Lawmakers talk gamefish, bridges, poker machines
Bridges were a big topic, too, as state Sen. Stan White and state Rep. Tim Spear offered updates and perspectives before fielding questions.
Also featured at The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce’s Viewpoint 2012 Legislative breakfast last week was North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge Linda McGee, who lives in Dare County.
Attorney Ben Gallop moderated the three-member panel.
A recurring theme echoed by White and Spear concerned the partisan atmosphere both said pervades the legislature in Raleigh.
White called it “hyper-partisan,” while Spear, who is not running for re-election, averred the “partisan climate in Raleigh is becoming more and more like Washington, D.C. I wish we could people first and politics last.”
White addresses the problems along the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry route and noted he was on the ferry recently when it “ran hard aground.”
Bridges were prominent among White’s talking points. He expressed hope the lawsuit filed by environmental groups to halt the Oregon Inlet bridge replacement would be settled before summer. He said he was “keeping his fingers crossed” that pilings might be going in by early 2013.
White and Spear said “gap funding” appeared safe for the Currituck mid-county bridge to keep that project “on track.
Regarding N.C. 12 on Hatteras Island, White said there had been “a lot of conversation about the short bridge” currently spanning the new inlet formed by Hurricane Irene. White said “Fish and Wildlife had decided the inlet needed to be bridged and so it will be bridged.”
White took time to address critics in other parts of the state who find fault in the money spent to maintain N.C. 12.
“I think you’d be surprised how little money is spent on Highway 12 compared to other parts of the state,” he said, noting that after major storms the federal government picks up the lion’s share of rebuilding Highway 12.
As if to emphasize that same point, Spear, describing the negotiating that goes on in the state House of Representatives, described an improvement being floated in one of his committees in the western part of the state along I-40.
That portion of road is affected by rockslides, and DOT wants to build some alternate routes. One of those options would cover 10 miles of road and include three tunnels at a cost of $370 million.
“Our entire ferry budget is only $37 million, so we could run our ferries for 10 years” Spear said he told committee members.
Spear did not doubt the project for I-40 was needed; instead he was making a point that the ferries “are just as much a part of our roads” as the western project was a part of their roads.
White also addressed the widening of U.S. 64 from Columbia through East Lake.
White said he was confident most of the issues on the “Columbia side” of the bridge involving land acquisition would be resolved shortly, and funding for the new Alligator River Bridge was already in place.”
The hang-up, White told the crowd was from the “foot of the bridge through East Lake village” where “we have an enemy in (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife.”
The federal agency is unwilling to give up any more land for the widening, and has also required costly environmental studies of animals, including a proposal for as many as 15 “very expensive” wildlife crossings.
Spear focused on the state budget. He reminded the audience that this year’s General Assembly session is a “short session” where major legislation is typically not handled.
However, the every-other-year short session is often used to “tweak” the state budget, which in North Carolina is adopted at the long sessions for two-year periods.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly passed the biennial budget last year, so in theory, Spear said, the legislature isn’t required by law to consider the budget this time.
Spear did state the “leadership” had already placed budget discussions on the agenda but had not consulted committees in advance, as was done in the past.
“The budget is already done” Spear said, referring again to the partisan atmosphere and lack of discussion or negotiation.
When asked by Gallop is there were any bi-partisan issues Spear felt could be handled in the short session, capping the gas tax was the only item he could suggest that might rise above the party divide.
On other issues, from raising the sales tax, funding for education and the judicial system, Spear said the two political parties were far apart in their perception of what needed to be done in regard to spending.
One of Spear’s biggest concerns was reversions for education — funds the counties send back to Raleigh for redistribution. The statewide reversion amount of $124 million is scheduled under the current budget to rise another $74 million this year, further stressing local systems.
A revenue raising idea Spear floated was the taxation of video poker machines.
While Spear has voted against the legalization of the machines, the court system has thus far ruled laws banning their use unconstitutional. Spear said estimates are $400 million to $600 million could be raised if the state levied taxes on the machines.
Talk then turned to regulation, especially in the areas of coastal management and wildlife.
White didn’t mince any words when assessing the current state of regulation in the region:
“I do think we are over-regulated. Certainly Marine Fisheries is going out of their way to over-regulate and CAMA was a great idea when it came into being. I am not sure that it hasn’t outlived its usefulness, and certainly the particular group that is controlling CAMA has gotten to the point that they are unrealistic in some of their rules and regulations.”
Regarding potential legislation to classify rockfish (striped bass), speckled trout and red drum as game fish that could only be taken by recreational fishermen, both Spear and White doubted any such bill would pass in the short session.
Both expressed their opposition to re-classifying the three species, echoing one another with doubts that such a move would reduce mortality and indicating that the fight was really one group, recreational anglers, demanding sole access to a natural resource.
McGee, as might be expected, avoided any political or partisan discussion, instead providing the audience with an overview of the state court system and her role as an appeals judge.
McGee is second in seniority on the Court of Appeals, having served 17 years and is also the longest serving woman in the history of the North Carolina court system.
During her tenure, she has rendered over 2,000 opinions and participated in over 6,000 decisions.
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