News: CJ Exclusives

NCGA Set to Send $19.6 Billion Budget to Perdue

While Senate busy with budget, House passes tort reform, workers’ comp

Sweltering temperatures or not, members of the North Carolina General Assembly had plenty to sweat about this week as Republican lawmakers and a handful of Democrats appeared to work out a veto-proof budget deal for the next two fiscal years.

If the GOP keeps at least four Democratic converts in its corner, the political coup would mean a budget enacted in record time — and possibly a much briefer session than expected. Unofficial plans are for the legislature to adjourn by June 17 and reconvene for special sessions in July and September to resolve redistricting and to pass constitutional amendments.

That’s still up in the air, though. The Senate passed a $19.6 billion spending plan Thursday in a veto-proof 31-19 vote. The House is taking up the bill today and tomorrow and is expected to concur, sending it to Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat. If Perdue vetoes the budget, Republicans would need at least 72 votes to override the action.

In a phone call with reporters, Perdue said the GOP was driven by ideology in crafting the spending plan. “It’s a shuffling around of money,” she said. “From my perspective it’s a charade of sorts, trying to paper over the devastation to public education and other important programs by using public money.”

During debate on the Senate floor, however, Republicans cast the budget in glowing terms. “This will energize our economy, put our people back to work, and get us out of the recession,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.

Underscoring the volatile atmosphere, General Assembly police arrested three gay-rights protesters, including a former U.S. Senate candidate, who ran onto the House floor during session Thursday yelling. Last week, the Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, was arrested for shouting from the gallery.

Amendments shot down

The day before taking a final vote, Democrats in the Senate ran eight amendments to the budget, a far cry from the 44 amendments offered in the House in May. Each failed in a party line vote. One of the most hotly contested would have separated the unemployment-benefits extension from the budget bill. Another would have restored about $23 million for indigent legal defense and sentencing services.

Friday morning, Perdue signed an executive order extending unemployment benefits, a move that could pose another wrinkle for Republicans in budget negotiations.

Other amendments were more targeted: reauthorizing $500,000 in federal pass-through grants for the abortion-provider Planned Parenthood and restoring funding for the Teaching Fellows Program, the Garden Parkway in Gaston County, the State Capitol Police, and the State Highway Patrol.

In a political maneuver, Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, proposed an amendment to renew three-fourths of a 1-cent sales tax increase that expires June 30. Perdue had included the renewal in her proposed budget, but Republicans left it out, leading to criticism from the minority. Even so, most Democrats didn’t bite on Apodaca’s amendment Wednesday, and it failed 3-47.

Crowded House calendar

The upper chamber’s preoccupation with the budget gave House lawmakers time to take on a passel of legislation, including tort reform, consumer loans, workers’ compensation, and a repeal of the law meant to circumvent racial bias in death-penalty cases.

House Bill 542, Tort Reform for Citizens and Businesses, passed second reading Wednesday in an 85-32 vote. Among other provisions, the bill makes it more difficult to sue drug manufacturers and caps attorneys’ fees in smaller litigation cases at $10,000.

A prior version of the bill would have capped the amount of punitive damages that plaintiffs are eligible to receive, but lawmakers scuttled that provision Wednesday. H.B. 542 has to pass a third and final vote that could come next week.

The measure is part of a two-bill tort reform package. The other — Senate Bill 33, Medical Liability Reforms — is sitting in a joint House and Senate conference committee.

North Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws would be revised under legislation — House Bill 709, Protect and Put NC Back to Work — passed almost unanimously by the House Wednesday. Two of the biggest changes: capping benefits for disabled workers at 900 weeks and increasing survivors’ benefits and funeral-expense reimbursements. The bill now heads to the Senate.

A measure to reform the Racial Justice Act, a law passed in 2009 that allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences on the basis of race, passed out of a House judiciary panel Wednesday on a party line vote. Republicans claim the act hurts victims’ rights.

On Thursday, the House also passed legislation that would allow finance companies to charge highest interest rates and broaden access to consumer loans. House Bill 810, Consumer Finance Act Amendments, passed 61-54 in a rare vote that split the parties — 10 Democrats voted for it and 14 Republicans against.

Action on other bills

The following bills also saw movement this week:

House Bill 289, Authorize Various Special Plates: An “omnibus” specialty license plate bill that creates a “choose life” license plate. Proceeds from the plate would go to pro-life crisis pregnancy centers. Opponents tried to amend the bill to include a “respect choice” plate with funds devoted to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York. It was rejected narrowly.

House Bill 503, Nutrition Standards/All Foods Sold at School: Requires that federal school-lunch standards apply to all food items sold in North Carolina public schools, including items sold at bake sales, in school stores, and at school snack bars. Passed the House 91-24 Wednesday and now heads to the Senate.

House Bill 344, Tax Credits for Children with Disabilities: Would make families with disabled children eligible for up to $6,000 in tax credits each year to offset the costs of attending nonpublic schools. Passed the House Finance Committee Friday. Now goes to the House floor.

House Bill 824, Nonpartisan Redistricting Process: Would take redistricting out of politicians’ hands and leave it up to legislative staff. An altered version of the bill passed the House Elections Committee Friday. Next stop is the House floor.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.