Friday Follies

By: - August 5, 2005 7:10 am

House and Senate leaders are now close to a final agreement on the state budget. Thursday night they worked out compromises on the cigarette tax and state employee pay raises and the Senate agreed to drop its demand that individual campuses be allowed to raise tuition independently of the UNC Board of Governors.

The cigarette tax will increase 25 cents a pack September 1 of this year and another 5 cents July 1. The original House budget raised the tax 25 cents, the Senate plan 35 cents. Both are far short of the 75 cent increase sought by health advocates to significantly reduce teen smoking. State employees will get a two percent raise or $850 increase, whichever is greater, far less than the State Employees Association sought.

The budget will also include provisions to change the lottery bill the House passed earlier this session, removing many of the restrictions that persuaded some House Democrats to support the bill. The Senate will still have to vote on the lottery as separate legislation. Five Democrats remain opposed to the plan. Reportedly, Senate leaders have convinced one Republican to support the lottery, meaning it would pass even if all five Democrats voted against it.

The decision by Senate leaders to drop the UNC tuition provision came amid a firestorm of criticism by prominent state leaders and advocates, but Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight was unapologetic even as he withdrew the proposal.

Basnight told the News and Observer that the opposition by former Governors made it difficult to pass the plan but that he was glad the Senate had tried, saying of the Board of Governors, that "what we have done here is shaken this group." That’s the General Assembly’s job after all, to shake and threaten the people who run the universities.

Basnight has yet to explain why the General Assembly won’t provide the extra money the university needs to retain top professors instead of trying to sabotage the unified UNC system.

But there was good news in his conversation with the News and Observer. He said that the PAC created by wealthy donors that gave $360,000 to political candidates last fall had little impact on the General Assembly. Right. Apparently the group can disband now.

The apparent breakthroughs on the budget set the stage for the General Assembly to adjourn in the next two weeks. That means a mad scramble on issues that have been around virtually the entire session, the proposal to suspend executions, raise the state minimum wage, and reform the state’s lobbying laws.

It also means that last minute efforts to cut taxes or fund major projects will be brought up as supporters try to use the chaos to make it easier to pass their proposals.

That is not the case with a plan to issue $50 million in bonds for a new building at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The plan comes late in the session but is generating a lot of attention.

The House Finance Committee passed the plan Thursday morning, but Governor Mike Easley is not thrilled with the idea of the state borrowing more money. That could mean that the Museum gets a direct appropriation.

The museum project deserves legislative support and public funding. Public art is an important investment but there is a troubling aspect to the legislative response to the proposal. It is now not a question of if the museum will get the $50 million, instead it is a question of where the money will come from.

This has been a legislative session where lawmakers have repeatedly told advocates for affordable housing, child care, and mental health that times are tight and there simply isn’t enough money to make significant new investments in human services.

Housing is the perfect example. Advocates for affordable housing want the General Assembly to put $50 million in the Housing Trust Fund, which would build 6,000 affordable housing units and create 3,000 jobs.

The Senate budget included no new money for the Trust Fund, the House included $5 million. Yet 600,000 North Carolina families face an affordable housing crisis.

Legislators should not have to choose between supporting the museum or affordable housing. The state needs both. But why does the decision about the museum funding seem like a foregone conclusion while advocates for the Housing Trust Fund are struggling for a tenth of their request?

Could it be that the lobbying efforts of wealthy, well-connected museum supporters have more influence with legislative leaders than advocates for the poor? Is it because no lobbyists from a prominent Raleigh law firm have been gathering legislators in a conference room adjacent to the Speaker’s office to plan strategy for the housing proposal as they have for the plan to fund the museum?

Again, a first rate art museum is an important investment for the state and good for state lawmakers for responding positively to plans to fund it. But affordable housing for people in the state is a good investment too.

Lawmakers are elected to represent us all. That means listening and responding to a variety of requests, not just ones from folks they see at cocktail parties.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066