State sticks counties with surprise election tab

fr electionmoneyCounties in North Carolina are being forced to shoulder the burden of electronic voting machines alone after the General Assembly turned down federal aid that would have greatly offset the costs.

State pledges to clamp down on improper activity at Haywood DOT

coverWaste, favoritism and possible fraud and corruption by state highway workers in Haywood County enriched a local contractor and cost state taxpayers, according to a sweeping investigation released late last week by the N.C. State Auditor’s Office.

Wielding a symbolic veto against fracking’s unknown downsides

 

out naturalistGov. Perdue has to be weary. This weariness was apparent months ago when she declared she would not seek re-election. Her vetoes are little more than symbolic with the current make up of the General Assembly and here she is with another bombshell on her desk — fracking in North Carolina.

Here’s the simple fracking definition according to the oil and gas industry: hydraulic fracturing is the benign process of injecting fluids that are primarily composed of water and sand and maybe a couple of chemicals, at high pressure, into shale or other rock formations to create cracks that then allow the natural gas to escape and be captured.

It’s time to reverse this regressive course North Carolina is headed down

By Martin Dyckman • Guest Columnist

My wife and I moved here from Florida because we wanted to live in a state that valued its people, its environment, and its future as much as North Carolina did. We knew this would mean paying a state income tax, but we considered the value we would be getting in return.

Campaign to save specialty plates hits road block in the Senate

An effort to save those colorful specialty license plates has stalled in the N.C. Senate, which seems reluctant to take a bill up that would spare the popular plates.

Supporters of the specialty plates have rallied to save them from the chopping block. Lawmakers last year passed a bill that would gut the iconic plates, stripping them of their full color images such as the black bear, the scenic

All hands on deck: live gaming approved by state

coverAfter nearly a decade of negotiations and broken promises, the state finally approved an agreement that allows table games with live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

The Eastern Band has worked since the early 2000s to get the state’s John Hancock on a live gaming compact, and now, it’s just a matter of weeks before the longtime dream comes to fruition.

With a nose for trouble, K9s are put on trial

By Paul Clark  • Contributor •

Norris Bunch called his dog Maxo to attention. Maxo, alert and ready, waited for his release.

Barbara Holt, a judge for the U.S. Police Canine Association, gave the go-ahead, and Bunch, a K9 handler at the nuclear Savannah River Site, shouted for Maxo to move.

Laser-quick, Maxo charged toward the “decoy” – a fellow K9 officer acting as a criminal suspect. The decoy had a 25-yard head start on the football field at Waynesville Middle School. And, he certainly had the sympathy of the civilians spending a sunny June morning watching the police dog trials from the stands.

Fate of live dealers hinges on state House

The quest to bring live table games to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino faces a final political hurdle.

Both the Governor and N.C. Senate have given live table games their blessing, with the N.C. House of Representatives now the lone hold-out.

Harrah’s Casino is limited to video-based gambling only. Adding live table games like roulette and poker would attract a new clientele of player, and in turn more money and jobs flowing through the entire region, according to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“We aren’t going to see a big influx of industry coming in to Western North Carolina, so we have to do what we can to ensure we have economic development,” said Rep. Roger West, R-Marble. West sees the casino, which could employ more than 2,000 if it gets live dealers, as a key economic pillar that spins off in the region.

Whether the Eastern Band has the requisite votes to get the measure passed is unclear at the moment, however. But West is hopeful.

“I think the votes are there. If they aren’t, it is just a matter of getting them,” said West, who represents Macon, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties.

However, many of the House legislators who are opposing live dealers cite moral and religious grounds, and convincing them to relinquish their convictions in the name of economic development might not be easy.

“My opposition stems from my longstanding belief that state sanctioned gambling has a corrosive effect on our society,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the good the casino has done in the region outweighs any negatives.

“I remember the days before they had Harrah’s — it has brought a whole lot of prosperity to the Eastern Band,” Haire said.

Haire said the jobs provided by Harrah’s are significant, not only the salaries but the health insurance. And Haire personally enjoys going to the concerts at Harrah’s major performance venue. He saw Diana Ross recently, and is headed to see Natalie Cole this weekend.

Haire hopes Cherokee’s casino operation won’t be held hostage to personal ideology.

“I think some people want to put a moral tag on it, but nobody makes you go to Cherokee to gamble. It is all voluntary,” Haire said.

Rapp was willing to go along with live table games for the existing casino campus, since gambling was already going on there. But Rapp is not comfortable with the prospect of Cherokee opening more casinos in the region on their land holdings.

The deal initially inked with the governor would have permitted Cherokee to open more casinos anywhere on land holdings it owned currently.

However, in an attempt to assuage legislators uncomfortable with expansion of gambling onto some of Cherokee’s more recently acquired holdings, new language was added. The new language limits the Eastern Band to a max of four more casinos, and they can only be built on land under the tribe’s domain as of 1988 — making newer land acquisitions off the table.

Live table games passed the senate last week by 33 to 14. All four state senators from the mountains voted for it: Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin; Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine; Sen. Tom Apadoca, R-Hendersonville; and Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

The tribe has hired lobbyist Steve Metcalf, a former legislator from Asheville, to shepherd live table games through the General Assembly. Metcalf declined to comment for this article.

A vote could come as early as next week. If it doesn’t come, it could be a bad sign.

“You never go to a vote unless you have the votes,” West said.

The General Assembly will only be in session for about six weeks.

 

Education fight resolved

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to reach where it is now. In an historic agreement signed with Gov. Bev Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would grant live dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

While Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

The Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money.

A compromise was reached that places the money in a special “Indian Gaming Education Revenue Fund.” The General Assembly can tap the fund at will — so it does put legislators hand in the till — but they have to hold a special vote to get money out. Otherwise, the money will be disbursed quarterly to school systems across the state based on their student body population, and can only be spent on “classroom teachers, teacher assistants, classroom materials or supplies, or textbooks.”

Annexation and fracking and voter ID, oh my! A look at the General Assembly’s short session

While arguments over the state budget are likely to dominate everything in Raleigh as the General Assembly convenes for the next six weeks, there are certain bills and aspects of the budget making their way through the chambers that are of special interest to this region.

Annexation, automobile inspections and certain local bills will be considered during this short session. But the budget is definitely the gorilla in the room, the three lawmakers — Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva; and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — from this region unanimously agreed.

“That’s the major point of why you even have the short session,” Rapp said of the budget.

Aspects of the state’s financial plan as written by GOP House budget writers will be unveiled for the first time this week, Rapp said, which will undoubtedly set the stage for fierce debate between the two parties.

Education is likely to emerge as the hot-button issue in regards to the budget. Schools are losing federal stimulus money and are looking at steep budget cuts if things stay as they are. Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed increasing the education budget by $785 million using new sales tax revenue. But while Republicans have indicated they want to find more money for schools, that might be difficult in these fiscally austere times and with their promises of adhering to a fiscally austere budget path and stout opposition to a sales tax hike.

“This has major implications in education,” Rapp said. “There’s the possibility of losing more teachers and school employees — this is the frontline battle that will grab headlines (this) week.”

In regards to various bills that are moving through the General Assembly, Davis said the one on annexation is capturing a lot of attention.

“This is particularly aimed at some municipalities that have involuntarily annexed people in outlying areas. In some cases the people haven’t received services for 12 years,” Davis said.

The State senate last week approved two bills that were written in response to a judge who disallowed annexation rules passed in 2011, Rapp said.

One bill would kill certain annexations that have already taken place and the other gives people the ability to stop a municipality from annexing their land into the town limits against their will.

“That one says that if you want to annex an area you have to have a referendum and a plurality of people must say they want to have this happen,” Davis said.

One GOP-backed proposal that Davis supported did not make the cut. Under the proposal, new-car owners wouldn’t have to get safety inspections until the cars were more than three years old.

Davis said he favored the idea because the safety inspection of new cars seems unnecessary. The proposal went down in flames, however, under a barrage of phone calls and lobbying by garage owners who make money off the inspections.

Fracking, a method of extracting natural gas hydraulically, is another hot-button issue identified by area lawmakers. There are several bills that will be introduced promoting fracking that are expected to pass. If they do, North Carolina would form an oil and gas board to oversee the procedure. Conservationists oppose fracking as posing an unnecessary risk to the environment.

Davis also pointed to voter identification as another bill to keep an eye on. This is a holdover from the 2011 session. The bill would require that voters show photo identification at the polls before they could vote. Democrats have fought the bill as a voter-rights violation.

On a more local level, several bills are being introduced that are of special interest to this region.

In yet another step in a tangled tale, Haire is introducing a bill that would allow Jackson County to delay the implementation of legislation passed last year seeking an additional 3 tax on overnight lodging.

The county inadvertently triggered a mandate governing county tourism entities when it sought the room tax increase, requiring it to form a single tourism development authority. Jackson County has had two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of debate. In the meantime, the county learned recently that its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

Haire said that his bill would give Jackson County until Jan. 1 to make that change, giving county leaders the opportunity to best decide what structure the single countywide tourism agency should take.

Davis, for his part, is overseeing legislation that would finalize an agreement between Graham and Swain counties over Fontana Dam money.

Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam and hydropower generators. The dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators. This bill nails down the dividing line as an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam that surveyors discovered.

Rapp is introducing a bill that would restore funding to the N.C. Center for the Advancement for Teaching. The center would receive $3 million in recurring funds beginning July 1 from the Department of Public Instruction under the bill.

The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million last year.

The 25-year institution is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development. In Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated because of the budget cut.

The short session is expected to conclude July 4.

“The rumor down here was if you wanted to make plans for the Fourth of July you could do so,” Haire said.

WNC cops frustrated by lack of drug, alcohol testing at regional crime lab

Waynesville Police Department is one of several law enforcement agencies hoping to see an expansion of the Western North Carolina crime lab in the next several years to speed up processing, trials and convictions of offenders.

“Our evidence has to go all the way to Raleigh,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. “We would love to see the expansion of the lab in Western North Carolina.”

The current lab serving WNC, based in the Skyland area of Asheville, can run tests to identify specific drugs and fingerprints as well as process firearms, tool markings and fire-related evidence. However, it is not certified to run toxicology tests, which are most often used to show an individual’s blood alcohol concentration or if they have ingested any drugs. Those tests can only be run at the state lab in Raleigh.

“Right now, our biggest backlog in the system … is toxicology,” Hollingsed said.

What ends up happening is situations like this: A police officer pulls over and arrests a motorist suspected of driving under the influence. At some point, a blood sample is drawn and sent to the lab in Raleigh. While town and county law enforcement officials wait for the results, prosecutors must repeatedly ask for the judge to postpone a hearing or trial as they wait for the results. However, a judge will only delay a case for so long. And, without the toxicology report or other proof that a person was over the legal limit or on drugs, an offender may get off or get a looser punishment than the crime deserves.

Defense attorneys may also request that the crime lab technician who conducted the testing appear in court. In that case, the lab technician must spend a whole day driving from Raleigh to Western North Carolina and back — precious time that could be spent testing evidence for other cases.

“It’s breaking the state,” Hollingsed said.

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