Lawmakers moved toward a budget compromise by narrowing differences over state employee salaries, university construction projects and tax cuts. They’re still hoping to reach a final deal by the end of the week. It became clear late Tuesday that negotiators wouldn’t finish before Wednesday, making it more likely that legislators would have to be in town for an unusual Friday session to complete the budget before the new fiscal year begins Saturday. Senate finance leaders told House counterparts to expect their offer on tax cuts – a key element in completing the negotiations – Wednesday morning. A House budget team member said they probably wouldn’t finish the final points on spending Tuesday, either. The hang-ups appear to center around how much money most state employees should receive next year, the level of Medicaid relief for counties and whether a moratorium on new landfills in the state should be included in the budget bill. Once a final agreement is reached, both chambers would have to approve the bill on two consecutive days. Then Gov. Mike Easley would be asked to sign it into law.
A House committee refused to consider a constitutional amendment that would ban the use of eminent domain for the sake of economic development, instead sending it to another committee. The House panel last week first considered altering the constitution to ban the practice. But just weeks after approving a regular bill on the same issue, seven Democratic lawmakers decided in a partisan vote to move the constitutional provision to the more powerful rules committee. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the lead sponsor of the constitutional amendment that had a bipartisan 88 sponsors, called the amendment idea “likely dead.” Rules committee chairman Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, called the constitutional amendment “done.” Andy Romanet with the N.C. League of Municipalities questioned whether a constitutional amendment was the right way to address the problem – if there was a problem at all. A separate measure approved unanimously by the House to clarify the state’s law but not change the constitution in a proposed statewide referendum, is now in a Senate committee.
A House judiciary panel approved a bill that would largely prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, although they could still donate to political candidates. The new rules were developed from a special House panel recommendation earlier this year. It builds upon a 2005 lobbying reform package scheduled to take effect in January and designed to make lobbying activities more transparent. Some wanted that law to go further, particularly on the issue of lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. The lobbying bill heading to the full House would merge separate rules for registering legislative and executive branch lobbyists with the Secretary of State’s Office under one law. Lobbyists or their principals largely would be barred from giving gifts to legislators, the governor, Council of State members and their top assistants. Exemptions would be made for meals and drinks at public events such as receptions and trinkets worth less than $10. The bill also would restrict any lobbyist from giving $4,000 in cumulative donations to candidates in any election. An earlier version would have barred any donations. The proposed restriction also deletes an earlier provision that would have barred a lobbyist from soliciting donations on behalf of a candidate. The bill now goes to the full House.
Members of small political parties in North Carolina urged lawmakers to open up elections by adopting less stringent requirements to get on the ballot. Small parties in North Carolina have to collect more than 69,000 signatures before their candidates can appear on the ballot. That makes the state the third-most difficult for third parties, said Sean Haugh, a former Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate. “We’d like every voter in North Carolina – no matter their political persuasion – to have a representative option on the ballot,” Haugh said. The N.C. Open Elections Coalition, a collection of the Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties, argued that they spend about $100,000 to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot – a large cost for small organizations. A signature requirement of about 17,000 would be more reasonable, Haugh said. Political parties can maintain their status in continuous elections if they garner at least 10 percent of the vote in a presidential or gubernatorial election, which is why well-established Republicans and Democrats are essentially immune from the signature gathering process. The coalition prefers a bar of 2 percent.
The General Assembly gave its final OK to a tax credit for companies or individuals who refurbish historic but largely vacant textile mill buildings. The House agreed unanimously to accept a Senate version of a bill that would offer tax credits of 30 percent or 40 percent for qualified expenditures for renovations costing at least $3 million if the building has been at least 80 percent vacant over the past two years. The measure now heads to Gov. Mike Easley for his signature. It beefs up existing tax credits for renovating historic properties, giving preferential treatment to those in economically distressed counties.
The amount of Job Development Investment Grants allowed this year would be doubled from $15 million to $30 million in an economic development bill that cleared the House Finance Committee. State Commerce Department officials say they need the extra amount to compete for an unusually high number of competitive economic projects. Commerce Secretary Jim Fain the state has an opportunity to land $1.5 billion in investments is possible in 2006, and the grant money would help his agency win. The program gives back to companies cash grants equal to a portion of state withholding taxes generated by jobs they have created. Other parts of the bill would extend the program through 2009 and allow motorsports manufacturing facilities to qualify for the grants. The Commerce Department says companies who have received JDIG grants have invested about $2 billion and created more than 14,000 jobs. Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, complained that legislators hadn’t been provided enough information about the changes and that the grants didn’t require qualifying companies to exceed wage thresholds for its employees. The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.
Members of the small-government advocacy group FreedomWorks North Carolina traveled to the Legislative Building for its annual lobbying day. Several members also heard from legislators that are seeking tougher restrictions of convicted sex offenders.
Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-Pender, will hold a news conference Wednesday to promote a measure to establish incentives for North Carolina farmers that construct new, cleaner hog waste systems.
“There’s not going to be any serious eminent domain reform out of this Assembly with the current leadership.” – Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the author of a constitutional amendment banning eminent domain for private projects, criticizing Democrats for tabling his proposal.
“The candidate doesn’t know because he’s kissing babies and hugging folks. And somebody else is over there with the jar.” – Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, about whether candidates are keeping track who is giving to their campaigns during low-key fundraising events in which guests make small cash contributions.