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Six Democrats vote for GOP speaker

Six Democrats joined the sole independent and all the Republicans to elect Thom Tillis as House speaker.

The six are Reps. Jim Crawford of Oxford, Beverly Earle of Charlotte, Dewey Hill of Columbus County, Bill Owens of Elizabeth City, Tim Spear of Washington County, and Elmer Floyd of Cumberland, reports Dan Kane.

All but Earle and Floyd are considered conservative Democrats; Earle told the Charlotte Observer's Jim Morrill that she supported Tillis because he is a member of the Mecklenburg County delegation.

The upshot is that any Republican looking to get a veto-proof vote on a bill likely will be talking to these folks.

Correction: Adds Floyd's vote for Tillis.

Current year revenue still lags

North Carolina's revenue was $56 million behind projections at the end of March, according to state budget officials.

Budget staffers recapped Gov. Bev Perdue's budget proposal for the next fiscal year in a joint appropriations committee meeting this morning, Mark Johnson reports.

They said revenue would be $330 million or 2.6 percent short for the current fiscal year without the money brought in last year by a Revenue Department project to resolve tax disputes with corporations and businesses.

UPDATE: The committee's chairs, who are the legislature's chief budget writers, made clear Wednesday they want major changes in Perdue's spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Asked for his major concerns over Perdue's plan, which even she made clear is only a starting point, budget committee co-chair Jim Crawford, an Oxford Democrat, held up the whole 230-page book. Senior co-chair Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, added: "The whole damn thing."

Michaux and Sen. Linda Garrou, a Democrat from Winston-Salem, expressed particular skepticism over Perdue's proposed $500 million in education cuts.

Whatever changes they make will be quick. Garrou pledged the Senate would vote on a budget on May 20, a week after this year's legislative session begins.

House begins budget debate

The House budget proposal is up for debate on the House floor.

Rep. Jim Crawford, an Oxford Democrat, introduced the bill.

Crawford said the House had to cope with deep revenue losses that Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Senate weren't facing when they advanced their budget proposals.

"We have been around to every pot we can find to shore up this budget," Crawford said, adding that the House proposal includes some $800 million in additional taxes and fees. That money will restore cuts to various departments, notably education and human services.

"These are services to individuals that desperately need services," Crawford said.

The debate is likely to continue into the afternoon.

House: Tort bill debated sharply

A bill that would dramatically change how courts consider negligence lawsuits drew sharp debate Wednesday night.

The bill would alter a part of the state tort law that says a person cannot collect any money if they contribute in any way to their injury. The bill would replace that doctrine that allows civil courts to consider the degree to which a person was at fault for his or her own injury. Any judgements awarded would be reduced by that factor.

Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat and a sponsor of the bill said a friend of his son's rode home as a passenger in a car driven by an intoxicated person. A car wreck killed the passenger.

"Because he got in the car with him...his family never got a dime," Glazier said. That is unfair. That is fundamentally unfair to every citizen in the state."

Opponents said the bill was an effort to cater to plaintiff's lawyers and that the change is unnecessary. The law could raise insurance rates, opponents said.

"This House has voted this bill down every time since 1983," said Rep. Jim Crawford, an Oxford Democrat.

The bill passed a key vote 67 to 50. It will have to be voted on again before it goes to the Senate.

Update: Later in the session, Rep. Johnathan Rhyne Jr., a Lincolnton Republican, withdrew his objection to taking the final vote on the bill Wednesday. Rhyne said he changed his mind because Glazier agreed to work on some of the oppositions' concerns as it moved through the Senate.

The bill cleared the House 73 to 42 and moves to the Senate.

House committees named

The House made its committee assignments Wednesday.

The first two weeks of the session have been mostly uneventful as members attended budget and revenue briefings. Behind the scenes, members have been jockeying for committee assignments and chairmanships.

Speaker Joe Hackney appointed chairmen and chairwomen Wednesday, and the speaker handed out new wooden gavels to each committee head.

In the House, Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat will remain a senior budget writer. Other chairs of the Appropriations Committee include: Reps. Alma Adams, Greensboro; Martha Alexander, Charlotte; Jim Crawford, Oxford; Phillip Haire, Sylva; Maggie Jeffus, Greensboro; Joe Tolson, Pinetops; Douglas Yongue, Laurinburg. All are Democrats.


21 legislators praised for disclosure

A campaign finance reform group has praised 21 legislators for their openness.

Democracy North Carolina identified a group of state lawmakers who are doing "a superior job" identifying occupations and employers of their donors on campaign finance forms.

Though candidates are required to make their best effort to identify all donors, many fall short, listing only names, dates and amounts.

The group singled out legislators who raised more than $15,000 and provided full information on 98 percent or more of donors, including Senate President Marc Basnight and House Speaker Joe Hackney, both Democrats.

From the House: Democrats Tricia Cotham, Jim Crawford, Margaret Dickson, Rick Glazier, Bruce Goforth, Deborah Ross, Russell Tucker, Jennifer Weiss and Verla Insko, and Republican David Lewis.

From the Senate: Democrats Charlie Albertson, Doug Berger, Linda Garrou, Clark Jenkins, A.B. Swindell and Republicans Pete Brunstetter, Neal Hunt, Richard Stevens and Jerry Tillman.

"It's crucial for the public to have the full picture about the candidates before they vote — and the pattern of where a campaign’s money comes from is an important part of that picture," said Kaitlin Stollbrink, an intern at Democracy North Carolina.

Presto! Marine Museum in budget

N.C. Rep. Russell Tucker said he has some magic words that allowed him to pull off an unusual feat: getting money slipped into the state budget bill that had not appeared in either the House or Senate spending plans.

Tucker, a Duplin County Democrat, persuaded House legislative leaders to include $500,000 for a proposed Museum of the Marine in Jacksonville, which is home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. Tucker's district includes a small portion of Onslow County, Dan Kane reports.

The money is to help the nonprofit seeking to build the museum complete an architectural plan.Tucker said the museum has a $35 million price tag. He said the state put in roughly $1 million in planning money about two years ago.

This year, Tucker filed a bill seeking $5 million from the state for the museum. The bill went nowhere. So, he embarked on a lobbying campaign that went all the way up to House Speaker Joe Hackney.

"I think I spoke to them all," Tucker said. "I left no stone unturned."

More after the jump.

Center releases '07 effectiveness rankings

The 2007 effectiveness rankings for the legislature have arrived.

The rankings, conducted by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, is based on a survey of state senators and representatives, a dozen capital correspondents and 614 registered lobbyists after the biannual long session.

Senate President Marc Basnight was the most effective senator for a record eighth time in a row. The other most-effective senators were: Tony Rand, David Hoyle, Dan Clodfelter and Linda Garrou.

The five most effective members of the House were House Speaker Joe Hackney, Bill Owens, House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, Rick Glazier and Jim Crawford.

Rep. Melanie Goodwin made the biggest jump in effectiveness in the House from 73rd in 2005 to 31st in 2007; while Sen. Bill Purcell joined the Senate's Top 10 most effective for the first time.

For the first time, the center asked respondents to consider ethics when ranking effectiveness.

A slowdown on state tax revenues

The state's tax collections are decreasing, a sign that an economic slowdown is hitting North Carolina.

Revenues are running slightly — about 1.25 percent — ahead of projections, according to a Feb. 13 report from the Fiscal Research Division, a nonpartisan staff for the legislature. But tax revenues are slowing. The state has $140 million more than it anticipated at this point, the report states, because officials expected a slowdown and were conservative with projections.

State Rep. Jim Crawford, a chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said that what little "extra" money there is won't go far in a state budget that exceeds $20 billion.

"It can go in a heartbeat if the economy turns down," Crawford said. "We're absolutely dependent on the economy from here on in."

For example, the state must still come up with $100 million to pay for teacher bonuses at the end of the school year, said Crawford, a Granville County Democrat. Crawford said the state budget can likely withstand the economic slowdown, but legislators may have some work to do when the session begins in May.

"I don't think we're going to be in trouble, but I think we're going to have to tighten our belts a little bit," Crawford said.

A slow bailout?

Some state budget chiefs want to phase in a Medicaid bailout. 

The latest talk among state budget writers about taking over the counties' share of Medicaid costs involves a multi-year phase-in that may give counties more than one option to raise the revenues they would lose as part of a revenue swap with the state, Dan Kane reports.

The Medicaid issue has dominated state budget talks in recent days. Many rural counties say they are struggling to pay their 5 percent share of the Medicaid bill, as it along with other health care costs continue to rise.

The House budget includes $100 million in temporary help, while the Senate includes language seeking a permanent fix. Some Senate leaders want to take a half-cent of the counties' share of sales tax revenues in exchange for taking over the Medicaid bill, and then allow the counties the option to adopt a half-cent increase.

Some House members say other options should be made available to counties to raise revenues, particularly a one-percent real estate transfer tax. Occupancy taxes have also been discussed.

More after the jump.

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