State News

Budget top priority as state legislature convenes

Posted May 12, 2010 4:01 a.m. EDT
Updated May 12, 2010 6:55 p.m. EDT

State Legislature Building

— North Carolina legislators returned to Raleigh on Wednesday to focus on fixing a state budget that still can't keep up with flagging revenues and to find ways to encourage job creation among small businesses.

As the House and Senate convened for their 2010 session, people protesting an array of issues, from health reform to annexation, gathered outside the Legislative Building or walked the halls trying to lobby lawmakers.

The main business during the so-called "short session" is to erase a projected $788 million shortfall for the second year of the spending plan lawmakers approved last summer. The deficit comes a year after the House and Senate approve a combination of spending cuts and tax increases to erase a $4.5 billion budget gap.

Democratic leaders, who control both chambers, have made clear they don't want to stick around too long after the budget adjustments are made and signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue. Lawmakers have been meeting two or three days a week for the past month to try to minimize differences in spending plans, and Senate leaders say they remain on track to pass their version of the budget adjustments by May 20.

"We don't have money to fix most problems, so there's not a whole lot of reasons to stay around here," Senate Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt said.

Gov. Beverly Perdue released a $19.2 billion budget proposal three weeks ago, but differences between her and lawmakers have emerged already. Senate Democrats said Tuesday their budget will not contain the pay raises for teachers and a bonus for all state employees to compensate them for last year's furlough that Perdue has proposed.

House Democrats said Wednesday that they plan to minimize teacher cuts and increase funding for community college enrollment.

"We would ask our friends in the minority to join us. Let's have a good session," House Speaker Joe Hackney said.

"Our goals for this session are to have an expeditious session ... but also to have a thorough session," said Hackney, D-Orange, while releasing the House Democrats' four-point agenda to help small businesses create jobs, protect public education to keep teachers in the classroom, root out government waste and fraud and pass ethics and state contract reforms.

"We want to streamline, economize (and) prioritize wherever we can this time to stretch our dollars as far as we can stretch them," he said.

Republicans, who are aiming to win back both chambers in November and control the once-a-decade redistricting in 2011, were unanimous in voting against last year's budget bill. That could change this year if Democrats find real savings and don't use scare tactics of severe cuts to generate new revenues, House Minority Whip Thom Tillis said.

"You can't sugarcoat what is a poorly run operation that has lots of costs that should be driven out before we ask for another dime from taxpayers," said Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.

Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, said all lawmakers want to stretch the budget for another year.

"It's kind of like saying are you for motherhood or apple pie. We're absolutely all for that. The question is how do you get there?" Hunt said, offering no specific recommendations. "It's going to be tough. We recognize that. I'm just saying that the situation wasn't created in a day."

Protesters want health reform blocked

Hackney said he wants to work with Republicans on issues but wouldn't consider GOP legislation he considers political in nature. That would appear to include bills that Republicans want heard that would exempt North Carolina from the federal health care reform law.

Dozens of conservative activists gathered behind the Legislative Building to denounce the health care law and its mandate for everyone to buy insurance or pay a fine starting in 2014.

Republican congressional hopeful Bill Randall, who faces a runoff next month for the right to represent the GOP in November's election against incumbent 13th District Congressman Brad Miller, urged the crowd to face the building and shout their demand for greater freedom now.

"We want this health care bill repealed. I don't want the Obama health care," protester Diane Umbarger said.

The bill must have two-thirds support to go anywhere, so even legislative supporters were almost resigned to the fact that the attempt is somewhat futile.

"I don't think anything will happen with it, but we want to give them an opportunity to react," Hunt said.

Hackney called the legislation "more of a political issue than a legislative one."

"I'm disappointed Democrats are already saying they're not for individual rights," Umbarger said.

Other protesters wore red shirts while lobbying senators to approve changes to the state's involuntary annexation rules. North Carolina is one of a few states that allows cities to annex property without a referendum.

"My question is how long are these senators going to sit on their hands while the cities continue to abuse the law?" Tony Tetterton with the Fair Annexation Coalition said.

"For a municipality to come in and forcibly take your property rights away is wrong," protester Charlene Moore said.

Ethics rules on agenda

Momentum has increased for three campaign finance and ethics bills approved by the House last year and awaiting Senate action amid headlines focused upon federal and state investigations of activities surrounding former Gov. Mike Easley and his associates and illegal campaign contributions by a Wilmington businessman.

The various bills would delay more state officials from lobbying government until well after they leave state employment; ban state contractors from giving to elected officials who approve contracts that benefit the vendor; and require board appointees to report campaign donations and fundraising for elected officials who appointed them. Perdue unveiled her own ideas last month.

The heightened interest in ethics reform prompted Perdue to back out of attending a fundraiser next week promoting government reform because the event is hosted by a group of lobbyists.

The North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform is holding fundraiser on Monday evening at the downtown office of the Poyner & Spruill. The law firm is also a powerhouse lobbying firm.

Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the governor didn't know lobbyists were hosting the fundraiser for the reform group when she accepted the invitation. Numerous lawmakers have been invited to the $50-a-ticket event.

"The governor felt it would be inappropriate for her to attend," Pearson said. "She continues to support the mission of this reform organization and very much appreciates their insights and willingness to engage the governor’s office as we all work towards a more ethical and transparent state government."

Other issues on legislators' agenda include reform of the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control system, sweepstakes games, annexation, puppy mills, tort reform and wind turbines and farms.