Wednesday at the General Assembly
Hickory Daily Record
By The Associated Press
– State budget
_ A new state budget has one vote left before it’s sent to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature. The General Assembly gave near final passage to the $17.2 billion budget plan and avoided a threatened veto by Easley over additional pay raises for state workers. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed the budget by a vote of 28-20 along party lines and is expected to give final approval Thursday. Earlier Wednesday, the House voted 61-59 in favor of the two-year spending plan agreed to by House and Senate negotiators after nearly two months of negotiations. The House gave initial approval by a one-vote margin Tuesday night. Easley would have to sign any budget bill into law by late Thursday night because a stopgap spending measure to keep state government going during the negotiations expires at that time. The proposed budget would generate more than $600 million in new or extended taxes, including a cigarette tax that jumps from 5 cents a pack. The budget also keeps in place for another two years a half-cent increase in the sales tax and an 8.25 percent income tax rate for the top wage earners. Both were set to expire this year after first going on the books in 2001. Driver’s licenses and title fees would increase, as would taxes on candy, liquor and satellite television. State employees and some Wake County legislators have complained that the proposed raise of 2 percent or $850 isn’t enough for rank-and-file state workers and lobbied for $150 more. Easley threatened to veto the budget over the higher pay and the proposal was nixed.
_ House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, said there’s too much work to end the session by this weekend as legislative leaders had hoped. Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said his chamber would continue working through Saturday. The two chambers must adjourn jointly, so Basnight said the Senate would hold scaled-down floor sessions starting next week, convening the entire Senate only for necessary work, such as choosing a state schools superintendent. "Everything else we’re going to wrap up between now and Saturday," he said.
_ With all Republicans apparently prepared to vote no on a numbers game, lottery opponents may have the upper hand in the Senate. The chamber probably does not have enough votes to pass a lottery for North Carolina, but that could change, Senate leader Marc Basnight said. The Senate has held a standalone lottery bill narrowly approved by the House in April, trying to determine how to change it without wrecking the fragile coalition that passed it in the other chamber. But five of the Senate’s 29 Democrats have remained resolute against establishing a lottery in the only state on the East Coast without one. "My guess is that we don’t right now," Basnight, D-Dare, said when asked if there were enough votes to pass a lottery. Basnight added though that he hadn’t been spending a lot of time on pulling together the votes this week because lawmakers are debating the two-year budget.
_ The full House and a Senate committee both approved an 85-cent increase in the minimum wage Wednesday, but it’s unclear whether the two chambers can agree on a final product. The House voted 62-56 in favor of raising the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $6 and sent it to the Senate. In June, the House rejected a $1-an-hour increase, but Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, revived the proposal by agreeing to couple it with a tax credit for small businesses that provide health insurance for workers. A Senate committee also agreed to raising the wage to $6 per hour, but in a different bill as part of a tax package that would reduce corporate and income tax rates, raise the cigarette by another nickel a pack and rework personal income deductions.
_ Voters in Chapel Hill and Carrboro would cast ballots at so-called "super precincts" this year and next under a bill given final approval by the General Assembly. The pilot program would create easily accessible venues where people from any precinct within Chapel Hill Township could vote during early voting and on the day of the election. Election officials would have multiple ballots corresponding to any voter from the township that may show up to vote. The concept could increase turnout by making voting more convenient for commuters and others, compared to standing in lines at local precincts near their homes, supporters say. Some Republicans have argued that the idea is designed to make it easier for Democrats to complete their get-out-the-vote efforts and could increase opportunities for voter fraud. The bill does not need the governor’s signature.
_ Local governments statewide could create "noxious aquatic weed control service districts" of properties next to lakes or rivers where invasive plants are a problem under a bill given tentative approval by the Senate. Hydrilla, an invasive aquatic weed, clogs boat motors and blocks swimmers from the shallows with a tangle of green strands. It has long frustrated homeowners and local leaders near Lake Gaston that stretches west from Roanoke Rapids along the Virginia border. Local efforts have failed to fix the problem. The districts would be like those created to address other environmental issues such as water quality or beach erosion. They would have the authority to tax all affected property owners to fund efforts to fight water weeds in the entire district. A final vote by the Senate could come Thursday. The House unanimously passed the measure in May.
_ The Senate gave tentative approval to a bill that would require automobile owners to pay their property taxes and their license tag renewal at the same time. The measure, approved 47-2, is backed by local governments as a way to collect more taxes that are otherwise delinquent. "You might also call this the no tax no tag bill," said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth. A final vote could come Thursday. The House has already passed the measure.
_ The Senate unanimously rejected House changes to a bill that bans smoking inside all North Carolina prison buildings, calling for a conference committee to resolve differences. The House exempted Correction Department employees and inmates’ visitors. Superintendents in at least 51 of the 76 prisons already bar indoor smoking. It’s unclear whether those prisons would have to loosen their rules if the House version became law. The bill also orders the department to ban prisoner smoking completely in at least one prison as a pilot project. The state would provide optional smoking cessation programs to both staff and prisoners.
_ The Senate is expected to give final approval to a $17.2 billion state budget Thursday. Gov. Mike Easley would have to sign any budget bill into law by late Thursday night because a stopgap spending measure to keep state government going expires at that time. The measure was necessary because the fiscal year began July 1.
_ "I’ll bet if you did, it’d smell like bacon," said Sen. Phillip Berger, R-Rockingham, on a House member’s idea of throwing a copy of the state budget into a fire.
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