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The Daily Tar Heel

Come 1, Come All to Raleigh's 3-Ring Circus

Suits and ties are more like it as the N.C. General Assembly opens its first session of the new millennium.

While each legislator has his or her own agenda of big issues, they all agree that building a budget and using Census data to redraw the N.C. House and Senate and U.S. congressional districts will take up much of their time.

But first, let's peek backstage, where the legislators are busy getting organized. The General Assembly starts over every two years by reassigning committees and other legislative duties, which could take up to three weeks.

In the House, representatives have been forging alliances for their ringmaster, the House speaker. The speaker is a powerful position, appointing chairmen for House committees.

Two years ago, current Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, rewarded Republicans who voted for him with committee chair positions. Word is that he's built another cross-party alliance to hold on to the speaker's seat this time around, but others have been busily working to cement rival alliances.

The Republican party is threatening to expel from its caucus anyone breaking party lines. It might take until the session opens at noon today for the parties to decide who to nominate.

Keep your eye on ring one and redistricting efforts after North Carolina's Census data becomes available in March. Rob Lamme, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said the Senate and House committees draw districts for their respective houses with the understanding that the other house will approve.

But the two houses must work together to redraw all the state's congressional districts to include a new one.

This will be a challenge because each party and interest group will be vying to maximize its own interests. Ten years have passed since North Carolina last drew congressional districts, but the controversial 12th District was never settled after multiple judicial reviews. "None of those (redistricting) tasks will be easy, and taken together they'll take an enormous amount of time," Lamme said.

Developing a new budget also will keep legislators busy in ring two. Don't look for many new initiatives; with a nearly $500 million budget shortfall, lawmakers will be walking a tightrope to balance current programs.

Black already has assured the public that he intends to keep salaries high for K-12 teachers and continue funding schools at or above the current levels, but it's unlikely the government will find money for state employee pay raises or new construction.

One area in which to expect frugality could very well be the university and community college systems. The Educational Oversight Committee withheld support last week for the systems' Excellent Universities and Community Colleges Act, which included pay increases for college and university faculty.

It's not surprising; North Carolinians just voted for the state to spend $3.1 billion on these institutions. Considering the state of the budget, pouring additional increases in funding into the UNC system and the community colleges is politically and practically infeasible.

And every legislator has his or her own ideas for what the big issues will be. Look for them in ring three.

Lamme said the Senate would concentrate some time on health care. Senators will consider making prescription drugs more affordable for seniors and allowing independent reviews of insurance companies and HMOs.

Sen. Virginia Foxx, R-Alleghany, said the legislature also would be concerned with managing the state's growth, especially roads, water and sewer.

And new Gov. Mike Easley is a wild card. No one can be sure what role he'll play in promoting campaign promises the state's coffers might not be able to keep.

Yes, the circus is in town.

It might not be the greatest show on earth, but it'll definitely be one to watch.

Columnist Anne Fawcett can be reached at fawcetta@hotmail.com.

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