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Guilford constituents advocate raising taxes and other forms of revenue

by Jordan Green

With a projected state budget shortfall of upwards of $3.5 billion looming as backdrop, some 40 constituents who packed into council chambers in Greensboro to talk to state lawmakers last week pleaded for continued funding for public education and economic development, and even asked their representatives to raise taxes to pay for those public goods.

The largely Democratic delegation from Guilford County was sympathetic, but the new Republican majority in both houses of the General Assembly has pledged to balance the budget solely through spending cuts.

A delegation from the Piedmont Triad Partnership called on lawmakers to continue financial support for the state’s seven regional partnerships.

David M. Powell, the Triad partnership’s new president and CEO, told lawmakers that the Triad is slipping further behind regional competitors. While the Triad’s economy depends on aviation, furnishings, logistics, healthcare and biotech, the region needs to land a major employer.

“We’re going to need to swing for the fences,” he said. “Even if we excelled in all these categories, it will not be enough. We’re going to have to create a mega-site.”

Margaret Arbuckle, executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance, argued that were the state to lay off every employee at the NC Department of Public Instruction, all central office administrators and every school principal and assistant principal, it would save only $500,000.

“We’re sitting at a crossroads in terms of moving our economy to an information-based economy that can compete in the global economy,” she said. “You just heard from those who are trying to recruit new industry. North Carolina’s future is on the line. Sustain public education. Fund our public school system.”

Bamidele Demerson, executive director of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, requested $250,000 to help defray operating costs.

“Certainly, we have outrageous bills that we are trying to bring under control, specifically utilities,” he said.

Others pleaded for funding for the Natural Science Center and the Greensboro Children’s Museum. A representative of the Interactive Resource Center, which serves homeless people in Greensboro, did not ask for money, but encouraged members of the delegation to become familiar with the center’s work.

A contingent for the AARP argued primarily for a tax credit for caregivers whose family members are elderly, but also for public financing of elections and continued Medicare funding.

Jim Corey, High Point City Council representative for Ward 6, argued for a balanced approach of cutting spending and raising taxes to close the budget gap.

“I’d like to propose a compromise of 80 to 85 percent cuts and the other remainder in taxes, with a provision to say they are going to expire in three years,” he said. “If our country has not rebounded in three years, we are doomed…. I don’t think it’s fair to cover all the deficit in cuts to services, and I don’t think it’s fair to cover all of it in raising taxes.”

Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, requested continued funding for housing assistance and that the legislature keep in place model consumer-lending protections.

A handful of people showed up to support the Smoke-Free Restaurant and Bar Act, which was passed in 2009, and proposed raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes by a dollar to create an additional source of revenue for the state. Dr. Richard Rosen said increasing the cigarette tax would raise $338 million, while Mary Gillette, tobacco prevention coordinator for the Guilford County Department of Public Health, said that the move would bring North Carolina up to the national average.

They warned lawmakers against raiding a Health and Wellness Trust Fund set up with tobacco settlement money whose purpose is to encourage people to quit smoking. Dr. Rosen said he hoped the legislature might “eliminate the legal wrangling over the constitutionality” of the smoke-free act by removing an exemption for nonprofit private clubs.”

A small contingent of schoolchildren argued that the state should raise taxes on alcohol both to create revenue and discourage consumption, citing healthcare costs, crashes and loss of productivity as drawbacks of the habit. Their spokesperson praised Sen. Don Vaughan, a Democrat from Greensboro, for his vote to ban synthetic marijuana.

Claire Holmes, who chairs the Transportation Advocacy Center, asked lawmakers to support local legislation that would increase the ceiling on motor vehicle revenue to help fund mass transit. Michael Norbury asked members to introduce legislation requiring water utilities to place a public warning on every water bill stating that their water contains fluoride.

Former Guilford County Schools teacher Barbara Leland, accompanied by three supporters, told the legislators she had been forced to resign because of her insistence on accurately reporting threats of violence at her school. Members from the Guilford delegation appeared to be genuinely concerned, but seemed to struggle to think of an appropriate legislative fix.

“There has been in our country over the past 20 or 30 years or so a propensity to underreport problems in society, not just in schools,” said Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican from High Point. “It is a valid concern that needs to be addressed.”

Speaking on behalf of Dianne Bellamy- Small, a Greensboro councilwoman who represents District 1, Brantley Grier requested the members to amend the state’s criminal statutes to allow for the expungement of nonviolent felony offenses to allow people with criminal histories to compete in the job market. Grier said that he took $400 out of a cash register just out of college, and as a result of his conviction was unable to find an employer willing to hire him for three years. Now, at age 30, he said he is married with two children and holds a college degree.

Grier argued that the state could save money in the long run by reducing dependency on food stamps and drug rehabilitation by allowing exfelons a better shot at joining the workforce.

Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat whose district bridges High Point and Greensboro, agreed.

“This is a justice issue, this is a public safety issue, this is a monetary issue,” he said.

Keith Brown of High Point asked the lawmakers to undertake fair redistricting this year. An active Republican, Brown called on the Republican-dominated body to set up an independent redistricting commission. The idea had been popular with Republicans when they were in the minority, but few expect them to relinquish control now that they are in power.

Early in the meeting, a group of animal caregivers pulled Chamberlin in to the room in a cart.

“We’ve had some dogs in this chamber before, but this one is a real one,” Sen. Vaughan quipped.

The passage of Susie’s Law last year and positive response from voters towards candidates who supported its passage has established that lawmakers, along with media professionals, are powerless to withstand the charms of the furry, four-legged friends. Susie’s Law increased the penalties for people who abuse animals. Its hopeful sequel, Chamberlin’s Law, seeks to change the standard of conviction for a Class 1 misdemeanor from intentional harm to reckless behavior for any person who neglects or otherwise hurts animals.

“Chamberlin arrived in September 2010, left abandoned,” said Marsha Williams, executive director of the Guilford County Animal Shelter. “He was chained in the back yard, with no food, hungry, emaciated and lost. His owners were just a few steps away. He waited and his joints froze in one position. No one came.”

Vaughan has introduced the bill in the Senate.

“Once it comes over to our side, I think it will get a good reception,” Faircloth said.

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