Thursday at the General Assembly
– The General Assembly gave final approval to a $17.2 billion state budget and sent the plan to Gov. Mike Easley. Along party lines and with no additional debate, the Senate voted 28-20 in favor of the plan. The House already signed off on the compromise two-year spending plan, narrowly approving it by a single vote Tuesday and by two votes Wednesday. Easley, who threatened a veto earlier this week if lawmakers gave a $150 bonus to state employees, appeared ready to sign the budget bill into law. A stopgap spending measure that kept state government operating during six weeks of budget negotiations was to expire at midnight Thursday. Easley said the budget "may be the best education budget that I have seen in my tenure as governor."
– The Senate remains a couple of votes short of passing the lottery, Senate leader Marc Basnight said. All 21 Republicans and five Democrats remain opposed to making North Carolina the final state on the East Coast to have a game. That would leave proponents with just 24 of the Senate’s 50 votes. Basnight blamed Republican leaders for keeping their members from voting for a game. Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said no GOP members were persuaded to support a lottery. A proposal describing how to distribute lottery proceeds to education programs is in the budget bill, but doesn’t apply unless a standalone lottery bill passed by the House is approved by both the Senate and Gov. Mike Easley.
– Senate leaders want to wrap up most of their work by Saturday and go home until next spring, except for required votes such as one to resolve the pending state school superintendent’s race later this month. "I think people of this state, myself included, believe that we need to leave this building as quickly as possible," said Basnight, adding that the 6 1/2-month session had gone on too long and that his colleagues were ready to leave. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, said his chamber would go home for the weekend Thursday, take next week off and return Aug. 22 for a couple of days to take up outstanding items. The House and Senate appear set to meet Aug. 23 to choose the next public schools superintendent. Some House members were frustrated that the Senate’s exit could keep some bills from being heard.
– The House voted 80-23 in favor of forming an independent panel to review the innocence claims of convicted felons. The state Supreme Court chief justice and the chief judge of the state Appeals Court would choose the eight-member panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The members would review claims and send the case on to a three-judge Superior Court panel if five of the eight members agreed. Charges would be dismissed if all three judges determine there "is clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant is innocent. A split decision could be appealed to the Supreme Court. The bill now goes to the Senate.
– People who lobby the General Assembly and top executive branch officials would have to file disclosure reports more often in a bill that cleared the House. The measure also would require lobbyists and their principals to report any expenditures above $10. The reports would have to be filed monthly for legislative lobbyists while the General Assembly is in session. By a vote of 52-51, the House trimmed the time period that former lawmakers would have to wait before lobbying the Legislature or executive branch until 60 days after they leave office. House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, voted for the change in the "cooling-off" period. The bill now returns to the Senate, which passed a lobbying bill that capped spending on individual legislators at $100 annually but included a broad exception and retained biannual expense filings.
– Restricting smoking sections in restaurants won’t happen this year. Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, stripped the language from a Senate bill because he said he didn’t believe the chamber would have enough time to take it up before an expected adjournment this weekend. Holliman said he worried that keeping the provision could delay the bill to which it was added last week, which addresses standards for licensing substance abuse and addiction counselors. A study committee will take up the issue between legislative sessions, Holliman said. The initial version would have banned all smoking in restaurants but was eventually reduced to restricting smokers to no more than 25 percent of an eatery.
– The state House voted unanimously to move forward a bill that ensures government lawyers won’t have to reveal all of their strategies before a trial, and allows the public to challenge the protection of the records under the provision. The measure, which returns to the Senate for concurrence, also ensures judges have discretion when deciding whether to award attorney’s fees in such cases. Judges could consider whether the government agency had "substantial justification" to deny access to public records or that circumstances made the award of attorney’s fees "unjust." Said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange: "It creates a presumption in favor of the plaintiff in terms of getting attorney’s fees instead of the other way around, which is the way it was before."
– Pirating movies would become a state crime under a bill given final approval by the General Assembly. The measure creates a new criminal offense to record or copy a film showing in a movie theater. The first act of film piracy would result in a misdemeanor, and the second would lead to a felony. In the past, federal copyright laws have addressed actions of film piracy. Similar laws are on the books in more than 20 other states and in the federal code. If Gov. Mike Easley signs the bill, the law would take effect Dec. 1 and apply to offenses that occur after that date.
– The House gave tentative approval to a Senate bill authorizing the Department of Justice to charge a fee for providing criminal histories to the Department of Cultural Resources on applicants for permits to do archaeological work on state property, among other changes. The legislation would take effect Oct. 1. The Senate already has approved the measure.
Car taxes and fees
– The General Assembly signed off on a bill that in a few years would require automobile owners to pay their property taxes and their license tag renewal at the same time. The measure, sent to Gov. Mike Easley after unanimous approval in the House, is backed by local governments as a way to collect taxes that are otherwise delinquent. The measure is designed to cut down on delinquent tax payments and help cities, counties and fire districts collect $80 million more combined annually. The bill tells the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Revenue to upgrade computer programs so that the work can be complete jointly. The change wouldn’t take effect until 2009.
– "This place has never had a strategy." – Senate leader Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said when asked if he had a strategy on trying to get a standalone lottery bill through the Senate before Saturday.
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