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Scott Mooneyham column: Beyond state budget, major issues loom

RALEIGH ó Over the past few years, the North Carolina General Assembly hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of monumental legislation.
Sure, in 2007, some significant environmental laws passed, including legislation to begin requiring the state’s power companies to provide a portion of its electricity from renewable sources of energy.
A change long sought by county governments to shift responsibility for Medicaid also became law in 2007. But for state taxpayers, who are going to pay one way or the other, was the legislation really that significant?
State legislators have also imposed some tougher ethical standards on themselves the past two years.
Still, none of these changes exactly amount to earthshaking stuff for Joe and Jane Taxpayer.
The reasons that legislators have been a bit short with their reach in recent years are many.
A power-sharing agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the state House in 2003-04 certainly curbed the appetite for any far-reaching measures. A divide House, after all, survives best by not emphasizing its divisions.
Scandal surrounding former House Speaker Jim Black in 2006 also kept legislators a bit distracted. Once Black had gone, a new speaker, Joe Hackney, wasn’t apt to be too aggressive during his first year leading the chamber.
Against that backdrop, legislators have returned to Raleigh for the 2008 legislative session with limited expectations once again. The legislature typically limits its agenda during the even-year short sessions. Given recent history, it’s likely that will be the case again this year.
Even so, some significant policy issues face the state, including a problem-plagued mental health system that seems good at spending millions on those with questionable needs and not so good at getting services to those who really need it.
A state transportation system unable to keep pace with a growing population and motoring public also is a major concern for legislators. Nonetheless, a proposal for a multi-billion dollar bond issue ó rather than any significant reworking of road financing or priorities ó appears to be the most likely response this year.
As always, legislators’ main task will be approving a new budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year. And as always, the $21 billion spending plan will set important policies regarding the state’s spending priorities. A slowing economy will mean fewer uncommitted dollars for the next fiscal year, but right now state government has the luxury of a surplus.
Gov. Mike Easley has proposed raising sin taxes, on beer and cigarettes, to pay for substantial teacher raises and to provide a boost to mental health spending.
In the past years, Easley has gotten a lot of budget priorities. Carefully picking his priorities has helped. But a lame duck in his final year of office may find the going a bit rougher.
What’s accomplished beyond that budget is anyone’s guess.
This much is certain: Knots in the state’s mental health and transportation systems won’t be untying themselves. Now or later, the legislative and executive branch will have to figure out which lines go where.
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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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