Proposed NC Senate bill eliminates DOT funding for driver education

 — High school students and their parents could soon have to pay more for drivers education classes if a state Senate proposal to cut state funding for the program prevails.

Currently, schools can charge students up to $55 for the course, but if the Senate’s budget proposal wins support over the House’s plan, which continues to fund drivers education, costs could rise substantially.

The change isn’t due to take effect until the 2015-2016 fiscal year, but students taking drivers education this summer could be affected.

That’s because the Senate’s proposed budget took the $26 million allotted for drivers education out of the Department of Transportation and moved it to the Department of Public Instruction. At the same time, the Senate cut 6 percent from school bus funding and told education department officials they could use the drivers ed money to make up the difference.

The proposal also removes the $55 cap and allows schools to charge the true cost of the program, which could be as much as $300 in some counties.

Reginald Flythe, the drivers ed consultant for DPI, said the department hasn’t decided how the money will be spent, and can’t say what it will do until the budget is finalized.

Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Republican from Fayetteville and co-chair of the transportation committee, said drivers ed should be part of the education budget because it occurs at the high school level.

“What we’ve tried to do for the last three years is anything that doesn’t maintain our highways we’ve been trying to get out of the Department of Transportation,” Meredith said.

Concern for new drivers

In North Carolina there are two routes for obtaining a drivers license. High school students age 15 to 18 can complete the graduated licensing program, which requires 30 hours of classroom training and six hours behind the wheel before they can get a learners permit. Then, drivers must log 60 hours of driving time with a parent before getting a license. Alternately, they can wait until they turn 18 and simply go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and take the driving tests.

Flythe said if the fee for drivers ed increases, fewer students will pursue the graduated licensing program, and more will wait until they turn 18.

After the state reduced funding for the program in 2011 and allowed school boards to charge $45 for the classes, there was a 10 percent decrease in the number of students who signed up, he said. The fee went to $55 in 2013.

Jennifer Ferrall-Flemming, whose daughter took drivers ed this summer at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said she wouldn’t have if the fees were higher. Any more than the current $55 would be too much, she said, and higher fees would hurt students who need to work.

“They need to learn how to drive as soon as possible so they could get to work as soon as possible,” Ferrall-Flemming said.

Kids who wait until they’re 18, Flythe said, miss out on two years of training and driving experience.

“The more training these students get, and the more information that we can provide them as they go through the graduated license program, the more we can feel comfortable there will be a reduction in accidents,” Flythe said.

Parents’ concerns

Some parents argue the experience behind the wheel is too valuable to forgo. Kathy Hamilton, whose three children took drivers ed at Broughton, said knowing they received instruction before getting on the road gave her peace of mind. Cutting the funding would lead to more costs down the road because more accidents would occur, she said.

“It’s unfortunate, but what bothers me is there are people who couldn’t afford it,” said Hamilton, who lives in Raleigh. “It will end up being more expensive in the long run.”

Still, there are parents who wouldn’t mind seeing the drivers ed program eliminated.

Lisa Huffman of Raleigh said her parents taught her to drive and she would have done the same for her daughter if the class was not a requirement for a permit.

“It’s important, but if it wasn’t required by the state I don’t know if I’d send them,” Huffman said.

Wake County schools contract with Jordan Driving School, a private driving school based in Garner.

For each freshman in the Wake County school system, the state pays the driving school $168.80 for classroom and driving instruction. On average, 85 percent of high school students choose to take drivers ed. Funds left over from the other 15 percent help pay for resource materials, text books, audiovisual material, cars and insurance.

In Wake County, 1,400 students have already taken or are enrolled in drivers ed this summer, and the program is on track to reach last year’s summer enrollment of 4,125.

‘Nothing is off the table’

Devin Tanner, who oversees drivers ed for Wake County Public Schools, said he couldn’t speculate about how students in the pipeline would be affected if the Senate’s budget passes, but in terms of increasing the price of the course, he said, “nothing is off the table.”

Lorraine Jordan, the president of Jordan Driving School, said she was willing to work with the schools to keep costs down. She said drivers ed benefits more than just new drivers because it provides supplemental pay for teachers, who rely on the driving school income in the summer months and other school holidays.

“I can’t see them going from being the strongest state on driver education to having nothing. … We’re not sure how it would all work,” Jordan said.

Tim Simmons, a spokesperson for Wake County Public Schools, said county school officials are still reviewing the legislation, but it’s impossible to make a judgment call on how they will proceed before the bills are finalized.

“None of us know what the rest of the final budget numbers are,” Simmons said. “When you look at the disagreements that are now involved in the state budget, it’s just impossible to tell.”

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Changes to child care subsidy eligibility may shut out some low-income families

Close to 12,000 children, the vast majority between 6 and 12 years old, could lose their spots in after-school care once the state budget is finalized.

Both House and Senate members say they want to change the way the state determines who qualifies for child care subsidies as a way to ensure that the youngest children from poor families receive help.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Cornelius, said the goal is to shift the focus to early childhood development. He said research shows that children who receive high-quality care in their younger years have more academic success later in life.

Child advocates say the change could put children at risk by forcing parents to choose between work and leaving their children in potentially unsafe situations.

Currently all children under 13 years old whose parents earn less than 75 percent of the state median income – about $50,244 for a family of four – are eligible for a state subsidy.

The budget proposals would tie the subsidies to the federal poverty level, which is $23,850 for a family of four.

Under the new requirements, parents who have children younger than 6 would qualify for subsidies if they earn less than twice the federal poverty level.

If the children are 6 to 12 years old, the family’s income would have to be less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $31,720 for a family of four.

In addition, those parents who do qualify would have to pay a bit more. Currently the amount parents pay depends on the size of the family, and ranges from 8 to 10 percent of their monthly income. The proposals call for a co-pay that is 10 percent of monthly income, regardless of family size.

Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican, said the change would help about 2,500 families who wouldn’t have qualified previously. Currently, 75,000 children benefit from the subsidy statewide.

“We’re targeting families at the lower end of the spectrum,” Burr said, adding that lawmakers want to make sure that children under age 5 are first in line for subsidized care.

The changes in the House and Senate budgets mirror one another, but the House plan would allow families that qualify now to keep their subsidies until the next recertification period, which occurs one year from the first time a family is determined eligible by the Department of Social Services. The Senate plan would take effect in September.

Long waiting list

Families who qualify for child care subsidies are often placed on a waiting list until funding becomes available from social services or another reimbursement entity. That usually happens when children age out of the program or when a family chooses to leave the waiting list.

In March, 15,939 families were on the waiting list, but that number has been as high as 50,000. The Senate anticipates that changing the eligibility rules will reduce the number of families on the waiting list by 3,200.

The change does not decrease the funding level, which will stay at $348 million, most of which is federal funds. The state provides 20 percent of the money.

Rob Thompson, a spokesman for child advocacy group N.C. Child, lamented the changes that would cut child care for so many families.

The legislature’s fiscal research division estimated 11,997 of the 110,000, or about 11 percent of children who qualified for the subsidy in 2013, would be excluded. Of those who don’t qualify, 82 percent would be 6 to 12 years old.

“This can put parents in a difficult predicament when it comes to their employment,” Thompson said. “The subsidy is about making sure low-income children have access to high-quality child care. That’s crucial when it comes to their future as children and adults.”

Difficult choices for parents

Maria Mendoza, a single parent and customer service representative in the Wake County Health Department, has three children who qualify for the subsidy and attend day care at Appletree Child Development Center, a four-star child care provider in Raleigh.

She pays $210 per month for her 3-year-old to attend day care and for her 6- and 9-year-olds to attend before and after school care. If the changes occur, she would have to pay $23 more per month for her youngest because of the increased co-pay and an additional $515 each for the two older children, which she said isn’t possible at her current pay.

“I would have to re-evaluate my entire economic situation,” Mendoza said.

Without any family members in the area who are able to watch her children while she works, Mendoza said her only options would be to quit her current job and work part time or stop sending her 9-year-old to day care altogether.

“If it came to that, I could see if she could get a bus stop close to home and have her carry Mace when she’s walking home,” she said.

Providers affected as well

Amanda Kowski, the director of Harps Mill Creative School, a 5-star day care center in Raleigh, said day care provides children with stability and crucial skills that working parents may not be able to offer consistently. Employees are trained to work with children and help with homework and other academic needs.

Kowski said she anticipates losing several families if the rules change.

“They can pay for child care or put food on their tables,” she said.

Other child care providers said awarding subsidies based on a child’s age is unreasonable.

“You need that developmentally appropriate environment to support the kids and support those families,” for both age groups, said Anna Carter, the president and CEO for Child Care Services Association, a nonprofit child care advocacy group in Chapel Hill. “It shouldn’t be an either-or.”

Sheila Hoyle, who oversees Southwest Child Development Commission in Jackson County, said child care providers would suffer as well.

“Most child care programs are very dependent on the resources that come in from the subsidized child care program,” Hoyle said.

If the eligibility rules change and fewer parents can afford child care, she said, some providers may have to limit their services or close completely.

Who qualifies now

Families whose household income is less than 75 percent of the state median income ($50,244 for a family of four) are eligible to receive child care subsidies for any child age 12 and under.

Parents pay 8 to 10 percent of their monthly income (the amount varies depending on family size) to the child care provider and the state pays the provider the difference, though that amount can be lower than the center’s typical rate.

What’s proposed

Families with children under 6 would qualify for subsidies if their household income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($47,700 for a family of four).

Families with children age 6 to 12 could qualify if their household income is less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($31,720 for a family of four).

Other proposed changes

The co-pay for child care subsidies would be 10 percent of the family’s monthly income regardless of family size.

The proposed budgets would also do away with the current pro-rated co-payments for families whose children attend day care part time. Those parents also would be required to pay 10 percent of their monthly income.

Other requirements

In addition to meeting income requirements there are other qualifications for both parents and providers. Those do not change under the proposed budgets. Both parents must be employed, seeking employment or in school. Day care providers must have at least a 3-star rating from the N.C. Department of Social Services. The ratings are determined by the educational qualifications of the staff and the quality of the facility.

Tax credit for historic preservation is part of NC budget negotiations

The future of a popular state tax that has helped communities across the state save historic homes and revitalize downtowns could be decided this week.

As House and Senate lawmakers negotiate their differing state budgets one of the line items they’ll be looking at is the Historic Rehabilitation Investment Program, which provides a 20 percent to 30 percent tax credit to those who restore historic homes and buildings. The credit is set to expire at the end of this year. House lawmakers want to extend the credit, but their counterparts in the Senate do not.

Greg Hatem, whose Empire Properties has used the credit to restore several properties in downtown Raleigh, said it was the catalyst for much of the other development downtown.

“It starts when you renovate a historic building,” said Hatem, whose numerous holdings – all in restored buildings – include the restaurants The Raleigh Times and The Pit. “What follows is you have office spaces and restaurants, and this creates active uses that bring a downtown back to life.”

In cities and small towns across the state, historic rehabilitation also plays a role in cultural preservation by providing context and identity for people from North Carolina, Hatem said.

Organizations like Preservation North Carolina have called for an extension of the program. Robert Parrott, Preservation NC’s interim regional director, said the North Carolina economy benefits from the program.

“You can see that these projects have a tremendous effect because when you put tenants in the commercial buildings, that helps spur the economy of the area,” Parrott said. “When you put homes in buildings that were previously vacant, it encourages homeowners to pay taxes and spend money in the area.”

He said without the tax credit, property buyers would be discouraged from rehabilitating historic buildings in the first place.

In 2009, Justin Boner and his wife, Kierna McGorty, purchased a house built in the 1860s from Preservation North Carolina. Before they began renovating, the house was deemed uninhabitable by the city of Raleigh. But its location in the Oakwood area made it an appealing prospect.

So far, the credit has reduced their taxes by $45,000 – 30 percent of their total expenditures.

If the House and Senate agree to extend the credit, Boner and McGorty plan to continue their renovation over the next five years.

“Having an expiration date has hastened construction for us,” Boner said. “It was originally a 10-year period.”

If the credit isn’t extended, they’ll wrap up by Dec. 31, the eve of the credit’s expiration.

Economic benefits

Smaller towns across the state have taken advantage of the program as well.

Siler City officials transformed Siler City High School, which was built in 1922, into Braxton Manor Apartments 15 years ago with the help of the tax credit.

Jack Meadows, the director of planning and community development in Siler City, said the old building needed to be modernized with heating and air conditioning as well as new electrical systems and plumbing. Meadows said the tax credit “made the deal work.”

Supporters of the program point to its economic benefits. The North Carolina Department of Commerce estimates that the credits cost the state an average of $14.2 million a year but that they bring in $124.5 million in annual investments.

Overall, the tax credit has generated $1.7 billion in private investments for the state since 1976, when it was first granted to businesses and developers. The credit was extended to homeowners in 1998.

House, McCrory changes

Gov. Pat McCrory, who backs the program, extended it in his budget proposal but with modifications. The House budget originally did not extend the credit but it was added as an amendment, mirroring the governor’s plan. His proposal reduces the overall cost of the program from $20.7 million to $13.2 million by reducing the credit home owners and business could receive.

Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Monroe, sponsored the effort to include the tax credit in the House budget. He said McCrory’s proposed reductions are effective.

“The program is very worthy in terms of economic development, and it provides an increased tax base for revenue,” Arp said. “This is a case where we can take public dollars and leverage private investment.”

But Sen. Bob Rucho, who co-chairs the finance committee, said eliminating incentives was part of a larger plan to lower tax rates throughout the state. Instead of picking winners and losers when it comes to incentives, he said, everyone would be able to enjoy lower income taxes.

Changes Proposed:

Currently home owners can receive a tax credit of up to 30 percent for rehabilitating a historic home.

The House budget would change that to 20 percent of expenses up to $200,000 over 24 months if the house is valued at less than the statewide median home value. Homeowners can also collect 15 percent of expenses up to $200,000 with a value less than 150 percent of the statewide median home value. Expenses must exceed $10,000 in a 24-month period.

The credit would also change for those redeveloping an income-producing building. Currently the credit is 20 percent. That would change to a 15 percent tax credit for spending up to $10 million dollars, an additional 10 percent for rehabilitation that costs between $10 million and $20 million and an additional 5 percent for rehabilitating a structures in Tier I and Tier II areas.

McCrory wants more details on immigrant children

By John Frank and Katy Canada
RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday raised alarms about the increasing number of immigrant children detained at the nation’s southern border who are being relocated to North Carolina, as he called upon leaders in Washington to address the situation immediately.

An estimated 1,200 unaccompanied children, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who were detained at the border have been placed with a sponsor or relative in North Carolina since January, according to federal authorities. The total is expected to grow significantly when updated numbers are reported this week.

“This is not a border issue any longer,” McCrory said. “This is an issue for North Carolina.”

The Republican governor said the federal government is not providing his administration enough information about the children now in North Carolina. He raised concerns about their well-being and the safety of the state’s residents.

“I’m worried about these children, as I’m worried about the children in North Carolina,” McCrory said. “There is an impact on the citizens of North Carolina, but we are also worried about the safety and danger to these children not knowing what type of condition they are being placed in in North Carolina.”

But local organizations, such as the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, working to address the issue, say they are receiving needed information and ensuring the children go to safe homes. The charity’s case managers perform home visits and interviews, officials said, as well as make sure the child is present at immigration court hearings.

“Our job is to make sure that the child is placed in a safe environment,” said Consuelo Kwee, director of the Hispanic Charities Center at the Diocese.

Federal authorities hold immigration court in Charlotte and McCrory said the cases need quicker processing to make sure the children are “sent back home where they started this terrible, terrible journey.”

His statements drew a sharp retort from a Raleigh-based Latino advocacy group, which suggested he should focus on ensuring a safe future for all children, regardless of immigration status, rather than “this media campaign to criticize federal authorities.”

“Gov. McCrory is sending a clear message that immigrants, even children who are fleeing violence, are unwelcome in North Carolina,” said Angeline Echeverría, executive director of El Pueblo, a nonprofit that advocates for Latinos.

Election-year politics

Tinged with election-year politics, McCrory’s remarks followed a letter he signed in late July, joining other Republican governors to press President Barack Obama to address the roughly 60,000 unaccompanied minors being detained at the border.

It’s not the first time the governor has used the immigration issue as a platform to raise his profile. In 2013, McCrory vetoed a Republican-approved bill to provide exemptions from E-Verify for certain agriculture workers because he considered it an immigration “loophole.”

With his latest stance, McCrory put his attention on Washington. He asked Obama and Congress to skip their August vacation and return to the nation’s capital to “solve this problem.”

“This is not the time to wait another two or three months,” he said. “This is the time for action.”

Obama asked Congress on July 8 to approve $3.7 billion to address what he termed a “humanitarian crisis.” House Republicans approved two immigration measures late last week before adjourning that are unlikely to be considered in the Senate. The Democratic Senate’s immigration measure is being blocked by Republicans.

“I concur with the governor – we have a crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, in an interview. “We need Kay Hagan and Harry Reid to go back and do their job.”

His reference to Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan was no coincidence. Hagan is facing a re-election challenge this fall from Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis, a McCrory ally.

U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, agreed that Congress should have done more to address the issue before it recessed, calling it a “disgrace” that lawmakers left town without a resolution.

But he blames Republicans for the impasse. “Sure we should have done this before we left town, but I also know where the responsibility lies for the deadlock in the Senate and for the totally unrealistic, unhelpful bill in the House,” he said.

Price traveled to Central America with a congressional delegation in July to see the problem firsthand. He said the crisis is improving but it needs more attention.

“The situation is I think under control,” he said. “The number of unaccompanied children is less than half of what it was three to four weeks ago. But still it’s a troubling situation.”

Children placed with family

McCrory said the number of unaccompanied immigrant children in North Carolina illegally is double what the numbers showed a year ago, but he could not provide data to support his assertion. Various federal agencies told The News & Observer the data was not available for previous years.

The majority of the children are fleeing areas of violence and unrest, seeking refugee status at the border.

Federal authorities give the children a health screening and vaccinations and seek to place them with a family member or sponsor in the United States. Others stay in shelters at the border or elsewhere. McCrory said no shelters are operating in North Carolina right now.

As of June 30, 96 percent of all children who weren’t deported at the border were reunited with a sponsor, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government has not released information about how many have been deported.

Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesperson for federal agency, did not return calls Tuesday about the governor’s remarks. In an interview earlier this week, however, he said the agency tries to place children with a parent or a relative. If that’s not possible, they seek out other potential contacts that the child may have, often a family friend.

“Under the law, we have a legal responsibility to place children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” said Wolfe, referring to a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush. A GOP-drawn U.S. House bill would repeal this 2008 law, a change McCrory supports.

Nonprofit agencies and churches in North Carolina have been working to place unaccompanied minors with relatives in North Carolina. The groups say they’ve seen an uptick in recent months but don’t have numbers to quantify it.

Bedrija Jazic, with Lutheran Services Carolinas refugee resettlement, said the organization has assisted 34 children so far in 2014, up from eight in 2013.

“Considering the whole situation at the border and everything that’s going on I would expect to see that increase,” Jazic said.

Trickling into Wake

In Wake County, children have been trickling in at a rate of one or two per week for the past several months, said Kwee with Catholic Diocese. Last year, the Diocese assisted four children; already this year, they’ve helped 10. She said most of the children they’ve helped are teens but she has seen children as young as 5.

“We are trying to see how we are going to prepare for this. It’s like preparing for the storm,” Kwee said.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which has a center in Raleigh, facilitates a program funded by the Office of Refugee Reunification, for unaccompanied minors. Last year, the program helped 64 children in North Carolina, so far this year the number is up to 130. Stacie Blake, the director of government and outreach at the committee, said many of these minors were subjected to trauma.

She said 95 percent of the girls in their program were raped before they came to the U.S. Most made the trip to escape abuse or persecution in their home countries, and the majority do not speak English, she said.

Blake said that the transition into American life is different for each child.

“Depending on who their sponsor is, it could be great to be reunited with a family member who you have longed to see. It also could be challenging to reunite with a family member who you don’t know very well,” Blake said. “Around 50 percent of the kids are released to a parent, but again, this is a parent that they haven’t seen in a number of years.”

  • ON ARRIVAL IN N.C.Q: What happens to the children in North Carolina?

    A: Once children are placed with a family, they are required to attend immigration hearings to determine if they can legally stay in the United States. Most seek asylum through the courts.

    Q: What qualifies them for asylum?

    A: To be eligible for asylum, children have to prove that they fear persecution in their home countries because of their race, religion, political opinion or because they are part of a particular social group.

    Joanna Gaughan, an immigration attorney in Raleigh, said not all of the unaccompanied minors fall into these categories.

    “You can prove that you have a very valid and real and reasonable fear, but if it’s not on account of those reasons then you might not qualify for asylum,” she said.

    Q: What happens if they don’t attend their hearing?

    A: They can be deported. About 50 children in North Carolina have been deported for missing their hearings, Gaughan said.

    Q: Does the government pay for their lawyers?

    A: No.

New NC law requiring welfare applicants be tested for drugs delayed

By Katy Canada and Georgia Parke
RALEIGH — Less than a week before county social service agencies are supposed to start drug testing welfare applicants under a new state law, the agencies are still awaiting guidelines from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“The last we heard from them is that they are still working on those rules,” said Richard Park, Division of Social Services business officer for Randolph County. “We’re still on standby.”

A DHHS spokeswoman blamed the delay on a lack of funding while the lawmaker behind the original measure said there was enough money in the budget to get started.

On Friday, the House approved a technical corrections bill, HB 1133, that included a provision to delay the drug testing until July 1, 2015, instead of the current effective date of Aug. 1, 2014. The bill will go to the Senate next week.

Some county social service officials suggested the law would be one more headache for agencies that have struggled over the past year with Medicaid and food stamp backlogs caused in part by the state’s switch to new computer systems.

Luv Sinclair, the program manager of Work First in Wake County, said the county already had a significant backlog of Medicaid applications and that drug testing would be another burden.

“We are diligently trying to work off the Medicaid backlog,” Sinclair said. “We don’t want to add any more delay to that.”

About 1,818 people in Wake County receive Work First benefits, and though not all would have to undergo drug testing – the law requires testing only if social workers suspect drug use – it’s hard to know what will be required without the rules. Sinclair said additional staff and resources could be needed.

Tina Corbett, director of the Johnston County DSS, also said that trying to conduct drug testing would be a significant burden for the county on top of its Medicaid backlog. About 300 people in Johnston County receive Work First benefits.

“Until we actually receive information and direction from the Division of Social Services or DHHS, we are not in a position nor do we have funding locally to implement drug testing,” Corbett said. “It seems unclear if funding will ultimately be appropriated.”

Processing the rules

Before most laws can be implemented, rules have to be written and then approved by several different bodies in a lengthy process that can take several months.

For the drug testing law, DHHS must approve the rules submitted to it by the Social Services Commission and receive certification from the Office of the State Budget. After receiving funding, DHHS must publish the rules online and in the state register, allow for a 60-day public comment period, make changes based on public input and then submit the rules to the Rules Review Commission for its approval.

DHHS has been stuck on the first step.

“DHHS has not submitted the rules to the Rules Review Commission at this time, so they have not been officially published,” said Kristi Clifford, press assistant in the DHHS communications office. “These rules are currently being reviewed by DHHS for submission as permanent rules.”

Some lawmakers and county representatives were informed earlier this year that temporary rules would be made available. However, Clifford said the deadline for proposing temporary rules lapsed in February, and DHHS is proceeding with permanent rules instead.

The permanent rule-making process is several months longer than the temporary one.

Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican from Franklin, said he is anxious for the rules to be approved.

“We’re dependent upon the state government to take care of that. I can’t make the state do their job,” Davis said. “I regret that they spent so much time in rule-making, because I think it’s a good bill.”

DHHS has run across its own difficulties in implementing the drug testing. In an April report to the legislature, the department noted that it hasn’t been able to find drug testing facilities in all 100 counties. As a result, it would have to initiate a statewide contract for drug testing services, a process the report said would be labor-intensive and have its own timeline.

Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Monroe and a primary sponsor of the House bill that became law last session, said he did not anticipate the rule-making delay.

“We tried to write into the law ample time to provide temporary rules and so forth,” Arp said.

Funding the drug tests

The legislature has also not yet allocated all the funding DHHS said is needed to implement the testing. The agency estimated that around 5,750 drug tests would be required each year at an estimated cost of $540,594. It said an additional $125,750 would be needed in the law’s first year to modernize the state’s automated case management system.

The budget proposed by the House covers the cost of modernizing systems, but only $218,733 for the testing – leaving $321,859 of the department’s cost estimate unfunded. The Senate’s proposed budget does not include funding for drug testing at all. Budget negotiations are continuing.

Clifford said the funding issues could explain the lack of progress made toward adopting the rules.

“Given the lack of funding, it’s not unusual that this would delay the rule-making process,” she said.

Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed the bill last year, saying legislators hadn’t provided sufficient funding, and that it wouldn’t help people combat substance abuse and would be difficult to implement consistently in all counties. When lawmakers overrode his veto, McCrory said he would not enforce it until sufficient funding was provided – a comment that drew a rebuke from Senate leader Phil Berger, who said the legislature expected McCrory to perform his constitutional duty.

Arp said he didn’t think the holdup had anything to do with the governor’s statement. But he added that the General Assembly had allocated $145,000 in 2013 to get the drug testing started. He also said the amount specified in the proposed House budget for 2014-2015 would be sufficient.

McCrory’s office deferred questions about whether the law would actually be enforced to DHHS. Clifford would not comment on what would happen if DHHS received less funding than it had requested.

“It would be inappropriate to speculate at this point,” she said.

  • WHAT IS WORK FIRST?Work First Family Assistance provides job training and benefits to low-income families. It is paid through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund.Parents are required to engage in work-related activities to receive assistance.

    Families receive a one-time payment equivalent to three months’ worth of cash for up to two years. Based on the $594 need standard for a family of four, Work First can provide $297 per month. After the two-year period has passed, they can reapply or leave the program.

    Session Law 2013-417

    The law calls for welfare applicants to be tested if social workers suspect they are abusing drugs.

    If an applicant tests positive, he or she cannot receive welfare benefits for one year. The applicant may reapply after 30 days, if he or she undergoes substance abuse treatment in a DHHS-approved program but must pay for subsequent drug tests, which can cost about $94.

    If House Bill 1133, the technical correction, passes the Senate and is approved by the governor, drug testing would not be implemented until July 1, 2015, almost a year later than originally scheduled. The correction also calls for temporary rules to be written by Oct. 31, 2014.

    If the technical correction doesn’t pass, the law takes effect Aug. 1.

Read more here:

Pro-choice activists try to deliver broken cookies to McCrory

Gov. Pat McCrory’s attempt to placate pro-choice activists a year ago was remembered on Thursday by activists who tried to give him a box of broken cookies – to symbolize what they called his broken promise not to support restrictions on abortion.

“It’s been a year, and we’re continuing to fight back. This has a very real impact on woman’s lives and woman’s safety,” said Suzanne Buckley, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice NC, a group that advocates for reproductive rights.

The law stops government insurance plans from providing abortion coverage and allows physicians to opt out of performing the procedure if it’s against their beliefs. It also says doctors who give abortions can be sued by the patient or her spouse. DHHS has been directed to establish a list of regulations for abortion clinics, which they are still working on.

After the bill passed the legislature last summer, pro-choice supporters gathered across from the Executive Mansion to protest. McCrory brought them a plate of cookies, a gesture that many still are upset about.

“I’m here basically because I want McCrory to stop being a jerk,” said Elisabeth Jones, a Raleigh native who took part in the demonstration. “I’ve lived here my entire life, and as I’ve grown up, it’s become a state I’m not proud of anymore.”

The protest was quickly shut down by law enforcement, who said the group didn’t have a permit and then drove away with cookies.

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NC House approves bill prohibiting discrimination in charter schools

The House voted Thursday to mandate that charter schools operate under the same discrimination policies as traditional public schools.

The vote came two days after Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, made national news for trying to swat down a different amendment with LGBT protections by suggesting pedophilia and necrophilia were sexual orientations. Stam was rebuked by House colleagues and equality groups for his statements.

The anti-discrimination amendment was introduced by Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat from High Point and the legislature’s only openly gay member. Brandon said the law on discrimination was clear, but that the amendment was necessary because lawmakers have been known to interpret the law in a way that fits their own ideologies.

“This amendment is an American amendment. That’s what I want you to look at it as,” he said. “We’re simply saying every child in this state is entitled to all the privileges thereof.”

Brandon’s amendment was killed for procedural reasons but

Rep. Nathan Ramsay, a Republican from Fairview, introduced a similar amendment.

Although the amendment passed unanimously, some legislators weren’t satisfied. Rep. Susan Fisher, who had introduced the LGBT protections amendment on Tuesday that was tabled after Stam’s comments, said she appreciated the effort but was still disappointed.

“If we read literature about discrimination practices, the more that you are able to delineate those populations of folks that are bullied or harassed, the better chances are they have not to be bullied or harassed,” Fisher said. “Even though we are making some effort along these lines, I think the House can do better, and I hope in the future we would.

Senate Bill 793 also allows charter schools to expand rapidly within the state, a point that was met with some contention from Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat from Greensboro. Adams was concerned the bill would allow charter schools to add grade levels without being properly reviewed by the Board of Charter Schools.

The bill, which passed the House 97-18, also allows charter school teachers to serve as non-voting members of the school board. Another amendment exempts charter school employs from one aspect of the state’s public record law: their salaries may be published but not their names.

NC teachers rally for better pay, better conditions

As Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis were wrapping up a press conference at the executive mansion on a new education spending bill, the North Carolina Association of Educators was gearing up for a rally just a few blocks away. Nearly 500 teachers and education leaders from across North Carolina were at the legislature to make their concerns with the state’s proposed education budgets known.

NCAE speakers and public school advocates are upset over plans in the Senate budget to cut teaching assistants and the teaching fellows program. They also spoke out about tenure, overcrowded classrooms and their pay.

Jessica Benton, a special education teacher at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh, said her biggest concern with the Senate budget is that it increases teacher pay by cutting other areas of education funding.

“You can’t say you’re going to increase teacher pay and then increase class size, cut teaching assistants, school nurses and bus drivers,” Benton said. “If you cut these things, students will suffer.”

Other teachers were concerned about how the Senate’s plan to cut Medicaid would affect their students. Kristin Beller, a fourth grade teacher at Millbrook Elementary, said a significant portion of her students live in poverty or don’t have the resources at home to function in the classroom.

But the new House proposal, which was passed by the Appropriations Committee as the rally took place, has NCAE Vice President Mark Jewell feeling “cautiously optimistic.” Jewell says the provision to increase teacher pay by 5 percent without cutting assistants is a step in the right direction.

“We are in crisis here in North Carolina. We have teachers leaving for better pay and better rights,” Jewell said. “The outcry from public education leaders has resonated, but they’ve given us reason to be skeptical.”

NC House bill legalizing hemp oil as treatment passes Senate Rules Committee

Families affected by a disease called intractable epilepsy may soon experience some relief, after a bill, HB 1220, legalizing the use of hemp oil as a treatment passed the Senate Rules committee on Wednesday and now heads to the Senate floor. It passed the House with an overwhelming majority.

Currently, possession of marijuana in the form of hemp extract is a criminal act. The House bill would authorize neurologists registered with the Intractable Epilepsy Alternative Treatment Pilot Study to dispense hemp extract acquired outside North Carolina to treat children with intractable epilepsy.

Bill sponsor Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican from Emerald Isle, said children who suffer 100 to 200 seizures each week and have been reliant on highly toxic psycotrophic drugs could benefit from the hemp extract.

The main purpose of the bill, she said, was to allow families who have gone to Colorado to procure the hemp extract to come back to North Carolina and legally continue the treatment.

The language of the bill specifically dictates that the substance is to be used exclusively for treating intractable epilepsy. Marijuana is never mentioned.

“You could drink the entire bottle of this and never get high,” McElraft said. “This is only a medicine for a child.”

The bill also encourages the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and Wake Forest University to research hemp oil, which is extracted from marijuana plants. It was later amended to include East Carolina University.

Steve Carlin, whose daughter suffers from Intractable Epilepsy, asked the committee to give the bill a favorable vote. The former police officer said there was no potential for abuse of the hemp extract.

“I’m on my knees here today, begging you to save our children,” Carlin said.

Before the vote, Sen. Tom Apodaca gave a misty-eyed testimonial in support of the bill, saying, as a parent, he would do anything to spare his own child from suffering from intractable epilepsy.

“If I can do anything to help any parent or child who’s experienced that nightmare and what they go through every week, we’re going to do it,” Apodaca said.

In an interview after the meeting, Apodaca said he didn’t think it was a question of whether the bill would pass in the Senate, but instead whether it would pass unanimously. He said it would probably be signed into law by the end of this session.


House panel okays fast-tracking expansion of for-profit charter schools

The House Education Committee approved a Senate bill that would allow for-profit charter schools to multiply rapidly in North Carolina. The bill creates an expedited review process for charter schools that have a successful track record and want to expand in the state.

Applications for 2015-2016 have yet to be reviewed by the Charter School Advisory Board, which bill co-sponsor Sen. Jerry Tillman said is functioning “with some growing pains.” The board has endorsed 16 of 71 applications from organizations who fund for-profit charter schools such as National Heritage Academies and Charter Schools USA.

Tillman said for-profit charter schools have the right to expand as much as non-profit charter schools do, as long as they provide quality education.

The House committee wasn’t as receptive to the Senate’s Common Core. The Senate’s bill calls for studying standards nationwide and choose the best for North Carolina. House members said that left some wiggle room to keep some parts of Common Core in the state’s public school curriculum. So the mmbers instead approved a substitute that mirrors the House bill that repeals all Common Core standards and replaces them with North Carolina-specific standards.

Tillman, the sponsor of the Senate’s Common Core bill, said after the meeting that the House bill places limitations on the new standards commission.

“They’re tying the hands of the standards commission and saying they can’t do this and can’t do that,” Tillman said.

Larry Hall, who represents Durham County, said entirely eliminating Common Core standards creates doubt about what teachers can and can’t teach.

The committee voted in favor of the House’s substitute 25-17, with no debate of the Senate bill.

The bill substitute is on track for the House floor next, followed by the Senate, where Tillman said he would not recommend its passage.