Senate Proposes to Scrap Driver’s Ed

The state Senate’s proposed budget would scrap the requirement that 15-to-17-year-olds have to complete driver’s education in order to get a learner’s permit. That would mean young drivers, like everyone else, could get a learner’s permit after the vision and multiple choice tests.

In place of driver’s ed., the proposed budget increases both the number of supervised driving hours required and the number of correct answers needed to pass the written driving test.

It’s a proposal that doesn’t sit well with Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

“We think it’s a public safety interest to make sure that students receive driver training,” LoFrese said. “It’s a public safety issue.”

Spruce Hill Republican Ralph Hise added the amendment after the Senate proposed to remove the $65 cap on driver’s ed. course fees and move driver’s education out of the public school system and into community colleges. The amendment, Hise said, is meant to ensure teens who can’t afford the drivers ed. fee or make it to a community college can still get a learner’s permit. LoFrese agrees with the sentiment.

“Not every county has a community college, and it’s difficult for students to get there,” he said.

But LoFrese says he hopes driver’s ed. remains both required and accessible to young drivers in public schools.

“Hopefully with the state budget process, it gets resolved and funding is provided for the program. But if it’s not, we need to be prepared to make the necessary changes,” he said.

The House has already passed its own appropriations bill. The two chambers and the governor will be in negotiations for weeks before they settle on a final budget.

Amidst Protesting, Sen. OKs Tougher Abortion Rules

RALEIGH – Despite the efforts of an estimated 500 protesters, including Chapel Hill Town Council member Sally Greene, the state Senate approved a controversial bill Wednesday that allows for tighter abortion restrictions.

House Bill 695 passed by a vote of 29-12, and will return to the House for a final vote on the changes.

The bill was pushed through the Senate in less than 24 hours with little public notice.

“This particular act that happened last night with no procedure. It was a wake-up call. I am impressed with how quickly people became mobilized and were here to bear witness to this bill which substantially eradicated the constitutional right for a safe and legal abortion in North Carolina,” Greene said.

In response to this legislation, an impromptu protest took place outside the General Assembly Wednesday morning. It was organized by the pro-choice group, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of North Carolina.

“It does seems to violate the kinds of processes that we have come to expect from our government at any level to allow time to deliberate what a bill is about, and what the actual consequence of it will be. It’s a terrible violation of process,” Greene said.

The new legislation would change clinic rules so they’re similar to those for ambulatory surgery centers – a move Planned Parenthood says will shut down providers. According to legislative staff, only one clinic in the state currently meets that standard. The state’s four Planned Parenthood clinics don’t meet the requirement, Greene explained. Other provisions of the bill would allow health care providers to choose not to provide abortion-related services and prohibit health federal health care plans from offering abortion coverage. It would  prevent state funds from being spent on abortions, and also city/county health plans from covering abortions, unless it is to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.

“They have the numbers, the Republicans have the numbers. As Sen. Angela Bryant (Dem.) said on the floor a few hours ago, they [the Republicans] will win the day today but they are not necessarily going to win the war. This is a long process and the people of North Carolina are watching. There will be another day,” Greene said.

Gov. Pat McCrory said Wednesday that Senate Republicans who pushed the legislation through are completing business the same way that Democrats did when they were in charge of the General Assembly.

“It was not right then and it is not right now,” the governor said in a statement. “Regardless of what party is in charge or what important issue is being discussed, the process must be appropriate and thorough.”

Hear Greene’s full interview about the Senate’s decision:

NC Governor Says Tax Talks Are Tough Process

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Gov. Pat McCrory says he and North Carolina legislative leaders are going through a tough process working on a tax overhaul and isn’t going to spend a long time helping facilitate a deal.

The governor said after a bill signing ceremony Wednesday he’s feeling there will be a positive outcome to negotiations between House and Senate Republicans. The two chambers have passed competing tax plans.

McCrory says he hopes to see consensus reached in the next week but doesn’t want the process to drag out and says he’ll move on to other important policy issues otherwise. The legislature doesn’t have a hard deadline but Republicans want to end the legislative session in July.

The governor says he’s looked at many tax scenarios but hasn’t made his own offer to legislators.

Legislature OKs NC Stop-Gap State Spending Plan

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – The General Assembly has made quick work of approving contingency plans for North Carolina government given there’s no state budget with less than a week before the fiscal year ends.

The Senate and House approved Tuesday a stop-gap spending measure that would keep funding government operations through July as budget talks continue. The measure now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory‘s desk for his signature.

The proposal is needed because legislative leaders haven’t yet negotiated a final budget for the next two years. They’re trying to first reach a deal on a tax overhaul.

Tuesday’s measure directs state agencies on how much they can spend in the meantime. It also tells the state budget office to find $45 million in savings to pay for an even larger Medicaid shortfall this year.

NC House Panel OKs Possible 75 mph Speed Limits

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – Some North Carolina House members have decided to move Senate legislation ahead that would allow speed limits on some state highways to race up to 75 mph.

A House committee voted Tuesday for the bill allowing the Department of Transportation to set speed limits higher than the current 70 mph cap for some interstates and other highways if traffic and engineering allows it. The bill doesn’t identify which roads could change, but committee members discussed rural stretches of Interstate 40 in eastern North Carolina as a possibility.

The bill already has passed the Senate and its next stop is the House floor.

The measure passed the committee despite some members saying they are worried higher speed limits will mean more highway accidents.

NC Senate Delays Final Vote On Tax Overhaul

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – The North Carolina Senate has delayed a final vote on a tax overhaul plan to discuss changes with House members and Gov. Pat McCrory.

Senate Leader Phil Bergerof Eden said Tuesday a scheduled final vote was being put off for talks with McCrory and the House, which already passed its own proposal. The Senate’s plan tentatively passed last week. Berger said the proposal will be scheduled for action Wednesday.

The Senate plan cuts taxes by billions through a gradual repeal of corporate taxes and lower income tax rates. Proponents say it will boost the economy.

Critics have said it is not true tax reform because it doesn’t make major changes to the sales tax code. Others say it will severely hurt state and local public services.

NC Senate’s Budget Proposal Raises Red Flags For CHCCS

CHAPEL HILL – As the Orange County Commissioners and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education work-out their budget issues with in the county —the state Senate also released its proposed $20.6 billion budget this week.

“We had a pretty depressing weekend in terms of budget recommendations. First, the county manager’s budget came out on Friday and then on Sunday, the state Senate’s version of the budget was posted,” said Todd LoFrese, CHCCS assistant superintendent.

He says that the state senate’s budget proposal eliminates the discretionary reduction— LoFrese explains the discretionary reduction is a cut of the funding the districts were expected to return as a cost-saving measure for the state.

LoFrese says the understanding was that it was a temporary measure until the economy recovered. Now, he says the Senate has proposed to eliminate the discretionary reduction with out restoring the some of the funds to the school systems.

He says that loss in funds represents over 50 school positions for the school system.

And LoFrese says there are other funding cuts that concern him as well.

“It reduced support for ESL students, it reduced the funding for instructional supplies, it delays the replacement for school buses—the list just goes on and on,” he said.

The budget plan also calls cuts $142 million in teacher assistants funding. Lofrese says it will eliminate $1.3 million which equates to about 37 teachers. Funding cuts were also proposed to instructional support positions, like counselors, as well as the elimination of pay differentials for teachers with advance degrees.

Chair of the Orange County Commissioners Barry Jacobs says the board is aware of the problems that state’s budget cuts could cause for the district.

“The state is doing as much as it can to wound and dismantle public education in the name of trying to improve it,” Jacobs said.

“There are going to be all sorts of intended and unintended consequences of their actions.”

Orange County Town Manager Frank Clifton will present his budget proposal for OrangeCounty when the BoC meets at  7 p.m. Tuesday at the Southern Human Service Center on Homestead Road. Public comment sessions will follow in the coming months.

To read Clifton’s budget proposal for Orange County, click here.

“It’s like in Star Wars when Princess Leia said to Obi-Won-Kenobi ‘You are our last hope’—the commissioners do realize that we are the district’s last hope,” Jacobs said.

Follow the links to see the senate’s budget bill and associated money report.

Click here to see Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget.

Health Advocates Oppose NC Senate Smoking Bill

RALEIGH – Health advocates say a North Carolina Senate bill would repeal hundreds of local and community college rules restricting smoking outdoors.

The Senate Environment Committee passed a bill Tuesday that prohibits local governments and community colleges from enacting smoking bans that are stricter than state law. Bill sponsor Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson said he appreciates public health progress made in the state since it passed restrictions in 2010, but he thinks a line should be set at outdoor settings.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about how the bill would overturn smoke-free campus laws and specially designated smoking areas. The North Carolina Health Alliance counts 249 local ordinances under threat by the law and most of the state’s community colleges.

The bill now goes heads to another committee for review.