Under the Dome

NC legislators release 429-page budget bill; a look at a few highlights

Speaker of the House Tim Moore, center, and Senate Pro-tem Phil Berger, right, announced that the two sides have reached a budget agreement at a press conference held at the State Legislature in Raleigh on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.
Speaker of the House Tim Moore, center, and Senate Pro-tem Phil Berger, right, announced that the two sides have reached a budget agreement at a press conference held at the State Legislature in Raleigh on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. cseward@newsobserver.com

After a day of waiting, the 429-page compromise budget bill was officially read in on the House and Senate floor and posted online around 11:30 p.m. Monday.

The budget release came just hours ahead of the Senate’s scheduled budget vote, set for 2 p.m. Tuesday. And it followed a day in which the only public information about the House and Senate’s deal came in a 30-minute news conference held by Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

Berger and Moore gave a quick rundown of the budget agreement’s highlights and took a few questions from reporters.

But there’s plenty more in the budget bill that didn’t get mentioned much at the news conference. Here are a few items worth noting:

Municipal service districts: Negotiators watered down a Senate budget provision involving special tax districts, and Berger described the new provision as a compromise. The original proposal set up a referendum process for residents seeking to kill the tax districts, known as municipal service districts, which can fund downtown development programs, neighborhood revitalization and beach renourishment projects. The budget compromise doesn’t provide a new mechanism to kill the taxes, but it requires municipalities to use a competitive bidding process when contracting with an outside agency to oversee the funds. Cities and towns would also be required to keep the special tax rates low enough to avoid building up large savings in the district funds.

Funding for rural counties: The compromise also backs away from a Senate plan to change how sales taxes are distributed among counties, a controversial proposal that would have shifted revenue from urban to rural counties. Instead, the budget would create an $84.8 million fund – funded partly though sales tax receipts – that would be distributed through percentage formulas set for each county. About 18 urban and tourism counties, including Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg, Avery and Jackson, would get no money. Harnett County would be the biggest winner with 5 percent of the funding. The funding could only be used for schools, community colleges and economic development projects.

Tax shift: A new sales tax on repair and maintenance services is projected to generate about $160 million per year in new revenue. Meanwhile, a drop in the personal income tax rate will mean $437 million in less annual revenue for the state.

Light rail funding cap: The budget would cap the amount of state transportation funding used for light rail transit to $500,000 per project.

Driver’s ed study: Legislators have voiced concerns about how much oversight driver’s education programs receive, but they’ve agreed to fund the program for the next two years. A study committee will be tasked with issuing a report next year that examines lowering the cost of the program, changing the fee structure, and the possibility of alternate providers such as private companies and community colleges.

Dorothea Dix funds: The budget would set up a trust fund for proceeds of selling the 308-acre Dorothea Dix property to Raleigh for a city park. The money could only be spent through legislative action.

Film grants: In addition to tripling the fund to $30 million a year, TV shows would be eligible for more generous awards through the film production grant program. The cap for a TV series would increase from $5 million to $9 million.

Biotechnology Center spared: The N.C. Biotechnology Center would get $13.6 million a year, despite being targeted for a cut from the Senate budget. The center provides grants and loans to biotech start-up firms.

No oyster shells: The budget would ban the use of oyster shells for landscaping.

Police body cams: The budget funds $2.5 million per year in grants for body cameras for law enforcement.

New vehicle tax: A budget provision would give cities and towns the ability to charge a “municipal vehicle tax” of up to $30 per vehicle. The tax is currently capped at $5 per vehicle.

Public records exemption: The budget includes a new exemption to state public records laws for “sensitive public security information.” That’s defined as “specific security information or detailed plans, patterns, or practices associated with prison operations” and “specific security information or detailed plans, patterns, or practices to prevent or respond to criminal, gang, or organized illegal activity.”

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