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Legislature Adjourns After Passing Budget, School Calendar

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The General Assembly completed its work for the year early Sunday following weekend marathon meetings in which lawmakers passed a $15.9 billion budget plan and a contentious school calendar bill.

The House and Senate adjourned amid hugs, cheers and handshakes at 6:14 a.m., nearly 19 hours after legislative leaders began their race to the finish.

Overnight debates capped a historic two-year legislative term that began with budget shortfalls and the first co-speakership in North Carolina history and ended two days before an unusual July primary election.

"Everybody predicted chaos and thought it was going to be the end of the world," Co-Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, said in summing up a session that "began in terrible fashion and ended up with a good result."

In the final hours of debate, lawmakers agreed to require local school districts to start school later in the summer and eliminate five workdays for teachers. The measure passed shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday by a 59-37 vote, and it will take effect for the 2005 school year.

Lawmakers also passed additional corporate campaign finance restrictions and monitoring of nonprofit groups that receive public money. They also established a recreational saltwater fishing license after years of discussions.

Legislative leaders performed tasks routine before any adjournment, including appointments to state commissions and topics to be studied before the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

More than a dozen of the 170 House and Senate members will not be back because of retirement or the pursuit of higher office. Others will find out Tuesday whether they have a chance to return as they attempt to win their primary elections.

Legislators cleared out of Raleigh to campaign with the ink still drying on a spending package to run state government through next June.

With the outcomes not in doubt, Saturday night's budget debates remained low-key affairs compared to the free-for-alls of the bitter 2001-02 session.

The budget now goes to Gov. Mike Easley's desk for his signature. Easley has not threatened a veto like he did with last year's budget.

"From what he's heard, it sounds good," Easley adviser Franklin Freeman said.

The co-speakership of Black and Rep. Richard Morgan, R-Moore, angered many of the 61 Republicans who arrived in 2003 expecting to take control of the chamber. Instead, GOP members refused to back Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, as speaker.

The two-year session opened with a week of intrigue until Morgan and a handful of GOP allies worked with Black to create a co-speakership with equal chairmanships among Democrats and Republicans on most committees.

Morgan and Black usually did not allow legislation to reach the floor unless they both agreed to do so.

"I could look in Jim Black's eyes and trust him," Morgan told colleagues in a brief floor speech Saturday. "He knew he could look in my eyes to trust me. We've been successful because the members of the House of Representatives have known that trust."

The coalition, however, disintegrated an already fractured House GOP and prompted vicious primary battles between Republicans loyal to Morgan and those loyal to the party's conservative wing.

"The co-speakership was an absolute failure for the people of North Carolina," said Rep. John Rhodes, R-Mecklenburg.

Rhodes said Morgan and Black refused to take up legislation important to conservatives, such as a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Many Democrats also were unhappy that the speakers did not let a death penalty moratorium bill be heard after it passed the Senate last year.

The budget plan adjusts the second-year of the two-year budget approved by the Legislature in 2003, spending $411 million more than what was authorized a year ago.

The budget sets aside $118 million to teach an estimated 25,000 additional students entering the public schools and higher education campuses this fall. Easley also got the entire $59 million he sought to keep expanding the More at Four preschool program and class-size reductions for the third grade.

State employees got their first permanent raise since 2000, in the amount of 2.5 percent or $1,000, whichever is greater. Teachers got an average 2.5 percent pay raise, while community college faculty got an additional 2 percent above what rank-and-file workers received.

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