Will the real budget deficit please stand still?

In a bit of a shell game, legislators continued to formulate their approach to the state’s budget deficit even as the governor announced that new projections had erased $1 billion of the originally predicted $3.7 billion shortfall for the next fiscal year. (The projected deficit was subsequently scaled down to $2.4 billion.) Meanwhile, the Legislature passed the Balanced Budget Act of 2011 (SB 13) aimed at paring down that $3.7 billion figure by reducing expenditures during the remainder of the current budget year.

Specifically, the bill authorizes the governor to cut $400 million in recurring expenditures and directs her to take money from such economic-incentive pots as the Job Development Investment Grants and the Golden LEAF tobacco-settlement money. Gov. Bev Perdue is on record as opposing tapping those incentive sources to balance the budget, so a veto is a possibility.

On another front, the Farmers Freedom Protection Act was introduced to prohibit local enforcement of federal statutes regarding food production and packaging — provided that the foodstuff is produced here and remains within state borders. (Violation would be a class 1A misdemeanor.) The bill passed its first reading in the House Feb. 10.

Ironically, the state’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr, played key roles in shaping a major food-safety bill that was approved by Congress late last year. Should the Farmers Freedom bill become state law, it could put North Carolina at odds with some provisions of the federal law, despite exemptions for small farmers that Burr and Hagan had inserted in the federal legislation. Ultimately, this collision could test the constitutionality of the concept of nullification — a state’s perceived power to overrule federal law.

Meanwhile, even as a bill to add provisions of North Carolina’s open-meetings law to the state constitution was being introduced, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported that some Republican members of the General Assembly had held a closed-door sit-down with lobbyists concerning the pros and cons of legalizing video poker — which critics say may have violated the open-meetings law. House Speaker Thom Tillis defended the closed-door session as a way to collect information.

The Raleigh paper subsequently reported that the organizer of the session, Republican Mike Stone of Sanford, had video-poker-style machines in his own small grocery store but removed them after questions arose about the closed-door session.

And in action aimed specifically at Western North Carolina, legislation moved forward to prohibit implementation of a rule the Environmental Management Commission approved last year changing the water-quality designation of Boylston Creek from a Class C tributary to the more restrictive Class C Trout. The creek runs through both Henderson and Transylvania counties; the new designation would mandate 25-foot buffers to reduce sedimentation and other stream degradation. (A similar bill proposed last year failed, but the date for the reclassification to take effect was pushed back.)

Proposed legislation

Other bills of interest filed during the session’s third week, with sponsorships by WNC legislators noted:

House
HB 55
(Relief from Incorrect Paternity Determination): Would offer relief from child-support orders based on a finding of nonpaternity resulting from a valid genetic test or other acknowledgment of paternity by someone else. Passed first reading.
WNC co-sponsors: David Guice, Republican of Brevard; Majority Whip Jonathan Jordan of Jeffersonville.

HB 59 (Sex Offenders Can't Be EMS Personnel): People required to register as sex offenders would not be granted EMS credentials or have credentials renewed.  Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Judiciary, Subcommittee B.
WNC sponsors: Reps. Chuck McGrady, Hendersonville Republican, and Phil Haire, Sylva Democrat; co-sponsors Phillip Frye, Republican of Spruce Pine; Guice, Jordan and Ray Rapp, Mars Hill Democrat.

HB 61 (Speaker/Pro Tem Term Limits): Amend the state constitution to limit the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate to serving only two legislative sessions. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Judiciary.
WNC co-sponsors: Frye, Guice, Jordan, McGrady.

HB 62 (Prohibit Boylston Creek Reclassification): See above story. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Environment.
Primary sponsor: Guice; co-sponsor, Frye.

HB 64 (Restore Partisan Judicial Elections): Would return the state’s nonpartisan judicial elections (judges for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the regional/local superior and district courts) to partisan contests. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Elections.
WNC co-sponsors: Frye and Jordan.

HB 65 (North Carolina Farmers Freedom Protection Act): See above story. Passed first reading; referred to Committee on Agriculture.
WNC co-sponsors: Frye, Jordan.

HB 87 (Sunshine Amendment): See above story. Filed.

Senate
SB 47
(Restore Partisan Judicial Elections): Companion bill to HB 64. Passed first reading; referred to Judiciary I.
WNC co-sponsors: Tom Apodaca, Hendersonville Republican; Jim Davis, Franklin Republican; Ralph Hise, Spruce Pine Republican.

SB 62 (Make Up Snow Days with Distance Learning): Would allow local school administrative units to make up snow days with online lessons for students, maximum of five days. Filed.

SB 64 (Prohibit Boylston Creek Reclassification): Companion bill to HB 62 above. Filed.
Primary sponsor: Davis.

— Nelda Holder can be reached at nfholder@gmail.com. For more Statehouse news, visit mountainx.com/special/ncmatters.

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