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Morning Memo: N.C. part of 'great gerrymander', GOP legislature pushes ahead

TODAY AT THE STATEHOUSE: Monday legislative sessions are typically quiet but Republican lawmakers are using the first one this year to push two major proposals to overhaul unemployment benefits amid the state's $2.5 billion debt to the federal government (House) and block the expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law (Senate). The floor action for both chambers starts at 7 p.m. Gov. Pat McCrory lists no public events today.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Republicans have the votes to pass the measure but the question is how big a fight Democrats will mount. The tone and strategy of the Democratic opposition will help define the partisan relations this legislative session and signal whether the minority party will acquiesce to GOP supermajorities or make their lives difficult.

***This is the Dome Morning Memo -- keep reading for more analysis and a N.C. political news digest. ***

Senate budget: Toll roads & urban trains whacked to free money for bridge repair

Senate Republican leaders said today they want to spend much more money on bridge repair and highway maintenance -- and to slash state spending for transit and turnpike projects.

But, while both the House and Senate budgets would reduce other taxes in several areas, Senate leaders said they had not decided whether to take action to prevent a sharp increase in the state gas tax scheduled to take effect in July.

The Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee today received, but was not allowed to vote on, a proposed two-year transportation budget that would make some big changes in budget proposals offered by Gov. Bev Perdue and the House of Representatives.

The Senate would: ... [MORE]

Senate approves transit tax option

In a 37-9 vote, the Senate today gave tentative approval to a bill that would let Triangle voters add a half cent to the local sales tax to raise money for better public transit service.

The measure cleared the House in April and the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, reports Bruce Siceloff on his Crosstown Traffic blog.

If it wins final approval in the Senate this week, it will return to the House for concurrence on a minor Senate change.

The bill would authorize county commissioners and local voters, through a referendum, to enact a local sales tax hike of one-half cent per dollar in five urban counties — Wake, Durham, Orange, Guilford, Forsyth — and a quarter-cent hike in Johnston and other rural counties that have public transit service.

The money would be dedicated to cover operating and capital costs of local public transit systems.

Triangle leaders say it would generate enough money to cover most of the cost of an ambitious plan to put a few hundred more buses on the roads and lay more than 50 miles of light-rail lines in Wake, Durham and Orange counties.

Earmarks heavily favor road projects

North Carolina's transportation earmarks heavily favor cars.

Members of the state's Congressional delegation requested 74 federal appropriations worth $313.8 million for airports, trains, transit and roads.

Here's a breakdown:

ROADS: 40 requests worth $174.4 million. Projects range from $300,000 to fix a bridge in Montreat to $84.7 million to extend a road through Fort Bragg.

TRANSIT: 13 requests worth $67.2 million. Projects range from $500,000 to buy new hybrid buses for Asheville to $30 million to extend Charlotte's light-rail system.

AIRPORT: 15 requests worth $46.6 million. Projects range from $665,000 to address safety concerns at the Richmond County airport to $7.5 million to extend a runway in Oxford.

TRAINS: Six requests worth $25.6 million. Projects range from $166,000 for a new roof on the Gibson train depot to $9.5 million for a new stop in Lexington.

Quick Hits

* Bills would set up state and local funding options for rail and transit improvements, including a half-cent sales tax.

* Gary Robertson and Mike Baker of the capital press corps were awarded the 2008 North Carolina AP Staffers of the Year for election coverage.

* A tiny mouse named "Scoop" shuts down political reporting for an hour as reporters scramble to humanely remove him from the legislature.

* President Obama tells Camp Lejeune Marines that he wants to make sure they have 12-month deployments to Afghanistan, not 15-month ones.

Ross wants to expand transit options

Deborah RossState Rep. Deborah Ross wants to let other cities follow Charlotte's model.

The Raleigh Democrat plans to reintroduce a bill that would allow municipalities that come up with regional mass-transit plans levy an additional sales tax to fund it.

A half-cent local sales tax in Mecklenburg County levied since 2007 has paid for city buses and a new light-rail line in Charlotte.

Because they are viewed as to a certain extent voluntary, sales taxes are often more popular than other taxes with voters.

Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican, is expected to introduce a companion bill. Both bills will also include requirements that municipalities show they have come up with a workable regional plan before levying the tax.

Ross noted that municipalities already have six options for paying for transit systems, including vehicle registration fees, rental car taxes and property taxes.

"This would just add one more option," she said.

On other issues, she said she would work to maintain the state's funding of the N.C. Housing Trust Fund, expand child care options for community college students, reconsider rules on children testifying in court and keep the State Health Plan affordable.

Transit grants still frozen

Local transit grants worth $25 million are still frozen.

State Department of Transportation officials will be asked at two public meetings today to explain what they're doing to reverse the Federal Transit Administration's decision to freeze grants in North Carolina it tentatively approved in September.

"Withholding funds is a tool FTA uses sparingly," the FTA said by e-mail. 

The FTA told state transportation departments in November of 2007 to prepare detailed management plans for how it would distribute the money and account for its spending. North Carolina is the only state whose funds are frozen because it failed to provide an acceptable plan.

In a Nov. 4 letter, the FTA said North Carolina was deficient in 12 of 21 areas.

State DOT officials are scheduled to discuss the FTA money today at meetings of the legislature's transportation oversight committee and the state Board of Transportation. (N&O)

McCrory: Rail's not for everyone

Pat McCrory says light rail isn't for everyone.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate told Dome in a recent interview that the Lynx Blue Line in Charlotte has been a success, but he doesn't think every part of the state needs — or wants — its own rail-based transit.

"It's not suited for all parts of our state or even all parts of the city," he said. He would not say whether the Triangle, Greensboro or other North Carolina cities need it, saying that is a local decision.

In some areas, he said that light rail can help promote economic development, give citizens an alternative to congested roads and help the environment.

He defended the Charlotte system against conservative critics by noting that a recent referendum on the sales tax that partially funds it was approved by more than 70 percent of voters.

He also said he didn't decide to back rail by "putting my finger up in the air."

"I did it because of leadership," he said. 

What is Lynx?

Answer: 

A light-rail system in Charlotte.

For now, the Lynx Blue Line stretches 9.6 miles from the city center to Interstate 485, with 15 stations along the way. Future lines are planned in north Mecklenburg County, at UNC-Charlotte and to the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.

The light-rail line, run by the Charlotte Area Transit System, opened on Nov. 24, 2007. It has averaged 12,000 daily riders, well above the 9,100 forecasted.

By 2011, $1.86 billion worth of construction and redevelopment, including 7,581 housing units and 628,000 square feet of commercial property, were planned along the rail corridor.

That is projected to be worth $8.5 million in increased property tax revenue for the city, and $15.6 million in revenue for the county.

Along with city bus systems, Lynx has been paid for by a half-cent local sales tax approved by Mecklenburg County voters in 1998. The tax survived a referendum to repeal it in November of 2007.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory has been a key backer of the transit system.

Will transit hurt McCrory among GOP?

Pat McCroryWould Pat McCrory's advocacy for mass transit hurt him in the Republican gubernatorial primary?

Already, conservative libertarian blogger Max Borders has questioned whether the Charlotte mayor's support for a sales tax for transit and a light rail line means he is a "big government Republican."

If money fell like manna from heaven and central planning worked, it might be a ok. But Charlotte's light rail is a massive error IMHO, where that shiny new toy obscures the tremendous costs spread out over the state and even the rest of the country (onto people who will likely never see it or ride it).

Borders also questions McCrory's involvement in the Charlotte Bobcats arena, arguing that the mayor is going to have to "prove his credentials" as a fiscal conservative.

Of course, this is all assuming that McCrory is actually going to run.

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