RALEIGH — Despite an initial vote of disapproval Wednesday, the Durham restaurant tax survived when the Senate reversed itself in a tentative 20-18 vote giving Durham permission to ask residents to approve a tax.
If the Senate gives its final approval before the legislative session ends, Durham voters would be asked in November to add a 1 percent tax to restaurant meals.
The estimated $5 million generated by the tax would be used to support cultural amenities such as the Durham Civic Center or proposed Minor League Baseball museum.
State Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, has had to combat strenuous lobbying by the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, who contend the tax unfairly burdens their industry.
McKissick said the group has found a receptive audience among lawmakers who worry about approving a tax, though the first-term senator has repeatedly pointed out that it would be the voters of Durham making the final call on that.
On Wednesday, he reminded senators that other counties, including Wake, Mecklenburg and Dare, have meals taxes.
State Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican, said the meals tax in Wake helped build the RBC Center, a soccer complex, the new convention center in Raleigh and other attractions.
"It's Durham's turn," he said.
State Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, said it was a bad time to allow a new tax on restaurant meals.
He said he'd heard from small restaurant owners in Durham who said they were barely surviving the bad economy.
Senate leader Marc Basnight jokingly asked whether Hunt wanted to run an amendment taking away Wake's tax.
Hunt said he was concerned about the timing. "I'm worried about the economy," he said.
On its first vote, the tax failed in a 19-19 tie.
Sen. R.C. Soles of Columbus County, who voted against it, asked to have the vote reconsidered. It then passed 20-18 with Soles voting in favor.
Soles helped revive the bill in committee earlier Wednesday using the same maneuver, when the Senate Finance Committee first voted to kill the bill.
Can McKissick get a majority for the final vote? "We can pray," he said.
McKissick said that he wasn't sure when the bill would come up for a final vote, saying only that it would happen before the session ended.
"The best time is when you think you can win," he said.
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