Local News

State Budget Receives Final Approval; House Passes Lobbying Reforms

Posted July 6, 2006 10:27 a.m. EDT

— An $18.9 billion state spending plan is headed to Gov. Mike Easley on Thursday after the General Assembly gave final approval to a budget that cuts some taxes, spends more on education and sets aside money for the next crisis.

In approving the budget bill for the second time in as many days, the House voted 82-31 and the Senate 31-15 to spend nearly 10 percent more than last year, although more than $560 million of the $1.7 billion increase is set aside in reserve.

The rest goes toward large state employee and teacher raises, $206 million in pay-as-you-go construction and $163 million for more than 27,000 new students expected this fall.

The Democratic-led Legislature also used more than $160 million to begin reducing a pair of "temporary" tax increases first approved in 2001 and extended twice.

A huge budget surplus for the previous fiscal year -- the largest as a percentage of the budget in at least 35 years -- gave budget-writers the confidence to begin phasing out a half-penny increase in the sales tax and a 0.5 percent increase in the individual income tax.

Easley has not said yet whether he will sign the bill into law, but he praised the budget when it emerged from final negotiations late last week, especially its education programs.

The governor got money he sought in his budget proposal for at-risk students, poor school districts and 100 middle-school literacy coaches.

Several Items Still Up For Debate In Legislature

Late Thursday afternoon, the House overwhelmingly passed a lobbying reform bill. Lawmakers plan to finalize it on Monday. It and many other bills still must clear the Senate, as leaders say they plan to close out the session by next Friday.

“We're knocking these things out,” said Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand. “It's time to go home, but we'll get them.”

Rand said that supporters of an increase in the state’s minimum wage shouldn’t panic, and he also sounded optimistic that ethics legislation will clear his chamber.

“It's a moving target,” he said. “It's been a very difficult issue, but I think we're ready with that.”

Ethics reform advocates publicly said they're optimistic too. But, they don't want excuses, if they're told to wait until next time.

“I'd say that's completely insufficient and not good enough and they have to act this session,” said Rob Thompson with the N.C. Public Interest Research.

Ultimately, they warn frustrated voters care about ethics and lawmakers need to listen.

“If they leave without doing that, they are going to create political liabilities for themselves,” said John Hood with the John Locke Foundation.

Lawmakers are also eying immigration reforms. A bill under consideration in the House requires the state to verify the legal status of new hires. The bill would impact anyone working for the state. The measure is still in the early stages.