By Nelda Holder –
The scurry of crossover, when non-appropriation bills in the General Assembly are due to move from one house to the other, has once again come and gone. The new bills that beat the April 27 midnight deadline now take a bit of a backseat to the newly minted 2017-2019 state budget proposal from the Senate. (NB: The finalized bill was released just before press time; an in-depth comparison with Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal will be available on the Urban News website and the author’s blog, PoliticallyPurpleNC.com)
Once the Senate approves its bill, it will go to the House, which will then pass its own version; reconciliation of the two bills follows. The stated timeline for all this is to have a finalized budget on the governor’s desk by mid-June. Past schedules would indicate this is an optimistic vision, but stay tuned.
The first proposed budget of Cooper’s four-year term totaled $23.5 billion, with key educational priorities. He titled it “Common Ground Solutions for NC,” noting in his press release that the budget’s goals “don’t come with party labels. They’re universal and bipartisan.” Proposing investments in education, health care, economic development, and public safety, his proposal does not call for raising taxes or fees, or for cutting any services. Key elements include adding 4,700 more slots for children to attend Pre-K classes, and a $15-million chunk to help transform low-performing schools. It further includes a more then 5% average increase in teacher pay, setting up a path to reach the national average in five years.
Focusing on our “adult” children
Two bills under consideration in Raleigh appear to have bipartisan support in focusing on two specific areas of concern for North Carolina’s children. Both involve financial appropriations, so despite their current status there will be opportunity for either or both to move. One, the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act (HB 280) has received a good deal of public attention. It would take North Carolina off the list of only two states where 16- and 17-year-olds are still automatically tried in adult courts. (The other state is New York.) The bill would move misdemeanor and non-violent felony cases to the juvenile court system, along with other changes.
If it is approved, the bill is expected to benefit youths by preventing “branding” with a court record (juvenile records are confidential), by lowering recidivism, and by offering more preventive help to the youths and their families. It would further be expected to reduce school-based referrals to the court system, and would require “regular juvenile justice training for law enforcement officers.” According to the nonprofit Carolina Justice Policy Center, raising the age now has the support of the John Locke Foundation, Conservatives for Criminal Justice Reform, the Sheriff’s Association, the Chief of Police Association, and the NC Police Benevolent Association, and includes the endorsement of a commission created by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to study the issue.
Upending the social service paradigm
The second bill of special consideration for the state’s youngest is the Family/Child Protection & Accountability Act (SB 594 and companion bill HB 608). So far, this bill has seen much less publicity, but it is potentially a massive change in the operation of this state’s child welfare system. The stated goals call for a regional system of social services departments that would usurp the current governance by 100 single-county departments, with an eye to improving accountability and coordination for the vulnerable population of both youth and aging in the state.
This is an ambitious and far-reaching undertaking. The immediate goal of the legislation is to establish a working group to develop plans for the transition to regional service departments. The preliminary plan they must write is to be submitted to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services by January 15, 2019. The department must then revise that plan to incorporate information from stakeholders, with a final plan expected to be implemented by January 1, 2022.
Buncombe County Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D) is a co-sponsor of SB 594, and she addressed its importance in a May 9 email, stating that a 2016 federal review of this state’s child welfare system “found deficiencies in all areas they looked at, most disturbingly, safety.” One of the issues, she noted, is that with 100 counties in the state, “there are 100 different systems for addressing the needs of foster children in North Carolina.” Van Duyn believes the legislation offers a systematic approach in creating regional systems, and would provide “more oversight from the state where it is needed.”
Henderson County’s Rep. Chuck McGrady (R) is a co-sponsor in the House, along with Buncombe County Rep. Brian Turner (D). McGrady, also in an email, noted that he co-sponsored the bill “because I believe every child who is unfortunately caught up in the child welfare system ought to have the same benefits and be treated the same.” County DSS departments “are not all the same,” he said, “and the services provided sometimes depend on where one lives.” He also mentioned that he supports other changes discussed in the bill, such as “reducing the time frame a parent has to appeal from a termination of parental rights order.”
This is a far-reaching bill. If it moves forward, we hope to analyze its scope in more detail.
Nelda Holder is the author of The Thirteenth Juror – Ferguson: A Personal Look at the Grand Jury Transcripts. Read Holder’s blog, www.politicallypurplenc.com