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Groups Rally At N.C. Legislature For Piece Of State Budget Pie

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RALEIGH, N.C. — People wanting a piece of the state budget pie rallied at the Legislative Building within earshot of lawmakers who started the short session Monday.

State employees turned out in force to push for a pay raise -- their first in three years.

"We've received bonuses and days of vacation, but that's still nothing like having money in your pocket," state employee Shirley Bell said.

The workers want 5 percent annual pay raises for the next fewyears. Rank-and-file state workers have received noacross-the-board raises in four years, and have worked withrestrictions on travel, spending and hiring.

Employee representatives say those conditions have led to highturnover and a drop in morale.

"State employees and teachers have to be the No. 1 priority this year," said Dana Cope with the State EmployeesAssociation of North Carolina, which represents about 60,000 stateworkers.

Other groups also came to the Legislature on Monday to let theirvoices be heard, including dog-owning hunters, who want lawmakersto reject a proposed pet food tax; motorcyclists who want a lawmaking helmets optional; and activists who oppose the plannedclosing of Dorothea Dix mental hospital in Raleigh.

The General Assembly returned to workMonday with a budget surplus for the first time in four years -- andplenty of ideas on what to spend it on.

The gavels came down to usher in the House and Senate chambers into their "short session," in which they adjust the second year of the two-year budget passed last summer.

Legislative leaders returned expecting to have at least $190 million more than what they planned for in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Gov. Mike Easley and various interest groups already have their eye on plenty of uses for the surplus. Easley released his recommended

budget adjustments

forthe coming year Monday afternoon. He is proposing cutting nearly $350 million in spending.

The governor, who is seeking re-election, unveiled severalproposals last week, including exempting businesses from the first$20,000 of corporate tax income tax owed, and expanding credits andgrants to lure new firms to the state.

With the July 20 primary election looming, House Co-Speakers JimBlack and Richard Morgan and Senate leader Marc Basnight arelooking to approve a budget and get out of Raleigh by the beginningof July.

Non-budget bills considered controversial or complex -- a deathpenalty moratorium or medical malpractice reforms are examples --could have a hard time getting to the House floor for a vote.

To celebrate completion of a renovation of the House chamber,about 100 former members sat alongside current lawmakers.

The $1.2 million upgrade includes refinished desks, newbright-red carpet and seats reupholstered for the first time sincethe Legislative Building opened in 1963.

"Thank you for the role you have played in forming publicpolicy in North Carolina over the years," Co-Speaker Jim Black,D-Mecklenburg, told the ex-lawmakers.

Woody White, who replaced Ballantine in the Senate, is one offive newcomers to the Legislature since it last convened in July.In addition to Ballantine, three senators have resigned; one Housemember, Gene McCombs, died earlier this year.

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