State & National Columnist
A saga that has stolen the limelight of state government news for months might finally come to an end today. State legislators are set to vote on a $14.4 billion budget bill and end a three-month impasse.
The House and Senate tentatively approved the budget Thursday and could take a final vote today during special sessions.
A breakthrough in budget talks came Wednesday when legislators from both chambers agreed on a $1 billion tax package to reduce a looming shortfall and ward off a threat from Gov. Mike Easley to veto an unbalanced budget.
It's about time. Today marks the 139th day of the 2001 session, the longest on record. If that doesn't impress you, consider this: each additional day the General Assembly is in session costs taxpayers $55,000 for the legislators' expenses and staff salaries, according to the Associated Press.
During the past few days, lawmakers have shown excitement as the end of budget debates draws near. "We have a budget," Senate Pro Tem Marc Basnight told reporters Wednesday.
House Speaker Jim Black also is excited about the possible vote and appears confident that the newest budget package will pass the General Assembly. "He thinks this might be the package that will work," said Danny Lineberry, Black's spokesman.
Still others are not convinced that the best possible budget compromise has been reached.
"We're relieved that there is a budget but we are disappointed with what's in it," said House Minority Leader Leo Daughtry.
Daughtry said he opposes several aspects of the budget including millions of dollars allocated to Easley for special appropriations.
But despite his objections, Daughtry said he is ready for the session to end. "We're unhappy that we've been here for so long," he said.
Other leaders agree.
"I've been here 16 years and I've never been here this long," said Rep. Bobby Barbee, R-Cabarrus. He said he is eager to return home and get back to his job and family.
Barbee said he and some other legislators have spent much of the past week sitting in their offices while budget negotiations were being held in closed chambers. "You just sit here and wait for someone to tell us what's going on but nobody's telling us much," he said.
Rep. Toby Fitch, D-Edgecombe, also said the long session has taken its toll on legislators. Nevertheless, he said there is still work to be done. "It's a part-time legislature, not a full-time legislature. We have jobs and homes and I'd like to be home," he said. "But just because I'd like to be home doesn't mean I'm not going to do my job."
Fitch was among eight House Democrats who opposed earlier plans to implement sales tax increases which they argued unfairly targeted the poor.
Still, Fitch said he could not describe an ideal budget that could meet everyone's needs and one that all legislators could agree on. "What the ideal package is, you just can't say unless it's in front of you," he said.
However, Fitch said he would like a budget that gives adequate funding for education and allows all state residents to live a quality state of life.
He might get his wish. The budget up for consideration allots $8.3 billion towards education, including a 2 percent pay increase for K-12 teachers and $8.9 million for need-based financial aid for public universities.
The bill also continues funding for mental health facilities, such as Dorothea Dix Hospital, that faced closing under an original Senate plan.
While it is a sign of relief that legislators have finally learned the meaning of compromise and working together, I think it makes absolutely no sense that the budget is even an issue nine months after the session started.
This goes beyond sales taxes, lotteries and, dare I say, the Group of Eight. Legislators said they knew that last year's budget might cause problems before it was even approved.
The budget shortfall did not appear miraculously and leaders should no longer use it as an excuse. It's about learning to work together as a team for the betterment of the state.
Pass the budget and let state agencies go about their business. Then go home. It is about time.
Columnist April Bethea can be reached at email@example.com.
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