Thursday, May 31, 2007

Legislative speed of light

In my more than 30 years of covering the N.C. General Assembly, Senate and House versions of the state budget passed on an earlier date than this year only four times – in 2003, when then-House Co-speakers Jim Black and Richard Morgan presided and, of course, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight was leading the Senate, as well as 1995, 1993 and 1979. These are the legislative equivalent of the speed of light.
The House passed its version a couple of weeks ago and the Senate approved its version today (May 31). In 2003, the two had cleared their chambers and gone to a conference committee to work out differences on April 30. In 1995 the bills passed by May 16 and in 1993, by May 18. In 1979, the bills cleared on May 30.
That’s a big date in the legislature, because it means the leaders of the two chambers now know what their real differences are and can concentrate on hashing them out. It still can be weeks, if not months, before a final budget is adopted. In 2001, it took until Sept. 21.
Gerry Cohen, head of the legislature’s bill drafting office, has a blog
where you can find the dates previous General Assemblies passed their budgets. Follow this link for all the nitty-gritty details.
His blog is a reminder how much things have changed in the legislature. The data is for long sessions (in odd-numbered years) only, going back to 1961. In 1974, legislators began coming back to Raleigh in even-numbered years to adjust the biennial state budget, after a recession caused all sorts of havoc during the Holshouser Administration.
The 1961 session, by the way, was the last legislators sat in the state Capitol. In 1963, they began meeting in the new Legislative Building on Jones Street, a full block north of the Capitol.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Senate would expand NC court funding

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory’s campaign for more state support for the court system had a good day Tuesday when the Senate unveiled its proposed $20 billion budget for next year. The bill proposes a $43 million increase for courts with a significant increase in personnel. That boosts the courts budget by about 10.5 percent, from about $408 million to $451 million.
The bill calls for:
-- Eighty new victim witness/legal assistants, 60 assistant prosecutors and 15 investigators, at a cost of $10.5 million.
-- Three hundred new deputy clerk positions for Superior and Districtcourts, at a cost of $11.2 million.
-- Forty-two new magistrates, at a cost of $1.8 million.
-- Ten new District Court judges, at a cost of $1.4 million.
-- Seventeen new District Court judicial assistants, at a cost of $759,000.
-- Eight new family court staffers to expand family courts into two new judicial districts, at cost of $522,000.
-- Twelve new guardian ad litem positions, at a cost of $1.1 million, to replace expiring federal grant funds.
-- Thirteen and three-quarters new positions for drug treatment courts staff in nine districts, at a cost of $834,000.
-- Six new Superior Court judicial assistants, at a cost of $261,000.
These recommendations in the Senate bill ought to gladden the heart of the mayor, who made two visits to the legislature this spring, including one on April 11 when he met with Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, the leader of the state Senate, as well as others. During or right after that meeting, Basnight and Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, reached an agreement in principle that any increase in court costs would go back into the courts system for new personnel.
Clodfelter had arranged such a solution two years earlier, he says, but the budget writers in 2005 used the increase in receipts for other purposes.
Tuesday, Basnight gave Clodfelter and Sen. Charlie Dannelly, D-Mecklenburg, credit for pushing the courts funding through the Senate.
Here’s the text of the blog entry I posted back in April, after McCrory’s second visit:
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was back in Raleigh Tuesday to meet with Senate leaders and the Mecklenburg delegation in his campaign to get more funding for the courts system. While the meeting didn’t result in a solution, Basnight and Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte worked out the basis for additional funding for the courts.
Clodfelter is in a good position to work on this issue. He’s vice-chairman of the Appropriations Committee on Justice and Public Safety, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary I Committee dealing with civil law. Word is that Basnight and Clodfelter are looking at an increase in court costs to produce more revenue for courtroom resources.
Mayor McCrory has pressed the legislature to boost court funding for a number of urban areas that have heavy criminal calendars in the courts and need more law enforcement resources. The legislature last year boosted court funding significantly, with the support of Gov. Mike Easley.
Clodfelter backed that expansion and is supporting more, though he has been careful to point out that an examination of caseloads and resources in the state’s largest judicial districts does not support the notion that only a few places have special court needs. It’s a statewide problem, and Mecklenburg fares well in some areas and not in other areas of court resources.
The legislature’s Fiscal Research Division points out that in 2005, Mecklenburg was just 5 percent larger in population than Wake, but had 40 percent more magistrates than Wake. The third largest district was Guilford, which is two-thirds the size of Wake, but which had one-third more magistrates than Wake.
On the other hand, Mecklenburg and Guilford both had “significantly more criminal cases filed in Superior Court than Wake, 40 percent and 25 percent respectively,” the analysis noted. And while Wake had 10 percent more traffic infractions than Mecklenburg, the latter had more than 50 percent more juvenile petitions to handle.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Finding the deed to Dix Hill

The morning email brought the following note about a fascinating story last fall on the discovery in an old safe of the deed to Dix Hill, or at least a part of it. Jay Warsaw sent along a link to a story WRAL TV did last fall.

Here’s also the text of a story by Ryan Teague Beckwith of The News & Observer.

December 2, 2006

Safe's prize is a Dix surprise

Author: Ryan Teague Beckwith; Staff Writer

Edition: Final
Section: News
Page: B3

For kids in Kinston in the late 1960s, it was the neighborhood equivalent of buying a lottery ticket.

Take your bike to the Kilpatrick Country Store. Drink a soda and suck on a Mary Jane candy. Then go next door to the junkyard and spin the dial on the 6-foot-tall safe.

"Pretty much every kid in the neighborhood tried to turn that dial," Jeff Foyles recalls. "You'd say, 'I'm going to be the lucky kid today,' just joking around."

As an adult, Foyles finally got a chance to open the 140-year-old safe. Inside, he found a trove of historic documents related to the Dorothea Dix state hospital, slated to close by 2008.

The safe belonged to Albert Kilpatrick, owner of the country store and the junkyard. He liked to submit sealed bids to state auctions on old farm equipment and resell it around Kinston.

In 1967, the safe caught his eye. It's about the size of a double-wide refrigerator and is heavier than a car. Lettering on the front indicates it was owned by the hospital. Kilpatrick bid $112 for it.

Trouble was, no one knew the combination. At one point, Kilpatrick hired a safecracker who drilled a few holes in the 8-inch-thick steel doors, to no avail. So, the safe sat in the junkyard, year after year.

When Kilpatrick died in the mid-1980s, his family began selling off things. Foyles, who worked at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant, decided it would make a good safe for two shotguns and a rifle that belonged to his grandfather.

Foyles bought it -- he won't say exactly how much he paid -- and brought it a mile or so down N.C. 55 to his house with a Depression-era forklift that belongs to his brother, Nelson.

A few weeks later, Foyles found a safecracker who thought he could get it open. While Foyles and his brother drank bottles of Budweiser, the safecracker spun the dial, listened with a headset and consulted old manuals. About a half-hour later, he hit the front twice with a rubber mallet, and the door swung open.

"There was a bad smell inside that thing," Foyles recalls. "It was musty, like opening an old trunk, but three times as bad."

Inside: not much. Two old eyeglass cases and a bunch of cubbyholes set up like mail slots. Foyles shrugged. He hadn't thought there would be anything valuable in there.

But looking at it later, something about those cubbyholes didn't seem right. He got off his stool and wiggled them loose. Behind them were two small boxes filled with historical documents.

They included an official 1907 copy of the deed to Dix Hill and a related map, letters to and from hospital officials, uncashed checks from relatives of patients, even a prescription for a pint of whiskey for a patient.

Foyles filed them away and mostly forgot about them until a few months ago, when he heard a radio report about the planned closing of the hospital.

State archivist Dick Lankford says he does not know how the documents ended up in private hands. He says the deed and map copies are not valuable, but the letters and other documents could still be public records.

"We'd have to see the contents of the safe to know," he says.

That may not happen soon.

If they are still public records, Lankford says the state would begin the legal process to reclaim them. If they're not, the archives office would not be interested, he says.

Foyles says he'd like the documents to end up in a museum or the archives, but only for a fair price. He doesn't want to just hand them over for nothing.

After all, he spun the dial.

"It's just like someone buying a lottery ticket," he said.

Copyright 2006 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Botanical Garden for Dix Hill?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about Dorothea Dix, the crusader for mental health reform in the 19th century who came to North Carolina, documented deplorable conditions for the mentally afflicted and wound up persuading the General Assembly to finance what is now Dorthea Dix Hospital overlooking downtown Raleigh.

The state plans to close that hospital. Local developers, the Easley administration and parks advocates all have big ideas for how the last 306 acres of the original Dix Hill tract should be used. I wrote about park advocates seeing it as a destination park for not just the city but the entire state. Here’s a link to that column.

Willie Pilkington, an avid gardener and member of the Wake County Botanical Garden Society, pointed out that I had overlooked his organization’s proposal for a World Class Botanical Garden on the site. You can read more about that proposal in this link.

The hitch, as always, is about cost. The Easley administration sees the land as a financial asset. It wants to put some state office buildings there. The city of Raleigh would like to buy it, and there are a couple of estimates of $40 to $50 million or more for the cost of the land. Some folks hope the statewill simply deed it over, as the state did when it gave land to N.C. State University and to the State Farmers’ Market.

The legislature has debated what to do. Some believe it should be put up for bid and sold to the best bidder – which may mean a lot of commercial or residential development. Wednesday, the N.C. House decided it all needed more study. That’s what it decided in 2005 when it created the first Dix Hospital study commission. But putting the matter in a study bill now preserves the possibility that the legislature could revisit the issue later this year or in 2008 and decide to sell or otherwise transfer use of the land for one or more of the many competing proposals -- but it mentions any arrangement should provide funding for mental health. The legislature’s crossover deadline – the date for when a bill had to pass either the House or Senate to be eligible for further consideration in this biennial legislature – was Thursday. As Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, was quoted in the N&O, “We’re just preserving our options.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Easley: "I'm bi-ignorant"

Gov. Mike Easley is pretty well known for his quick quips and an occasional dash of self-effacing humor. Reporters at a Tuesday morning news conference about Hurricane Preparedness Week – designed to raise awareness about the 2007 hurricane season and how to prepare for it – heard him get in a pretty good dig at himself. Easley had just mentioned that Bryan Beatty, his secretary of crime control and public safety, was bi-lingual.
And Easley went on: “I’m bi-ignorant.”
But not about hurricane safety. Easley knows something about hurricanes, having lived and worked on the coast in Southport, which took quite a hit from Hazel in 1954 when he was a boy in Rocky Mount and Fran in 1996 when he was attorney general.
To find out more about preparing for an emergency, go to this website ( and to find out about volunteer emergency response training, click here (

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rep. Price's broadside at the Navy

U.S. Rep. David Price’s 4th Congressional District is at least a couple of hours west of the rural northeastern landscape where the Navy proposes to put a practice aircraft carrier landing field for its new FA 18 Super Hornet jet aircraft. The site is near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Preserve, where large migratory waterfowl spend half the year, posing a danger to the pilots and planes and where the Navy’s planes pose a danger to an important wildlife refuge.
Price is a former college professor, a scholarly gent regarded as a student of the House of Representatives and as thoughtful a legislator as any I have known in my 39 years of writing about North Carolina politics. As a ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and chairman of the homeland security subcommittee, Price is a “Cardinal” – one of 20 House members with special clout when it comes to the budget process. He’s one reason why the Navy’s appropriation for the landing field is evaporating.
I don’t recall seeing him angry, hearing him raise his voice or pointing his finger about public issues. Not his style.
But in reading Price’s May 9 letter to Rear Admiral Richard Cellon, commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Norfolk, I could almost hear the rolling thunder from his written broadside. And you can imagine him ripping the Navy’s epaulettes and brass buttons off its dress blues for the way it has tried to force the outlying landing field on the site in Washington and Beaufort counties.
You can click this link to read the full seven-page bombardment of the Navy’s reasoning and its baffling failure to follow the directives of the federal courts and congress, instead “papering over very legitimate concerns” about the site. He said the Navy’s choice of the site was “grossly incompatible” with the service’s training goals because of the possibility of bird-aircraft strikes. The Navy, he went on, “would seemingly have a difficult challenge in selecting a worse site” than the one it wants.
His letter is worth reading.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Women of the House, and Senate

Every two years the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research publishes a guide to the legislature. It’s called “Article II” because that’s the article in the state Constitution that creates the N.C. General Assembly. It’s handy because there’s a lot of info including how lawmakers voted on key issues in the past, significant legislation they’ve sponsored and how they’ve fared in biennial effectiveness rankings. A lot of folks don’t like those rankings, but they’re more accurate than opponents can imagine.

One of the guide’s most helpful sections is short – a couple of pages - on legislative demographics and lawmakers' occupations. In the 2007 legislature, notes center director Ran Coble, North Carolina’s legislature has the 18th highest number of women of any state legislature – 43 out of 170 lawmakers, or 25 percent. There are seven women in the 50-member Senate, 36 in the 120-member House.

That’s not the news. What is news is their clout. They’re more powerful, the center says, with women chairing or co-chairing four of the six most powerful committees in the House and two of the six most powerful in the Senate. Among those in the House is Rep. Martha Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, cochairing the Appropriations Committee. And six of the seven House Appropriations subcommittees have women cochairs.

And there are more African American legislators – 28, or 16 percent of the legislature. That incudes eight in the Senate and 20 in the House. That’s a record number.

Other items of note:
-- There are a record number of retirees – 51 of the 170 members, about 30 percent. And since the November election, four legislators died and one (Rep. Jim Black) has resigned.
-- The number of self-employed legislators is the fastest rising occupation, the center says. There are 23 now, compared with 5 a decade ago.
-- The number of lawyers – down to 32 in 1995, is back up to 40.

Copies of the guide can be purchased for $25 by calling (919) 832-2839 or emailing Here's the center's website.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Remembering N.C.'s 'Torpedo Junction'

Newcomers to North Carolina may sometimes be mystified by tales of the Hoi Toide accent long spoken by natives of the Outer Banks region.
Or alarmed by the notion of a region that until well into the mid-20th century didn’t always have indoor plumbing, paved roads or bridges to link them with the mainland.
Or intrigued by stories of Allied ships that were blown up just off Cape Hatteras by German submarines – so often that the area became know as Torpedo Alley. Or tales of Nazi saboteurs who came ashore at Nags Head or Kitty Hawk, bent on winning the war and making the United States a German possession.
The stories are true, but no one ever told it better than in the fictional story of "Taffy of Torpedo Junction" by the late writer Nell Wise Wechter. She grew up on the Outer Banks and spoke the dialect sometimes known as the King’s English, which frequently substituted “oi” where inland folk use the simple “i”. Thus, when the water would be up, they spoke of a “hoi toide on the sound soide tonoight.”
In 1957, John Blair Publishing of Winston-Salem published Wechter’s “Taffy of Torpedo Junction,” the story of a teenage girl who lived on the banks with her grandfather. She had a horse named Sailor, a dog named Brandy and a great story after she stumbled into a Nazi spy ring operating on the Banks.
Frank Stasio of WUNC Radio took note of the 50th anniversary of the book Wednesday on his program “The State of Things.” You can go to this link and read more or listen to the program. Or you can find out more about the book at UNC Press . UNC Press picked the book up in 1995 and has published it since then.
When she published the book, Nell Wise Wechter was teaching at the old Central Junior High School in Greensboro where my mother taught, and my sister and I read the book as soon as it came out. It’s a quick read, written originally for young folks, but it’s a story that appeals to all ages.
If you’ve never been to the Outer Banks, or don’t know much about the period, “Taffy” is a good way to fill in a lot of gaps about how people lived at the edge of the sea in the 1940s, before the post-war boom began to transform that area and make it more like the rest of North Carolina.
By the way: the model for Taffy is still with us: Carol Dillon owns the Outer Banks Motel in Buxton on Hatteras Island, Stasio reports. Wechter taught her before she moved to Greensboro and was inspired to build the story around her. And as you’ll hear if you listen to the audio, my friend Dennis Rogers of the N&O has always felt the “Taffy” story would make a great movie for Disney. He’s right.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

How long will Decker, Geddings serve in prison?

U.S. District Judge James Dever has sentenced former N.C. Rep. Michael Decker and former N.C. Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings to four years in prison for their unrelated roles in a political scandal involving former Speaker Jim Black. Black has yet to be sentenced, but already readers are wondering what a federal sentence really means.
One reader asks:
“Nowhere in the Observer or on TV have I heard anything but Geddings has been sentenced to ‘four years.’ Now, the public are not dummies.... how long will he realistically be in jail, serving what has been called a longer then recommended sentence?
“When will the parole eligibility kick in? 6 months? Less?
“We all know that white collar criminals rarely serve a sentence that will disrupt their careers or personal lives. You know he will behave himself while he is locked up, (probably while writing a book about his innocence and perceived miscarriage of justice.) Let us know
what the real sentence we can expect him to serve truly is.”
That’s a good question. Some years ago, inmates in both state and federal prison served a fraction of their nominal sentences, but that changed when both the federal government and North Carolina government rewrote their sentencing laws and did away with the parole system for crimes committed after the mid-1990s.
This is a federal case. I’ve looked up the guidelines and practices on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website and it says -- if you can find it among the array of documents in the 5000 series ("Inmate and Custody Management") -- that federal prisoners can expect to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. That means both Decker and Geddings could expect to serve about 41 months in prison. They would be eligible for a “good conduct time credit” of up to 54 days per year in prison.
There is no such thing as federal parole. Both Decker and Geddings will also serve a two-year tem of supervised release, and each will also be responsible for paying a fine – $50,000 in Decker’s case and $25,000 in Geddings’ case.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Keep or kill the 'temporary' taxes?

To no one’s surprise, the N.C. House budget proposal moving to the floor this week retains two “temporary” tax increases adopted in 2001 to help the state meet pressing needs during a revenue shortfall. Gov. Easley proposed and the legislature approved a half-cent sales tax increase and a hike in the top income-tax rate for the highest earners. Those taxes were twice extended, but last year the legislature began to phase them out – cutting the increases in half and slating the rest to expire this year.
But late last fall Gov. Easley said he believed a better way to get money to those who needed it the most was to use income from the “temporary” taxes to help the state’s lowest income citizens. He didn’t propose an earned income tax credit, as some had recommended, but did propose a way to exempt the lowest income taxpayers from having any tax liability.
The House bill opts for an earned income credit for the lowest wage earners, beginning in 2008. To pay for it and other programs, including a state credit for those who adopt children, the top income tax rate would remain at 8 percent and the sales tax rate at 6.75 percent. The Associated Press quoted Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham and cochair of the House Finance Committee, as saying that “there’s no way to meet the educational and health care needs of the state” without retaining the taxes.
Whether the Senate will go along with another extension of the temporary taxes is still up in the air, but Senate leaders would prefer to continue the promised phase-out. They’ll get their chance to change the budget perhaps next week, if the House debates and approves its proposal this week.
Perhaps it’s true there’s no way to meet all the needs of the state without keeping the “temporary” taxes. But the public is going to be mighty skeptical when the House budget also includes money for local projects – often derided as “pork barrel” – to fund such things as a drag racing museum and other items that would be hard to define as pressing state needs. But Democrats may not understand that.
What do you think? Is it worth keeping the “temporary” taxes to provide targeted tax relief to low-income citizens and provide a tax credit for families that adopt children? Are these worthwhile public goals? Do you accept Democrats’ contention that a $20.3 billion budget covers essential needs? What would you be willing to cut to free up the $300 million the “temporary” taxes would produce?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Opposition to OLF builds

Now that Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue and Republican U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr have formally opposed the Navy’s choice of Washington County for a proposed outlying landing field, others are clamoring to get on record against it. The Washington County site is the worst of five the Navy is pondering because it is so close to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, where wintering waterfowl from the Arctic Circle would endanger costly FA 18 Super Hornet jets – or where the birds would have to be forced off nearby foraging grounds.
There’s a lot wrong with that site. It would take thousands of acres of prime farmland out of production, provide virtually no permanent jobs, reduce the local tax base and, mostly, save residents of other Navy facilities near Virginia Beach from the annoyance of noisy flights as pilots practice aircraft carrier landings.
The list of opponents has been building for awhile. Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler was among the first to take a stand against the Navy, and so have a number of other individual state leaders in Raleigh and Congress. N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight has long been on record against the Washington County site, and House Speaker Joe Hackey joined opponents earlier this year.
Then the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission went on record against it, and the other day the state's Democratic members of Congress urged another site be chosen.
Tuesday, State Treasurer Richard Moore, who is already on record opposing the site, called on the Council of State – comprising the 10 constitutional officers elected statewide such as governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and so on – to go on record opposing the site.
The council agreed to take a vote soon. His office quoted Moore as saying, “With the Navy continuing to focus on an OLF in Washington County, I think it is imperative that the Council of State say clearly, and with one voice, that this is the wrong decision. Here in North Carolina, we are fiercely supportive of our military, but we must ensure that any decision made on the OLF is done in a comprehensive and careful fashion. The Beaufort-Washington County site is not the right site for our State or for the Navy."
Also Tuesday, a bipartisan group of state representatives filed a resolution calling on the N.C. Delegation to withhold funding for the OLF at the Navy’s preferred site. Sponsored by Republican Rep. Cary Allred of Alamance and cosponsored by Democratic Reps. Tim Spear and Arthur Williams, the resolution reads:
A JOINT RESOLUTION urging the united states navy to find a more suitable location than Washington and Beaufort counties to build its outlying landing field.
Whereas, the United States Navy plans to build an outlying landing field (OLF) in eastern North Carolina to allow pilots to practice night landings on aircraft carriers; and
Whereas, the proposed OLF will consist of 30,000 acres in Washington County within a few miles of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of migratory waterfowl, including snow geese and tundra swans, spend the winter; and
Whereas, some of the adverse effects of the proposed OLF site include a loss of foraging habitat for the migratory waterfowl, a loss of prime farmland for people in Washington and Beaufort Counties, and an increased threat to the safety of the pilots practicing at the site due to collisions with the birds; and
Whereas, opposition for locating the OLF in Washington and Beaufort Counties continues to mount; Now, therefore,
Be it resolved by the House of Representatives, the Senate concurring:
SECTION 1. The General Assembly urges the North Carolina congressional delegation to withhold funding for the United States Navy’s proposed outlying landing field in Washington County until a more suitable location in North Carolina can be found.
SECTION 2. The Secretary of State shall transmit a certified copy of this resolution to North Carolina’s congressional delegation and to the Secretary of the Navy.
SECTION 3. This resolution is effective upon ratification.