorney General Roy Cooper with a 10-point lead over Gov. Pat McCrory, the first poll that has shown a significant lead for either candidate. There was also a strong showing by Raleigh Democrats. The poll put Josh Stein, a Democrat from Raleigh, leading state Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican from Wilson, 37 to 32 percent for attorney general; Dan Blue III, Raleigh Democrat, leading Dale Folwell, Republican from Winston-Salem, 39-27 percent for state treasurer; and Deborah Ross, Raleigh Democrat, trailing veteran incumbent U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, Republican from Winston-Salem, by only two points. But these snapshots of the campaigns are limited by their inability to anticipate what might happen between now and November.

Still, the poll follows weeks of backlash against the legislature and McCrory enacting a law that rolled back anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people. A full 85 percent of respondents said they had heard or read a great deal or some about the controversy. Those surveyed favored the law 61-29 percent, although they were asked to respond to pointed and somewhat convoluted questions about the issue. McCrory has been the most public recipient of criticism over HB2, while Cooper has laid relatively low so far this year. That is expected to change as both candidates cover more of the state. The poll was of 600 likely voters — making it a more accurate predictor than some other recent polls — with 30 percent of the interviews conducted on cell phones. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points, and the poll was taken April 23-25.

CAGC reports other highlights in the poll results:

  • Cooper not only lead McCrory 46-36 percent, but the governor’s unfavorable rating put him underwater for the first time: 39 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable. Cooper’s favorable rating was 35 percent and his unfavorable 20 percent.
  • Stein, a former state senator, leads Newton 37-32 percent, but 30 percent are undecided or lean toward one candidate or the other.
  • Similarly in the treasurer race, Blue, son of Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, leads Folwell, a former state representative, 39-27 percent; with 33 percent leaning or undecided.
  • In the U.S. Senate race, Burr leads Ross, a former representative, 37-35 percent; 21 percent are leaning or undecided, and Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh drew 6 percent.

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