The impact of the last state budget hit R.L. Bass’s mailbox a few months back.
Bass – who has owned a small country store in Nash County for 57 years – was reviewing his annual renewal notice from the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. He said he was surprised to learn that the cost of selling beer had doubled from $200 to $400.
The paperwork didn’t explain the change, and Bass said calls to the ABC Commission and the governor’s office haven’t yielded answers. “Nobody up there will tell you anything,” he said.
Bass said his beer sales don’t justify the higher fee. “It’ll take me four months out of the year, selling beer out of this one little cooler, to make enough money just to pay the tax,” he said.
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The country store owner’s confusion highlights the complicated and fast-moving legislative process that crafts the state budget each year.
As Bass registers his complaint, the House will vote this week on how money will be spent next fiscal year – and how much businesses and residents will pay to fund it. Any changes in fees or taxes will get debated Monday afternoon in the House Finance Committee, a few hours after the proposals are publicly released.
The final vote will come by the end of the week, leaving little time for public input before the spending plan heads to the Senate.
The provision that required Bass – and hundreds of other stores and restaurants selling beer and wine – to write a bigger check appears on Page 152 of the 2014 budget bill. The change was among a number of fee increases expected to generate $28 million a year.
Senate budget writers decided to increase beer and wine sales permits from $200 to $400. Permits to serve mixed drinks at restaurants increased from $750 to $1,000. The revenue from the hike – nearly $10 million a year – goes into the state’s general fund. A spokeswoman for the ABC Commission said her agency doesn’t get the money and didn’t seek the increase.
The increased revenue helps cover operations at the state’s Alcohol Law Enforcement agency, which investigates permit violations at bars and clubs. Sen. Buck Newton, who co-chairs the Senate’s public safety appropriations panel, declined to comment on the record about the reasons for the fee hike.
Wayne Land, who owns 15 L&L Food Stores in Nash and Edgecombe counties, said convenience store operators shouldn’t foot the cost of ALE investigations.
“It’s not fair to put it on the retailers, where there’s very small cost to the ALE,” Land said, adding that bars and nightclubs are “where the problems come in.”
The ABC permit change got little media attention in a year when teacher pay raises dominated the budget headlines. So while it was on the books for more than a year before businesses had to pay, Bass said he and other retailers heard nothing about it.
Land – who says he owed an extra $9,000 this April for his multiple stores – said he didn’t factor the change into his annual budget because he got no notice from the ABC Commission. He said his 165 employees could be the eventual losers as he’ll have less money to offer raises.
The legislative budget process can be hard to follow for anyone who doesn’t employ a lobbyist at the legislature. The first drafts of the House budget proposal became public Thursday morning after weeks of closed-door meetings by Republican budget writers.
Once the House votes this week, the Senate will get to review and make changes to the budget. It typically passes a version with major differences from the House bill, sending the competing proposals to a conference committee. Consisting of top senators and House members, that committee will meet behind closed doors to hash out a compromise.
It’s all supposed to be done by July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Changes in fees and taxes typically don’t take effect until months afterward, when the long hearings and heated legislative debates are a distant memory.
Despite the impact to his bottom line, Land said he doesn’t plan to lobby legislators to cut retailers a break in this year’s budget.
“You’re wasting your time,” he said.
Budget week in the N.C. House
Monday: The House Finance Committee meets at 4 p.m. to debate proposed changes to taxes, fees and economic development incentives.
Tuesday: The House Appropriations Committee will meet for much of the day, examining each aspect of the spending plan and voting on amendments.
Wednesday and Thursday: Barring delays, the budget will reach the House floor; it requires two separate votes to pass. Once it does, the Senate gets its turn.