Uncertainty hangs over short legislative session

Republicans' goals for the three-day term are unclear. Meanwhile, Democrats are cautious.

jfrank@newsobserver.comNovember 28, 2011 

— A rare Sunday evening session opened another brief lawmaking term in Raleigh, as Republicans eyed possible overrides of Gov. Bev Perdue's vetoes and a cap on the gas tax.

Unlike three previous mini-sessions all with distinct purposes - veto overrides, a constitutional amendment and redistricting - the goals for this three-day term are less clear.

"I can't tell either," said Senate Democratic leader Martin Nesbitt. "It's a whole lot of ifs and rumors."

The House and Senate gaveled into session with skeleton crews and adjourned minutes later after referring legislation to committees. House Speaker Thom Tillis' first act: suspending the rule requiring that men wear neck ties on the chamber floor. He forgot his.

The resolution governing the session this week is lengthy and ambiguous. And Republican legislative leaders are keeping their options open.

A vote to override the governor's veto on a bill requiring identification at the polls? Maybe. A bill to cap the state's 35-cent gas tax before it increases Jan. 1? Possibly. A tribal gaming compact? Conceivably. An assortment of "fixes" to new laws. Likely.

Democrats suggest adding one more prospect on the list: shenanigans.

"I think a lot of this is set up to catch us off guard," said state Rep. Diane Parfitt, a freshman Democratic leader.

Much speculation focused on the rare session Sunday evening after the holiday weekend. Republican leaders kept their promise not to take any votes at the 8 p.m. session and only introduced legislation to meet procedural rules.

About 50 environmental protesters, chanting slogans and banging drums outside the legislative building, didn't believe Republicans would keep their word. They feared a veto override of a bill that encourages oil and gas drilling.

"I have a lack of trust in our elected officials," said Ruth Zalph, 81, of Chapel Hill. "They've said things before; we want them to know how we feel right now."

House Republican leaders asked for the mini-session - the fourth since the legislature finished the bulk of its lawmaking in June - to complete unfinished business. But their Senate counterparts say they aren't interested in doing much of anything.

Two vetoes eyed

Tillis said the agenda is a moving target, particularly when it comes to the fivevetoed bills awaiting a possible override vote.

In recent days, Tillis said he would push for veto overrides - repeatedly if necessary - until Republicans can get the votes. It all depends on who shows up this week, he said, fueling the concerns of Democrats and interest groups.

GOP legislators are specifically interested in overriding two of Perdue'svetoes.

One is the so-called Energy Jobs Act, which would require the governor to enter a three-state pact to enable for offshore drilling and mandate a state government study on shale gas extraction through a process known as fracking.

Perdue vetoed the bill on the grounds of separation of powers, and the state's environmental agency already is conducting a study about the viability of fracking.

Republicans also fell four votes short of reversing avetoed voter ID bill, which would require a government-issued photo ID to vote on Election Day.

If it fails again, lawmakers may try to get voter ID requirements passed for particular counties that requested it.

"There is talk of doing significant election law changes," said Damon Circosta, the executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, referring to the mini-session.

The Senate overrode both vetoes earlier this year. But its schedule is equally murky. A bill to gut the Racial Justice Act, which allows inmates to use statistics to prove racial bias in sentencing, is scheduled for a hearing today. But whether it passes the Senate in its current form is unclear.

One issue not likely to emerge is a new gambling compact with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The governor's office is negotiating a deal to allow live card games in the hopes of generating state revenue. But its terms were still uncertain Sunday, the governor's office said.

Gas tax cap?

The biggest question clouding the session picture is an effort to cap the state's gas tax.

The current 35-cent per-gallon tax is expected to reach about 39-cents on Jan. 1 because of higher wholesale gas prices. Some House Republicans want to put a ceiling on the tax, citing the burden to families amid the dour economy.

But doing so would cut millions of dollars targeted for road building and maintenance projects. A 4-cent reduction would save an average driver about $30 a year, according to the state department of transportation, but reduce road money by $340 million over two years.

The effort's prospects are uncertain because not all Republicans support a cap and opponents cast it as a job-killing measure.

Kathryn Wescott, the executive director for the state's American Council of Engineering Companies, said her members are adding workers as money for road projects increases.

"We feel like this is a perception game ... because politically it sounds like it's going to have a big impact (on motorists)," she said. "We are trading perception for the reality of lost jobs."

Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a Lewisville Republican, is among the skeptical.

"You'd have to stop projects and I think there are a lot of good things going on," he said. "It's just not the right time."

Frank: 919-829-4698

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