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Legislature doesnít want sweeping changes

RALEIGH (AP) ó Eight summers ago, the Democratic-led General Assembly faced the start of a budget crisis and a critical election as they entered the ěshortî session in Raleigh.
But in nine weeks of work, lawmakers in 2000 still managed to approve a large university and community college bond package and pass a budget that included a raise for teachers sought by then-Gov. Jim Hunt that was aimed at bringing their pay to the national average.
This year, Democrats in control of the Legislature are meeting in an improved political climate. And while facing economic uncertainty, they still expect to have a $150 million revenue surplus when the fiscal year ends June 30.
But in this ěshortî session, it will be a surprise if lawmakers achieve goals similar to those of eight years ago. They appear to be content to leave Raleigh with measured improvements to the stateís transportation and education systems, rather than passing sweeping legislation.
ěThe citizens of our state … are aware that our economy is in peril,î Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland. ěBut we have to be careful now and we have to be good stewards because we canít obligate ourselves to things that are unrealistic.î
They also donít want to remain in Raleigh so long that the stateís revenue picture worsens, requiring more spending cuts. Thatís leading to a belief around the Legislative Building the 2008 ěshortî session could be shortest in recent memory.
ěWe keep hearing that the budget is moving fast, and they want to get out of here fast,î said Andy Ellen, lobbyist for the N.C. Retail Merchants Association.
But that kind of brief appearance in Raleigh means the long-term solutions that advocates and legislators seek for the stateís mental health and criminal justice systems will have to wait until next year.
ěThereís not the money and the short session is never the time to attack a major problem,î said Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance, who has been critical of incarcerating young offenders, and instead wants to shift resources to rehabilitative efforts and to lower some prison sentences.
The Legislature has tackled big issues in recent even-numbered year sessions, when the main job which is to adjust the second year of the two-year budget approved the year before.
In 2006, they passed a historic overhaul of lobbying and ethics rules. In 2000, the two chambers and Hunt got behind a $3.1 billion debt package for University of North Carolina and community college system buildings ó still a record amount.
A blue-ribbon commission formed last fall by Gov. Mike Easley, House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate leader Marc Basnight to propose a fix to the stateís transportation woes seemed like the way to lay the groundwork for big changes this year.
But the panelís interim recommendation didnít come until the sessionís first day. And the $1 billion-plus borrowing package it suggested seemed small when compared to the estimated $65 billion shortfall between transportation revenues and needs over the next two decades.
Hackney said House Democrats have been looking to 2009 ó when theyíll be in town for at least six months ó to work out a more comprehensive transportation reform plan.
ěI doubt weíll have any discussion of the transportation bond for this session,î said Hackney, D-Orange.
Senate Democrats also sounded skeptical about passing a transportation bond, because they havenít found a revenue source in which to pay back the debt and interest. And no one in the Legislature wants to raise taxes this year with an election in the offing.
Democrats, who hold the majority in both chambers, also are worried how a bond package would fare with voters after they have rejected nearly all of the local referenda since last fall to raise sales and land transfer taxes, said Rep. Nelson Cole, D-Rockingham, co-chairman of the House transportation budget subcommittee.
Lawmakers are poised to make some transportation changes, including a $25 million reduction in the $172 million annual transfer away from a dedicated transportation fund. The $25 million will help start construction of a toll road in the Triangle area.
As for teacher pay, the House budget approved last week included raises of less than half the amount sought by Easley. Rand, Easleyís closest Senate ally, said there would be improvements to Easleyís liking on education in the Senateís version, but he couldnít guarantee the pay will reach what the governor wants.
Easley and his lobbyists will get to make their case to legislators before a final budget is presented for his signature. But lawmakers would prefer not to enter into extended negotiations because a worsening revenue picture may require them to stay even longer to make more spending reductions.
ěOur plan is spend the 4th (of July) at home,î said Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, the Senateís leading budget-writer.

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