Tuesday at the General Assembly
By The Associated Press
– The House cleared a major obstacle in getting a budget passed when a 25-cent cigarette tax increase passed the Finance Committee on a voice vote. North Carolina’s 5-cent tax on cigarettes is the lowest in the nation and would remain among the lowest if it’s raised to 30 cents. The Senate budget proposal approved last month raised the tax to 40 cents per pack. The House Democratic Caucus hasn’t reached a consensus about what increase, if any, is acceptable to members. Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus, said there’s some Democrats who don’t want any cigarette tax increase in the budget. Unless there are Republicans who cancel out "no" votes of Democrats, Black may have to delay a floor debate on the budget. The House Appropriations Committee scheduled a Wednesday morning meeting, with potential floor votes later Wednesday and Thursday.
– Clergy and church leaders urged lawmakers to reconsider raising the cigarette tax by 75 cents per pack. The five religious leaders argued House members have a moral obligation to push for a tax that will deter sufficiently children from lighting up. Rabbi John Friedman of Durham says legislative leaders aren’t living up to their duty to lead North Carolina citizens if they fail to raise the tax substantially. Rev. Mark Creech with the Christian Action League of North Carolina says cigarette companies profit at the expense of the health of thousands of children and adults annually. Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, says it doesn’t look good right now for getting the House behind anything above 25 cents.
– A Senate transportation committee moved a bill to the full chamber that would allow North Carolina’s toll road authority to study and build up to nine projects instead of three. The North Carolina Turnpike Authority agreed this year to study four projects but under existing law can’t build them all. Supporters say the increase would make it easier to complete critical highway jobs. The number of highway contracts this year are expected to be reduced due to a cash drain at the Department of Transportation. Any project approved for construction would be financed with bonds repaid with collected tolls. There are now no toll roads in North Carolina. The bill also would authorize the Department of Transportation to license the construction of a private toll bridge, probably one connecting mainland Currituck County to the northern Outer Banks. If approved by the full Senate, the bill would return to the House for concurrence.
– Black state lawmakers urged House budget writers to include money for AIDS prevention. Speakers during a news conference at the Legislative Building said blacks in North Carolina accounted for about 70 percent of new HIV cases last year. They noted the Senate’s budget plan includes $1 million for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and that Gov. Mike Easley’s budget proposal included money for AIDS prevention. But the House budget now being hammered out does not include any money for fighting AIDS. Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, said the General Assembly should provide $5 million for comprehensive education and treatment efforts. "If we don’t do it now it’s going to cost us 10 times more in the future," added Sen. Larry Shaw, D-Cumberland. (more…)
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