March Updates from Raleigh

I always look forward to the break between our legislative sessions, because it gives me time to meet with folks in the district and learn all I can about the issues that are most important for us here in Buncombe County. I'm especially excited about getting to join the students at Enka Middle School next week for their career day! I'll also be touring local correctional facilities in the coming weeks, taking a look around Buncombe County's new Health and Human Services Building and meeting with constituents. If I or my office can be of assistance to you, please don't hesitate to reach out to us.

 

More Than 15,000 Rape Kits Remain Untested

Attorney General Josh Stein announced this week that an inventory of evidence held by local law enforcement agencies found more than 15,000 rape kits remain untested around the state.  The Attorney General’s office, which saw its budget slashed by 40% last year, is working to devise a plan to process the untested kits. The total cost to process those kits is estimated to be more than $10 million. This is a critical public-safety measure, and I will continue to push for adequate funding for the Attorney General’s office to ensure that this backlog is eliminated and that every rape kit is processed quickly going forward.

North Carolina Continues to Face Adoption and Foster Care Shortages

North Carolina’s growing population and the increasing pressures of the opioid epidemic have left social workers around the state scrambling to find foster parents for more than 10,000 children. The state has seen a 25% increase in the number of children in need of foster care in the last five years, and that is putting tremendous strain on an a system that was already stretched too thin. The NC Department of Health and Human Services is the agency responsible for certifying foster families. If you are over 21, have a stable home and income, with no criminal record, you may be eligible. If you’d like to know more, contact NC Kids at (877) 625-4371.

GE Aviation Announces New Jobs in Buncombe County

I was glad to join to Governor Cooper last week for the announcement of GE Aviation's new investments in Buncombe County. Expansions to their facility will bring more than 130 new jobs to our area. GE has been an excellent community partner and I'm happy to see them increasing their investment and commitment to our area.

February Updates from Raleigh

We finally ended our special session last week and shouldn’t be back in Raleigh until May 16th when our short session begins. After more than 6 weeks we managed to accomplish only one thing—remedying the #ClassSizeChaos problem. Unfortunately, even that wasn’t done well. The bill included a trap door that could plunge our schools right back into the same chaos legislative leadership claimed to be rescuing them from. By including two highly controversial, unrelated issues and failing to include a severability clause, this small step forward could be threatened by future litigation about something wholly unrelated. Solutions that are designed to fail, aren’t solutions at all. We have to keep trying to do better by North Carolina’s students. You can read more about HB 90 here.

The Tragedy in Parkland

In the wake of last week’s tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida, it is clear, now more than ever, that we must do more to help reach every single child who needs extra support, counseling and mental health services. Here in North Carolina our school counselors, psychologists and social workers continue to be understaffed and under-resourced.  We do not come close to meeting national standards, and we have empirical evidence that levels of trauma reported by our school students continues to rise. I put forward a bill last year to study the issue and begin making changes to ensure we get these resources to the schools and students who need them most. You can read more about the bill in my op-ed from last year.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House (112-1), but it remains stalled in the Senate. I can only hope that with a renewed interest in addressing mental and behavioral health issues we can get this passed and start to make some changes. As students around the nation gather in protest and march to state capitals, it is our responsibility to show them that they are being heard and that we are ready to do more to support them in every way we can.

Broadband Comes to Sandy Mush Community Center

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Terri Wells and the rest of the Sandy Mush Community Center team, broadband internet is finally available at the community center. Nearly 500 people have already taken advantage of the new access to wireless internet. And, it has allowed the community center to offer an online High School Equivalency course. The first session, which begins March 7th, is already full, a true testament to the need that exists for these services.

I continue to work with Terri and our North Carolina Department of Broadband Services to try to extend vital internet services to all of the rural parts of our county.

While we struggle at the state level to find the political will to move that ball forward, I am immensely grateful for hardworking partners in the community who are willing to carry the torch.

You can help us document the need for broadband internet service by visiting www.ncbroaband.gov and entering your speed information.

Growing Our Outdoor Recreation Industries

North Carolina’s outdoor recreation industry generates $19.2 billion for the state, and employs more than 190,000 people. From the beaches of the Outer Banks to our gorgeous mountain trails, folks flock from all around the country to enjoy our scenery. Here in the legislature, we are committed to continuing the development of this important and growing industry. Our most recent budget included an allocation for a new Outdoor Industry Recruitment Director, and last month David Knight was appointed to fill the position. David will lead the effort to promote North Carolina’s outdoor recreation economy and recruit new industry to the state. This is an excellent opportunity to pull new industry and jobs into our state’s rural communities and I look forward to seeing the progress he makes.
 

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Special Session Updates from Raleigh

This has been the special session that just won’t die. In our committee meeting yesterday, we finally got a look at the bill that was crafted behind closed doors over the last few weeks. We were given 20 minutes to read it and decide how to vote. It passed out of committee, and we'll be voting on it again on Tuesday. It’s a doozy.

Class Size Fix

For months our local schools have been grappling with the #ClassSizeChaos problem caused by the legislature mandating lower class sizes without the money to pay for them. Districts have been scrambling to comply with the law, eliminating art, music, and P.E. classes, combining classrooms, reassigning students to other schools, or putting students in trailers.  That kind of chaos and disruption has no place in our schools. We shouldn’t have to choose between kindergarten teachers and art teachers.

We’ve had unanimous support in the House for fixing this problem, but Senate Republicans have refused to budge. Now, after a year of pressure from PTAs, parents, teachers, and local school officials, Senate Republicans have finally agreed to fix the problem.  HB 90 will restore flexibility in class sizes, phase in the reduction, and provide funds dedicated to paying for art, music, and P.E. teachers.

Thank you to everyone who has called, written and e-mailed to bring pressure to bear for this long-awaited fix.  

Ending Pre-K Waiting List

HB 90 also funds one of my top legislative priorities: eliminating the pre-K waiting list.

North Carolina used to lead the nation in pre-K education.  Programs all around the country were based on the model of the Smart Start program started by Governor Hunt. But, years of neglect left us with a waiting list of thousands of kids who could not get the services they needed.  I’m glad we’re finally going to eliminate the waiting list.

The Catch (and there is always a catch)

With this supermajority, no good deed can stand on its own.  All of these good things are in danger because HB 90 doesn’t have a “severability clause,” a common clause in complicated bills that saves the constitutional pieces of a multi-part bill if one part is found unconstitutional.

Since HB 90 doesn’t have a severability clause, if part of the bill is unconstitutional, the whole bill could go down–including the class size fix and elimination of the pre-K waiting list. So, what’s the danger?

Well, two parts of HB 90 deal with unrelated issues, and they've been included in HB90 for political theater. The bill tries again to combine the State Board of Elections with the Ethics Commission, something leadership has already tried twice. Both attempts were unconstitutional. Now they’re trying a third time.  If the provision is struck down, the rest of the bill goes with it.

The other unrelated part of HB 90 deals with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The companies building the pipeline agreed to give North Carolina $58 million to protect the air and water, natural habitat and local farmers in the areas around the pipeline. 

HB90 forbids the Governor from using the money as he agreed to, purposefully setting up another constitutional battle between the Governor and legislative leaders, and if this part is found unconstitutional and gets struck down, so does the rest–plunging our school systems right back into the chaos of the unfunded class size reduction, and forcing kids back on the waiting list for pre-K.

Solutions that are designed to fail aren't solutions at all. We can do better. 

I'll be back in Raleigh to vote on the bill on Tuesday. Hopefully the leadership hasn't dreamed up some newfangled problems by then.  

 

January Updates from Raleigh

Our special session is now entering its 4th week. This is very unusual. Usually in even years we have a short session that begins in May and ends in July. At this point, our "special" session is going to be almost as long as our regular session. And, we still aren't voting on bills. To meet the technical rules, a "skeleton" session is held every 3 days. Very few legislators are present (if any) and no bills move forward. I'm still working on constituent issues and attending committee meetings when they're scheduled. Here's an update on happenings around the state.

Hometown Strong

Governor Cooper is working hard to bring economic success to our state's rural communities. He launched a new initiative today called Hometown Strong. The Governor's team will work to form partnerships with local leaders to champion our rural communities, leveraging state and local resources, identify ongoing projects and community needs, and implementing focused plans to boost the economy, improve infrastructure and strengthen North Carolina’s hometowns. My hope is that bringing internet to every corner of the state will be one of the initiative's top priorities.

Redistricting and Election Lawsuits - Explained

North Carolina is leading the nation in election confusion. Two bills that were passed over the Governor's veto have been found unconstitutional and this week that garnered us more unwanted national attention. Security and stability in our elections is vital, and the unfortunate gamesmanship we've seen this year is irresponsible and dangerous.

Judicial Primary Elections

Our Constitution provides that voters elect our state judges. Traditionally, we have a primary just like we do for other offices. Last year Republicans cancelled those primaries for all judges, citing the need to redraw the districts. This week a federal judge blocked the cancellation of the statewide primaries for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals since no districts are being redrawn for those races, but did not block the cancellation of local primaries for Superior Court and District Court.

This may all get appealed, but as it stands now we will have statewide judicial primaries for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, but no primaries for local Superior Court and District Court judges.

State Board of Elections

The State Board of Elections is responsible for ensuring our elections run smoothly and that candidates and special interest groups are accurately reporting the money they raise and spend. For the last year, there has been no board. That's because just before Governor Cooper took office, the majority in the legislature passed a new law that changed the board and made it difficult for the Governor to appoint or remove members of the board. 

The NC Supreme Court upheld Governor Cooper's challenge to the law and now a lower court will sort out how we transition back to the old law. Right now, there is considerable confusion and uncertainty, but the Supreme Court’s ruling should put us back on a path to having elections administered fairly, as they have been for decades under both Republican and Democratic Governors.

Redistricting

Several lawsuits challenging our congressional and legislative districts are still working their way through the courts. The bottom line is that we will likely use the same districts for our 2018 Congressional elections that we used in 2016. Legislative districts across much of the state will change, but there is still uncertainty about where those lines will be for some districts. We should know about that next week, but the most likely outcome is we will use some districts drawn by a court-appointed expert and some districts drawn by the legislature. This won't affect Buncombe County because our district lines weren't challenged and haven't changed. If you really want to get into the details of the different lawsuits, NC Policy Watch has a helpful summary of the pending court cases.

We'll have more updates for you as soon as our special session ramps back up. 

December Updates from Raleigh

The General Assembly isn't in session right now, but there is still a lot of work happening in Raleigh as committees meet to get updates from state agencies. Last week, the Environmental Review Commission met to discuss pre-regulatory landfills, the Senate Select Committee on Judicial Reform and Redistricting met to discuss options for implementing legislative selection of judges, and the Joint Committee on Oversight of Health and Human Services met to receive updates on the state's takeover of Cardinal Innovations and the continuing implementation of NC FAST, just to name a few. If you have questions about the happenings in Raleigh, make sure you reach out to my office so we can get you the information you need.

Court Fees 

If you’ve ever had to deal with a speeding ticket, you know that court fees are often far more expensive than the actual fine. In fact, court fees for some minor offenses can run into the hundreds of dollars.

Until this year, we allowed judges to waive fees for someone who couldn’t afford to pay them, but leadership here in the General Assembly slipped a provision into the final budget this year that makes it virtually impossible for a judge to do that going forward.

The new rule requires that the judge hold a special hearing to give every governmental unit that would have gotten a share of the fees an opportunity to object. The cost of sending notices and holding additional hearings would overwhelm the resources of our local courts, and the likely result is that judges simply won’t be able to waive those costly fees for folks who can’t afford to pay them. That could spell disaster for families already teetering on the edge of poverty. If you are unable to pay the fee within 40 days, you could lose your license, and for a lot of folks in rural communities without access to public transportation, that could mean losing your job. We shouldn’t punish people for being poor, and that’s exactly what this law does. It’s wrong and the General Assembly ought to reverse it immediately. 

REAL ID   

Beginning in 2020, federal agencies will implement new, tougher security screenings and you’ll need the new REAL ID to board planes or enter some government buildings. Your state issued driver’s license or ID card can be your REAL ID, but you’ll need to apply for the upgrade at the DMV. You can get a list of the acceptable documentation you’ll need and answers to some other common questions on the DMV’s website.

There are over 7.3 million licensed drivers in North Carolina and only about 200,000 have applied for the new IDs so far. The DMV is encouraging folks to make the switch now so that the other 7 million don’t all show up at the same time in December of 2019! 

GenX 

The Department of Environmental Quality continues to find more drinking water wells contaminated with the chemical GenX near the Chemours plant in eastern North Carolina. There are more than 85,000 chemicals produced in manufacturing processes today that are not regulated by the federal government, and that means we must rely on our state agency to prevent them from being dumped into our rivers and lakes. Instead of working to ensure the department has the resources it needs to do that important work, the General Assembly this year slashed the department’s budget by millions of dollars and laid off experienced scientists and staff. Protecting our mountains and rivers is one of the most important things we do as a government, and we have to make sure we are providing DEQ with the resources and technology it needs to do that. 

Special Session

We'll be back in Raleigh next month for a special session. Unfortunately, as Democrats we are kept in the dark about what exactly is on the agenda until we get to Raleigh. We've heard that we may be voting on as many as 4 constitutional amendments. I hope that instead we will take the opportunity to resolve the crisis being created in our classrooms by the unfunded mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes and fund the important work being done by the Department of Environmental Quality. Watch your email for more updates in January!

Best,

Brian

NCGA Passes First Independent Districting Commission

NCGA Passes First Independent Districting Commission

Gerrymandering has been used by both political parties to hold onto power for years. It’s a dire threat to our electoral system, and it has led to increased polarization and gridlock. That's why I'm committed to fighting for independent redistricting, and I'm so glad that we took such a huge step forward today.

Rylan's Law: Protecting North Carolina's Children

Brian was a proud sponsor of Rylan's Law, a bill recently signed into law by Governor Cooper. The law makes important changes to our state's child welfare system to ensure that when we take the important step of reunifying families, we first ensure that the home is safe and the parents are ready to care for the child. Read more here.