Monday at the General Assembly
By The Associated Press
– Dozens of legislators got their first look at the final budget proposal expected on the floor Tuesday for the first of two required votes. The two-year budget was supposed to be in place by July 1, but negotiations took longer than expected. The $17.2 billion spending plan for state government this year benefits from a $681 million surplus from last year and more than $600 million of new or extended taxes. That includes keeping a half-cent increase in the sales tax and an 8.25 percent income tax rate for the top wage earners on the books for another two years. The cigarette tax also would go up from 5 cents per pack to 30 cents next month and to 35 cents next summer. Driver’s license, car title and court fees also will increase. The budget also restores several high-profile spending reductions found in either the House or Senate spending plans. Many education items were restored because of an unexpected $102.5 million windfall after a state Supreme Court ruling last month involving civil penalties. This year’s budget also would fit under Gov. Mike Easley’s self-imposed spending plan.
– House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, said he doesn’t expect the lottery language in the budget bill to cause too much heartburn for House Democrats who don’t like the lottery. Nine Democrats voted against a standalone lottery bill in April that passed by a vote of 61-59. Now the budget agreement to be debated Tuesday would remove a lottery advertising ban and change how net proceeds would be distributed. But those provisions only take effect if the Senate approves that same standalone bill. Black says there’s so much that’s good in the budget bill otherwise that they’ll back the changes. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, said the standalone bill also could be voted on in the Senate this week. When asked if the lottery had the votes for passage, Rand responded: "We think so. We wouldn’t bring it up unless we thought we did." Five Senate Democrats are opposed to the lottery and could block its passage if all 21 Republicans also vote no. Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a lottery supporter, would cast any tie-breaking vote.
Plenty of pork
– Budget documents list pages and pages of special projects getting state money, from $20,000 for a computer lab at Mount Airy High School to $5,000 to a mentoring program for Zeta Phi Beta sorority. Most of the dozens of projects were sought by rank-and-file lawmakers for their districts back home. Legislative leaders handled most of these items last year through discretionary pots of money they slipped into the budget. House Speaker Jim Black, Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, and then-Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, R-Moore, essentially decided later which projects would receive money after receiving requests from members. Black and Basnight said this year they would itemize the projects, which cover several pages in their budget report. Separately, the budget sets aside $2 million to pay for a program to provide eye exams to needy children in child cares and preschools. Gov. Mike Easley’s administration and Black, an optometrist, have sought the provision.
– Legislative leaders are discussing trying to adjourn for the year by this weekend. That will be a tall order given the fact that Senate committees haven’t met in weeks and have a host of pending House bills to be considered. Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, said the General Assembly could wrap up the session by Saturday, although chamber leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said that may not happen. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, said finishing Saturday is a goal that would be tough to meet. Black said, however, that many of the issues that must be resolved aren’t new and have been discussed this year. Bills left to be considered include lobbying reform, restrictions on sales of cold medicines to combat methamphetamine production, restrictions on smoking in restaurants and an increase in the minimum wages.
ATV age minimum
– The General Assembly gave final legislative approval to new minimum age requirements for operating all-terrain vehicles, keeping children under 8 from driving the popular four-wheelers. The Senate voted 32-15 in favor of a compromise measure that would remove North Carolina from a handful of states with virtually no operating restrictions for ATVs. The House last week approved the compromise, which now goes to Gov. Mike Easley to be signed into law. The new rules would bar children under 8 from operating an ATV, while children ages 8 to 15 would be limited to driving models with engines of less than 90 cubic centimeters. Most ATV drivers also would have to complete a safety course and follow equipment and driving standards. There would be some exceptions. Hunters and farmers wouldn’t have to follow the new regulations. Children above age 8 could ride larger-sized ATVs than the law allowed if they are purchased by Aug. 15.
– The House and Senate are scheduled to vote on the final budget proposal during floor sessions that begin at 4 p.m. Tuesday. They would be the first of two required votes in each chamber. If both chambers approve the budget twice, it would then go to Gov. Mike Easley’s desk.
– "That door was never locked. It was never closed to anybody who ever wanted to come in there … but we did not advertise that, ‘Yeah, come on in.’ So that was our error." – Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, responding to questions about whether the negotiations between the House and Senate over the budget were open to the media. The negotiations often were held behind closed doors on the sixth floor of the Legislative Office Building.
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