N.C. lawmakers plan speedy start for new session

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2012 

Legislators get back to making laws Wednesday with a running start on some of the state’s most controversial issues.

House budget writers are preparing to present their spending plans to the public after weeks of behind-the-scenes work. Onshore drilling for natural gas will move quickly off the blocks and will face votes over the first few weeks. A plan to close a Medicaid budget shortfall also will see early action. A Senate committee on Wednesday will debate a bill allowing live poker, blackjack and other table games at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ casino.

The months between sessions allowed enough time for controversies to flare and die. A winter-long fight between the Republican legislature and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration over how to fill a $150 million to $250 million hole in the Medicaid budget seems to have ended in a compromise. A Senate committee is meeting Wednesday to discuss the Medicaid budget patch.

With much of their work already done, legislators hope to clear out of Raleigh by July 4.

Not all of that work is done where the public can watch or contribute, which leaves questions about how legislators will handle high-profile issues. House budget subcommittees are set to start rolling out portions of the budget this week, giving a first glimpse of sections of their budget that will draw the most scrutiny.

Pressure is on legislators to find more money for K-12 public schools, which will spend the last $258 million of their federal stimulus money and are set to take another $74 million discretionary cut next year.

Republican House members have said over the past month that they the want to find more money for schools but made no promises.

Rep. Harold Brubaker, the House chief budget writer and an Asheboro Republican, said Tuesday that the House GOP caucus was still discussing the K-12 budget.

“When we pull everything together for the subcommittees, it’s all going to be open,” he said. The House may approve its version of the state budget next week and send it to the Senate.

Democrats, who controlled the legislature for more than a century, also did their budget work in private. For years, a powerful group of legislators called the “Gang of Eight” assembled the budget. More recently, Democratic-led subcommittees met to gather public comments before the serious number-crunching started.

Secrecy in budgeting isn’t a partisan issue, said John Tate, a State Board of Education member from Charlotte. But opening the debate might lead to good ideas legislators can use, he said.

“Nobody has a corner on how best, in a tough economic environment, to prioritize,” he said. “I’m confident that to open to transparency and debate is a tougher way to gain consensus. But one never knows. That process might yield some results beyond the thinking of a limited group of people.”

Most Democrats on budget subcommittees don’t know what will end up in the proposal.

Rep. Winkie Wilkins, a Democrat from Roxboro, said the committee he is on that deals with the environment and commerce budgets had one productive meeting but that two others were cancelled.

As a result, Wilkins said, he wasn’t able to talk about his interest in a Department of Labor apprenticeship program or a Department of Commerce small business fund.

“At this point, I don’t feel like the process has been in front of the public enough,” he said.

The public has gotten an education on fracking, a method of extracting natural gas, and the legislature is set to pass a law this session.

Legislators and Perdue took fact-finding trips to Pennsylvania. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources held community meetings and produced a report saying fracking can be done safely if safeguards are in place. Independent groups have held their own protests and meetings warning of environmental risks.

Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a McDowell County Republican, expects to have a fracking bill finished within the first few weeks. Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County has a bill that would authorize fracking by July 1, 2014, when regulations are in place. Gillespie, who has called for a go-slow approach and who has his own ideas for what the state should do, said the legislature should come up with a law that both the House and Senate support.

“I don’t see any stumbling blocks,” Gillespie said. “We’ll have consensus. The ones that don’t want it, I’m sorry, they’re going to lose.”

Environmental groups hope the legislature stops short of legalizing fracking.

Will Morgan, lobbyist for the Sierra Club state chapter, said it would make sense for the legislature to wait for more information about fracking before legalizing it. With a surplus of natural gas and low prices, companies won’t be rushing into the state to start drilling, he said.

“Even if one moves forward in developing the regulations, we feel strongly they should delay the decision to legalize fracking until all the studies are done,” Morgan said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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