Local News

Legislators Ready To Cover Much Ground In Short Session

Posted May 10, 2004 6:42 a.m. EDT

— The start of a new week brings the start of a new legislative session.

State lawmakers convene Monday for what is known as the short session. It is scheduled to last only two months, but there is a lot of ground to cover.

The legislators will be greeted in Raleigh by something they have not seen in a while -- a budget surplus of nearly $200 million. What to do with that money will be an issue.

State employees are looking for their first pay raise in three years. Small businesses would like a corporate tax cut. The co-speakers of the House said that is unlikely, as is a tax increase.

Anti-smoking advocates will be at the legislature Tuesday to push for an increase in the cigarette tax. While that may have trouble, an increase in the tax on dog and cat food may go through to raise money to help control the pet population.

The tax on pet food -- 10 cents on a 20-pound bag, or 2 cents on a can -- would be the only one of its kind in the nation.

Other issues: Proposals to reduce class size, limit malpractice damage awards, ban gifts from lobbyists and avoid a ban on video poker machines.

There also is a proposal to bring a NASCAR test track to our state.

The last short session two years ago went until October 4. This time, lawmakers plan to finish by July 2.

Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, said she plans to introduce a bill to raise the cigarette tax.

Competition from overseas leaf growers, reduced demand by manufacturers and an increased focus on biotechnology as a future job-generator in the state have crushed tobacco's prominence in North Carolina. In recent years, tobacco production has dropped by half, and the number of growers has fallen 39 percent.

While the Senate has shown support for an increase, House Co-Speaker Jim Black and Gov. Mike Easley, both Democrats, have said they foresee no tax increases this session.

The average nationwide tax on cigarettes is about 73 cents a pack. In major tobacco states such as North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee, the tax averages 12.4 cents per pack, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.