Today @NCCapitol (March 25): Dix park backers get ready to sound off

Posted March 25, 2013

— Good morning and welcome to Today @NCCapitol for Monday, March 25. This is WRAL's roundup of what you need to know about North Carolina state government this morning.

HOUSE and SENATE: The House has scheduled a skeleton session for 4 p.m. today and has no bills on the calendar in observance of the first night of Passover. The Senate is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m., but a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said the chamber will likely forgo any work as well. 

THE BIG STORY: The Wake County legislative delegation will hold a public hearing at 4 p.m. today. Although the hearing does not officially have a specific focus, backers of the idea to create a destination park on the Dorothea Dix property plan to turn out in force.

Senate budget writers approved a bill last week that would undo the lease between the state and city of Raleigh. That measure will likely be held by the full Senate on Tuesday.

According to Sen. Josh Stein's office, those who wish to speak at the meeting "must register by email to steinla@ncleg.net or telephone to 919 715-6400 no later than 11:00 am, Monday, March 25, 2013. Please provide the name of the presenter and the topic to be discussed."

Officials of Red Hat Inc., Highwoods Properties Inc. and other major area employers are expected to speak during the 4 p.m. meeting at the Legislative Office Building.

It's worth noting that county legislative delegations have little formal power. Large urban areas like Charlotte, Guilford County and Wake County often form delegations to coordinate legislative action across party lines and pursue regional agendas. However, a being part of a legislative delegation does not bind lawmakers to voting a particular way and the legislative delegation has no extra power when it comes to debating or passing most bills. 

The main impact of the Wake delegation's meeting today is that it gives park backers a forum in which to sound off. 

For those who haven't been following the Dix saga, here's the story so far: 

THE DEAL: In December, Gov. Bev Perdue and city leaders inked a deal to lease the Dorothea Dix property to the City of Raleigh for 99 years. The bulk of the property would become a destination park under that plan, and the state would move offices for the Department of Health and Human Services off the property. Local leaders praised the deal but legislative Republicans promised to submit it to further scrutiny.

MONEY: The Dorothea Dix Hospital campus near downtown Raleigh is worth $60 million to $86 million, according to an appraisal the state obtained in 2012. Legislative Republicans pushing to take back the lease argue that the $500,000 per year agreement wouldn't not fairly compensate the state for that value.  Backers of the deal say it's unlikely the state could have gotten that much for the property for a number of reasons. Memos among state and city leaders obtained through a public records request show concerns about potential environmental problems on the property.

THE BILL: On March 14, lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced bills that would condemn the lease, with Senate lawmakers taking the lead on the measure. Senators said they would still lease much of the property to Raleigh, but at a higher rate than was negotiated by Perdue. Senate leaders say that in addition to money concerns, they want to preserve a section of the property for use by the Department of Health and Human Services. 

THE CITY: City leaders say the state is reneging on a deal and object to the state going back on its word. The Raleigh City Council has met in closed session to discuss legal options if the state takes back the deal. 

THE DEEDS: One justification Republican leaders give for taking back the lease focuses on the original land grants to the state. Sens. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Pat Pate, R-Wayne, both cited deed restrictions as a reason to take a second look at the deal. The Dix property was acquired by the state in pieces over the years. Two of the earliest grants came from Sylvester Smith, including a 12 acre tract and a nearly 129 acre tract at the heart of the property. 

Hand scrawled in nineteenth century deed books, those deeds do mention that the purpose of the transactions is to create a state hospital for "the insane" and that the the property is being given in trust to benefit the mentally ill. According to legislative lawyers and other others, the exact impact of that language is unclear, but it could be problematic if the entire property were turned into a park. While it's unlikely that heirs of Sylvester Smith could be found to bring suit, lawyers say, someone with mental illness might have standing to argue in court that the state has diverted the property away from its intended beneficiaries.

Backers of the park concept say its enough that revenue from the deal would be used to fund mental health programs. 

POLITICS: It has not escaped notice that the Dix deal was done at the end of a Democratic governor's administration and that it is Republicans looking to undue that work. Differences over the bill have so far broken down along party lines in the Senate. 

MOVING FORWARD: Whether business leaders sound off or the deeds pose a problem, this measure is in the hands of the General Assembly now. Senate leaders say they will send the Dix bill to the House by the end of this week. The real question may be how House lawmakers, who have been relatively muted on the measure, feel about the deal. 

Also worth noting: 

  • Many of the leaders of the Dix Visionaries group that helped put together the Dix deal are big republican donors, reports WUNC radio.
  • While Hise argues the Dix deal doesn't pay the state enough, he recently argued for a bill that sold a closed state prison to a local community college for $1, reports the N&O.

@NCCapitol WEEKEND: "On the Record," WRAL's weekly public affairs show, was preempted for basketball this weekend. But other government stories from the government beat included: 

VOTER ID: Members and friends of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP gathered in downtown Raleigh Sunday to commemorate a bloody civil rights era event and rally against new laws they say would unfairly crimp the voting power of black Americans.

MCCRORY THREAT: A New Hanover County Commissioner is facing calls to resign in the wake of odd behavior, that has included banging on the windows of a car used by Gov. Pat McCrory.

RURAL AREAS: Groups that support economic development in North Carolina's rural counties say they were stunned to learn they were left out when Gov. Pat McCrory outlined his spending priorities this week. "Everything we heard was rural areas are going to fully participate, and here we go. Then, we got a budget," said Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.

RESERVES: Gov. Pat McCrory's "budget proposal would intercept more than $275 million from pots of money — many beginning when Democrats led the legislature — earmarked to help tobacco-dependent communities, build parks, dispose of old tires and other purposes. The plan also proposed reducing funds for several non-state economic development agencies by $69 million," reports the Associated Press.


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