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N.C. Lawmakers Try To Repeal Laws Passed Last Year

Posted July 16, 2006

— General Assembly members who approved hundreds of new laws in 2005 are now pleading with their colleagues to repeal several of them before they wrap up their two-year session this month.

From ending mandatory eye exams for schoolchildren to blocking required payments of property taxes when renewing license tags, many lawmakers this year seem to be looking for ways to undo what they consider misjudgments by their colleagues.

Onslow County Republican Rep. George Cleveland is trying to repeal or weaken a provision giving in-state status to out-of-state students on full scholarships to University of North Carolina system schools.

"The bill was totally unfair," he said.

Undoing something before the ink hardly has time to dry in the statute books can be a tougher challenge than getting legislation passed in the first place. Successful repeals often hinge on connections, alliances and simple good fortune.

The measure that Cleveland is unhappy about was inserted in the 2005 budget. It shifts part of the burden for financial aid to athletes and other undergraduate full scholarship winners from outside North Carolina from private foundations and athletic booster clubs to the state -- a change backers said would stretch funds so that more worthy students can afford to attend UNC schools.

In the past, if a student from California won a Morehead scholarship, the Morehead Foundation covered the student's costs at the out-of-state tuition rate. Under the new provision, the foundation pays only the in-state tuition rate, while the state makes up the difference -- costing the state an estimated $5.2 million for 456 students beginning this fall.

Cleveland first tried -- and failed -- to earmark money set aside to fulfill the obligation in the House budget as temporary. That would have required legislators to revisit the issue in 2007.

Then he demanded debate on a standalone measure -- co-sponsored by 18 other House members -- that would have repealed the provision altogether. But House Education Committee leaders announced it was being sent to a subcommittee -- often a tactic for sending legislation to oblivion.

"They could have passed it or not passed it. I would have been perfectly happy," Cleveland said. "But for the chairs to send it to a subcommittee to kill it, it's not the proper thing to do to the taxpayers of this state."

The chances of convincing the full General Assembly to reverse itself on the matter seemed slim. Supporters of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought the scholarship change last year and have powerful friends in both chambers, particularly the Senate.

Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, a co-chairman of the education committee, said no one ever urged him to kill Cleveland's bill. But he questioned the wisdom of repealing legislation before it even takes effect.

"It's sort of unusual for that to happen," Bell said. "It's not something I've ever had to deal with."

Meanwhile, automobile dealers are worried about the effect a 2005 law might have on their sales. The measure requires car owners to pay automotive property taxes at the same time they pay their license registration.

But dealers have a friend in Rep. Nelson Cole, D-Rockingham, a retired car dealer himself and co-chairman of the House Rules Committee. He helped push through his panel approval of a bill that would repeal the provision -- despite the fact it passed unanimously in both chambers last year.

Cole says he's worried about how much it will cost to integrate Division of Motor Vehicles and Department of Revenue computer systems so that car property tax and tag renewal payments can be collected starting in mid-2009.

A DMV report estimated the cost at $20 million, with a potential $20 million in labor and other costs annually to collect an estimated $72 million in property taxes on cars that the counties contend is going uncollected. Information technology work needs to begin this fall, according to the DMV report.

"Something was wrong with the numbers," said Cole, whose bill has yet to come to the House floor. "We should've had more reliable numbers. It was sold to us on that."

The N.C. Automobile Dealers Association also worries that turning car salesmen into tax collectors will depress sales.

Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, a primary sponsor of the 2005 law, said Cole called him two minutes before the committee meeting to break the news.

"When you work on big things, there's going to be ups and downs," said Folwell, who believes the DMV is overestimating the costs and is looking for a way to soothe dealer concerns before the session ends. "We trying to drive toward a solution, and that's what I've got five days to do."

Other proposals to repeal 2005 laws have received stronger support. The House and Senate are working on new rules for lobbyists that would bar gift-giving to legislators and require more expense disclosures.

The rules would repeal most of a 2005 lobbying law that reformers say didn't go far enough in reducing the perceived influence of meals and tickets to sporting events on lawmakers.

A repeal didn't seem likely until after House Speaker Jim Black, faced with a series of legal troubles -- some related to potential lobbying law violations by two people connected to the lottery industry -- created a special committee charged in part with toughening lottery rules.

Black's problems also helped Sen. Julia Boseman, D-New Hanover, build support to repeal a Black-backed 2005 budget provision that required all incoming kindergartners to obtain a comprehensive eye exam.

The Senate agreed unanimously to eliminate the requirement, but allies of the speaker, an optometrist from the Charlotte suburb of Matthews, responded with a bill that would make the eye exams optional. The outcome remains unclear.

"I think the issues need to be fully debated," Boseman said. "There were too many things that have been thrown into the budget that I don't agree with."

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