When the General Assembly convenes next week, Richmond County’s legislative delegation expects to spend several months working on compromises on a myriad of issues, including voter identification and tax reform.
The state House of Representatives and Senate will begin the long session on Jan. 30 with Republican super-majorities in both houses; 110 of 170 representatives in Raleigh are members of the Republican party.
The three state legislators counting Richmond County among their constituencies are state representatives Garland Pierce, a Wagram Democrat, and Rockingham Democrats Rep. Ken Goodman and Sen. Gene McLaurin.
As members of the minority party, Goodman said that they are unlikely to push any groundbreaking legislation through the General Assembly.
“I don’t think we are going to initiate and pass any major policy initiatives on our side of the aisle, but I think we can be watchdogs and when bills maybe are extreme or maybe not constructed well that we can have some input,” said Goodman. “I think that’s going to be our role if we work with the majority.”
McLaurin, beginning his first term as a state senator, plans to build solid working relationships with legislators in both parties, having previously served in a nonpartisan office as mayor of Rockingham.
“Good ideas don’t come with party labels,” said McLaurin. “In a lot of ways I think what this will mean is we will build some relationships. I think I’ve built a good record of building good partnerships with people regardless of their party affiliation. Going back to the campaign, one of the things I heard time and time again throughout the district is that people want to see Republicans and Democrats working together, and that’s what our citizens deserve.”
Pierce, beginning his fifth term, said that a bill requiring North Carolina voters to present photo identification would likely be presented and passed early in the session. A similar bill was passed by both houses last session and vetoed by then-Governor Bev Perdue. As Perdue’s successor, Republican Governor Pat McCrory has made passing a voter ID bill a priority.
“In reality, if you go by numbers, they definitely have the numbers to pass the legislation,” Pierce said. “At the end of the day, the governor has said that he will sign a bill that will require a picture ID. It’s just going to be a matter of debate — I don’t know if they’re willing to come down on that or not, but it appears that that’s one of the first items that they want to get out there and I think they will do just that.”
Goodman said that he would be more inclined to vote in support of a bill allowing other forms of identification. He also noted that the latest draft of the bill does not address absentee voting.
“I would think if a person could produce any sort of identification when they vote, to me that would be adequate,” he said. “There may be some voter fraud or identity fraud, but it’s very very minor, and just by making it a little bit more difficult - if you could bring a power bill with your name and address on it that should be enough to allow you to vote.”
A recent report by the N.C. Board of Elections found that nine percent of North Carolina voters in the 2012 general election would have had difficulty procuring photo identification.
Goodman begins his second term in the House of Representatives this year, and will serve as vice-chairman of the Homeland Security, Military, and Veterans Affairs committee, with other memberships including the banking committee. Both Goodman and Pierce were assigned to the House Appropriations and Commerce and Job Development committees.
Also serving as vice-chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Natural and Economic Resources, Pierce will serve on the Health and Human Services committee, where he plans to advance the interests of North Carolina’s economically disadvantaged.
“I get calls all the time from folks who are concerned with loved ones in facilities,” said Pierce. “Some families are not able to provide that type of service for some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
In the Senate, McLaurin’s committee memberships will include the Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources policy committee, and the Appropriations on Natural and Economic Resources, Commerce, and Finance committees.
“I think commerce and the economy are our top priority; that was my top choice,” McLaurin said. “That’s a big issue across our district, particularly in rural North Carolina, that we promote our rural counties properly and help businesses to understand the advantages of doing business in our part of North Carolina.”
Among other issues, the legislature is expected to drastically redesign taxation in North Carolina. One proposal on the table would eliminate the state income tax in favor of increased sales taxes — both in amount and in scope.
“The tax reform plan, I think, will be the most controversial thing that is out there,” said Goodman. “The proposal that’s being floored is going to put a sales tax on everything you do, including doctor visits, prescription drugs, and food. At the same time they’re proposing to eliminate the personal income tax and the corporate income tax. I can’t see people being happy that their groceries are going to be taxed so that big corporations don’t have any tax.”
Ambivalent about the taxation amendments as proposed, Pierce pointed out that the tax is ostensibly fair, and those who receive SNAP benefits, or food stamps, to purchase groceries would escape the brunt of the impact.
“It can be a fair tax in some ways — everybody buys food,” Pierce said. “People who receive food stamps really wouldn’t pay, because there are no taxes on food stamps.”
The bill would add a state tax of 6 percent to grocery and other purchases, on top of the current 2 percent tax assessed by local governments, bringing an additional $300 in costs annually to a family spending $100 a week.
“It may sound good, but you have a lot of low income folks who are not paying income tax now, so they won’t benefit from a cut — it would only be an increase,” Pierce said. “What it appears to do is a cut for higher income folks, while people in the lower spectrum are really paying more in the long run.”
“I see tax reform as an issue that is going to need a lot of good open dialogue,” McLaurin added. “There’s a lot of discussion and a lot of studies under way about how we need to restructure our tax code. I think we all agree that some modernization of our tax code is needed in North Carolina, but I’m not ready to say at this point what steps need to be taken.”
Action on unemployment benefits, previously slated for this legislative session could be delayed for a year due to the American Taxpayer Relief Act, Pierce said. North Carolina presently owes $2.5 billion in unemployment benefits to the federal government, and a bill proposed to repay that debt would have reduced the maximum weekly unemployment benefit from $535 to $350.
But the federal act will allow an extension of unemployment benefits to states that do not amend their state benefit schemes.
“They were proposing a slash to weekly unemployment benefits,” said Pierce. “A lot of people in our area have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and that would have been a real slap in the face.”