Wednesday at the General Assembly
By The Associated Press
– For the second time since 2002, Gov. Mike Easley has bypassed the General Assembly and order that money be spent on education programs before legislators agreed to expand them. Easley signed an executive order telling state educators to spend up to $75 million on efforts to assist at-risk students and poor school systems while the Legislature continues to work on a budget deal. Easley said the Leandro school funding decision prompted him in part to go forward and use the money without the formal approval of legislators. He said he was morally and constitutionally obligated to ensure a "sound basic education" for all children. Easley wants to use money already held in state coffers for a special fund to help 16 struggling school districts with student improvement and teacher recruitment. More money would go to poor districts and to pay for 3,200 new slots for 4-year-olds in his More at Four preschool program. Legislators were pretty low-key responding to Easley’s order. When he did it in 2002, some lawmakers questioned whether he had the authority to expand programs not approved by the Legislature. House and Senate leaders said this time that most of the programs already were generally agreed to in the negotiations, although the funding levels hadn’t been finalized.
– A House committee, split along party lines, agreed to allow voters to cast ballots the same day that they register during the early voting period for elections. State law now requires that a person must be registered 25 days before a primary or an election in order to cast a ballot. The bill, which would take effect with the 2006 elections, would require a person arriving at a one-stop site to show a picture ID or other proof of identity. The person would complete a registration form attesting as a U.S. citizen living in the county for at least 30 days. The person could vote immediately by early absentee ballot, but only on that day. Otherwise, the registration would be voided. The bill was approved by a vote of 9-7, thanks in part to three Democratic "floaters" – House members allowed to vote on any committee. Some GOP committee members complained the bill could make voting more complicated, burden overworked county election officials and loosen voting restrictions.
– Two of North Carolina’s economic incentives tools would stay in effect for at least two more years in a bill headed to Gov. Mike Easley’s desk following final legislative approval. The House agreed by a vote of 79-34 in favor of extending the William S. Lee Act and the Job Development Investment Grant program. The bill cleared the Senate and one of two required House votes Tuesday. The bill would allow a four-year extension for two kind of projects in Lee Act development zones, an insert designed to attract big investments to Rocky Mount and Gaston County. Opponents argued the extensions shouldn’t have been so long. They say the Lee Act needs to be replaced with a new incentives program.
– The state House unanimously approved a host of changes to North Carolina’s drunken-driving laws Wednesday, with the intent of improving enforcement. The bill many of the recommendations of a task force formed by Gov. Mike Easley. Many changes are designed to ensure that judges, prosecutors and law enforcement statewide follow the same streamlined procedures in handling these cases. Most of the debate focused on a provision that would make clear that anyone under 21 years old found drinking alcohol is guilty of a misdemeanor. Currently the law applies to purchasing or possessing alcohol. An amendment failed that would have removed the consumption provision. House members agreed to another amendment that would make any commercial driver guilty of driving while impaired if a police officer’s test reveals any alcohol in the person’s blood. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
– A bill headed to Gov. Mike Easley’s desk would make a felony if someone breaks into a house of worship to steal or commit another serious crime. The bill would make the crime a class G felony. The punishment for such a crime ranges from eight months of probation to three years in prison. Under the current law, a church break-in could be a lower-grade felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.
– Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, was hospitalized Thursday night after an emergency heart procedure. Allran said he went to the nurse’s station in the legislative building after experiencing chest pain. An ambulance took him to Rex Hospital, where a catheterization procedure found blockage in an artery, he said. A stent was placed in the artery, and Allran was admitted overnight. "I’m doing great," he told the Hickory Daily Record by phone from his hospital room. He said he expected to be released Thursday.
– The General Assembly soon could have a defibrillator close by the House and Senate chambers in the next few days. Sen. Bill Purcell, D-Scotland, said a nonprofit group has agreed to donate one of the devices so that it could be within close reach of legislators. The only other defibrillator is located in the basement of the Legislative Building. The devices zap rapidly irregular heartbeats back to normal during the first minutes of a cardiac arrest. Defibrillators are being installed all around the country in public buildings to reduce the mortality rate in heart attack victims.
– A Senate judiciary committee has scheduled a hearing Thursday on a bill that seeks to reform voting machines in North Carolina after more than 4,400 votes were lost in Carteret County last year. The bill recommends only three kinds of voting systems be allowed: paper ballots counted by hand, optical scan machines and electronic or touch-screen machines.
– "We’re not used to seeing Republicans fighting among themselves." – Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, during a House election law committee hearing on whether to allow same-day registration and voting at one-stop sites. Two Republican students from North Carolina State University gave opposing views on whether to support the legislation.
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