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Lawmakers give final OK to state budget

Both chambers on Tuesday passed the $21.4 billion budget for the new fiscal year.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Both chambers on Tuesday passed the final budget bill for state government.

Late Tuesday, the House voted 97-20 for the $21.4 billion spending plan for the new fiscal year. Earlier in the day,  the Senate passed the bill 32-14.

Both chambers gave tentative approval to the plan Monday night.

The bill nows goes to the desk of Gov. Mike Easley, who can sign the bill into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

A governor's office spokesman said there is no time frame for when Easley may sign the bill. The spokesman said Easley hasn't had time to review the entire budget but believes "some positives" happened over the weekend while lawmakers were working on the budget.

The budget raises overall spending by $700 million compared to a year ago. Democratic leaders argue it's a small increase compared to the overall budget.

Some Republicans complain that $857 million in borrowing authorized in the plan will lead to future tax increases.

"We've heard a lot of talk about how consumers have gotten in trouble by what is referred to as predatory lending. I like to refer to the borrowing that's taking place in this budget as predatory borrowing,” said Senate Minority Leader Sen. Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County).

The state budget borrows $107 million to pay for the Green Square Project, a joint venture by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Museum of Natural Sciences and the State Employees Credit Union to reshape part of downtown Raleigh. The project will provide office space for the DENR, expand the museum and renovate the credit union, according to the DENR's web site.

The budget also borrows money for new buildings on state college campuses.

Chief House budget negotiator, Rep. Mickey Micheaux (D-Durham), stands by the current proposal.

“We didn't raise taxes, we spent less than we have been spending before. Because of the large amount that we're putting into construction there are a lot of people that are going to be going to work,” Micheaux said.

The budget sets aside money for teacher and state employee pay raises and local law enforcement and probation departments.

Cuts were made to the Mental Health Services division. John Tote, executive director of the N.C. Mental Health Association, said a lack of investment now could lead to problems in the future.


Hog Bill

Elsewhere in the legislature, a Senate committee cleared a bill that would allow a hog farmer to rebuild after a fire or switch swine operation type without having to follow tougher rules on the books.

The measure approved Tuesday seeks to grandfather in swine operations built before 1995. Those built after that date are required to stay at least one half-mile from a school and 1,500 feet from any home.

Molly Diggins with the state Sierra Club opposes the bill. She told the committee the change would prevent surrounding homeowners from having a say on rejecting such setback requirements.

The bill also provides a similar exception if the farms wanted to expand the living areas for pregnant sows.

The bill now goes to the full Senate.

Drought Plan

A modified proposal from Gov. Mike Easley that gives the state more power to curb water use during droughts is advancing in the House.

The House Environment Committee voted Tuesday to approve the measure.

The bill gives the Department of Environment and Natural Resources the authority to step in when it determines local water systems are not sufficiently reducing water use during shortages.

State law already requires that all municipalities and water systems create their own conservation plans.

Administration officials, local government groups and farmers had worked on the compromise plan for weeks.

Lawmakers conceded the plan isn't perfect but said it's a good way for the state to start tackling water shortages.